Beware of Bratzillas

What do you do when your friend's kids behave poorly and act like bratzillas? In this week's Moms segment, TMM parenting contributors, Jolene Ivey and Dannette Tucker, along with guest moms Christine Koh, founder of Boston Mamas, and Lucinda Rosenfeld, "Friend or Foe" advice columnist, talk about how to handle the delicate situation of other kids behaving badly.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

This week, we want to talk about the parenting trials that sometimes test friendships. You know, it starts with pregnancy. My best friend is pregnant. I'm not. Will we still have anything to talk about, yada, yada? But then it gets harder.

What happens if said children become bratzillas, those willful, misbehaving children in the store, at the doctor's office, in your house, pulling your dog's tail or worse, kicking sand in your child's face? Or your friend has become a bratzilla, obnoxious, self-absorbed, even scarier, neglectful - in your view - of her children? What do you do?

Those are the kinds of tricky questions Lucinda Rosenfeld decided to take on in her advice column. It's called "Friend or Foe," and it can be found at doublex.com. I'd like to welcome her. I'd also like to welcome regular TELL ME MORE parenting contributors Jolene Ivey and Danette Tucker and Christine Koh, founder and editor of the blog Boston Mamas. Welcome everybody. Thank you for coming.

JOLENE IVEY: Thank you.

DANETTE TUCKER: Hey, Michel.

CHRISTINE KOH: Thank you.

LUCINDA ROSENFELD: Thank you.

MARTIN: Lucinda, let's start with you. How did you get your idea for this column? Because I have to tell you, when we started passing it around, immediate nods of recognition... (unintelligible), oh yeah, oh yeah. Is that how it started?

ROSENFELD: Well, it started because I published a novel this summer called "I'm So Happy For You." It's about two women who are very competitive and love each other, but also hate each other. I guess you could say it's about frenemies.

And so I started the column on doublex.com as a sort of complement to the novel, and the editor and I dreamed up the idea together for the site.

MARTIN: If you don't mind my asking, what qualifies you to give advice?

ROSENFELD: Absolutely nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I love that.

ROSENFELD: I'm a writer with a sense of humor, I guess. How's that? And I'm a mother of two very small children. And so we put the call out there: Send your friendship problems to Lucinda@Imsohappyforyou.com, and I have just been hit with volumes and volumes of mail, and some of the same questions come up over and over again, as you seem to have guessed.

MARTIN: Sure.

ROSENFELD: A lot of them about pregnancy and motherhood.

MARTIN: Sure, and I can see why, because you're kind of hitting people right where they live. Well, let's take the first one that attracted our attention.

My guest wants to bring her demon children, it read.

ROSENFELD: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: This is a letter to your blog. It said: I have a friend of 20 years, let's called her Janie(ph), who has spawned demon children. Well, OK, they weren't born that way, but she has parented them to be scary. By the time they were walking, I was spending as little time as possible with them. In her mind, one child is a problem because she sees him as having special needs. He does have issues, but in my opinion, she's created them. She thinks the other child can do no wrong, but to my mind, he's a scheming monster who's just very clever about doing stuff behind her back so that her other child always gets blamed.

MARTIN: I have a large gathering coming up that I had to invite her to. She's not only talking about coming, but coming alone, no husband and with both kids. I live a good distance away. She'll be here for at least a few days. There will also be small children and pets here, and I'm really afraid they're going to break something or hurt someone.

So Lucinda, what was your advice?

ROSENFELD: Well, a lot of my commenters disagreed, but I said: You know, you're going to invite someone traveling a long distance, you can't ask her to come without the kids, and you're going to have to maybe give them a chance. Give them some responsibilities. Tell them you're counting on them to supervise the younger ones.

MARTIN: Send them to the Ramada Inn immediately or tell her she can't come. But I thought that was a bit harsh. I thought maybe there's ways of dealing with these children.

MARTIN: Jolene, what's your take on this? And I want to mention Jolene Ivey is one of the cofounders of the Mocha Moms. It's a support group for women of color who consider themselves stay-at-home moms, and she's got five boys of various ages. So what - and the reason I'm coming to you is that part of what the Mocha Moms does it helps women deal with dilemmas like this. And so what do you think?

IVEY: Well, we have had to deal with this, maybe not from the distance viewpoint that this writer is talking about, but we have actually banned whole families from our home for like a year at a time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IVEY: Because we have friends who we love them dearly, but the kids are bad and I can't take bad children. I just can't and my husband's got less tolerance than I do which is, you know, pretty amazing. The parents could come because they're well-behaved but the children cannot come.

MARTIN: And you tell them?

IVEY: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: What do you say?

IVEY: We just say well, we're just seeing you guys right now. We can't deal with the kids.

MARTIN: How do they take that?

IVEY: They know their kids are bad. They might not want to admit it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

IVEY: So come on. If your kids are going around being disruptive all the time, I'm not the first person who's told you.

MARTIN: Wow. Dani?

ROSENFELD: Wow, you're tough.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Wow. Dani, what about you?

TUCKER: You think Jolene's bad, you know, I'm worse. I'm a bad children Motel 8. Please bring me your bad kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: Bring me your bad kids. Leave them with me for about two days. Let me tighten them up and you won't have any more problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: So my friends know this. They know that okay, it's going to work like this. If I send you to Dani's, she's going to spank you, she's going to tighten you up...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: ...so if I don't want that to happen, I will not send my kids there. But I have a Motel 6. I leave the light on for everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: I want them to come to my house.

MARTIN: Do you tell them their kids are bad? I mean do you tell people to...

Ms. TUCKER. Yeah, they know that. I tell them.

MARTIN: Why am I asking this question?

TUCKER: Yeah. Because you around...

MARTIN: I know perfectly well she is going to tell...

TUCKER: Thank you. I tell them, you know, there's something wrong with her. You need me to go in the room with her for about five minutes, close your ears, and let me handle it. I just don't believe - you know me, giving kids free rein like that. No. It's not a democracy in my house. So if you don't want them to come and you don't want to come with them, my friends know. They already know.

MARTIN: Oh dear. Christine, what do you think?

KOH: We have definitely had situations where we've had visitors where the kids and sometimes even the grownups are a little challenging. And I think, you know, I tend to look at these as an opportunity to, you know, offer some parenting to the child that could help guide them in a good direction. As somebody who has a lot of old friendships, we tend to be wed to these sometimes outdated images of what these relationships are like. And, of course, they totally change when you become a parent.

MARTIN: Lucinda, what about you? Are you ever puzzled by why people write to you instead of just bringing it up themselves or you just accept that that's what people are going to do these days?

ROSENFELD: I mean I was surprised by the outpouring. I'm especially amazed by how I get the same questions over and over again, and some of them are about demon children, and a lot of them are also about the divide that happens when some friends have children and some friends don't. That's one of the questions I get over and over again.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Lucinda Rosenfeld, she pens the Friend or Foe column for doubleX.com, and we're talking about demon children and when your friends have demon children. And we're visiting with her and Jolene Ivey, Dani Tucker and Christine Koh. Christine Koh writes the blog Boston Mamas.

I have to ask a tough question, which is: Has any of you ever fired a friend, as it were, because of the way his or her children behaved?

TUCKER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Dani, you have.

TUCKER: Oh yes. I've been fired and it's like what?

MARTIN: Because of the way your kids behaved?

TUCKER: Well no, not because - because of the way I behave. She didn't want her kids, you know, around me anymore. You know, I was evil incarnate because I would snap at them if they did something wrong. If your child curses you out, yes, I'm going to say something, you know. But she was comfortable with that, so we're not friends anymore.

MARTIN: She told you that's why?

TUCKER: Yeah, she told me I was evil. Okay fine, then I'm evil. But see, that was 10 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: Now today, her child is out of control, skipping school, all kind of problems. I don't have those problems. So I hear from her. I'm like, I haven't heard from you in years. Well, I need help now and you know, this is going on and this is going - no, I was evil, remember?

MARTIN: Jolene, have you ever fired a friend because of the way their children behaved?

IVEY: No. I haven't. You know, I'm a friend with the person and if their kids are a problem then, you know, I find a way to deal with that, just not in my home where I feel like I have control over my own environment. But I'm happy to go to their home and I can deal with their kids there. But if I'm in my house and the kid is misbehaving and the parent doesn't act right, then I'm kind of stuck.

MARTIN: Christine, why is it that many people write in with these kinds of dilemmas - and I see them also - in advice columns, where many people will say - I just saw one just the other day, that - where a family hosted - they live overseas, they hosted a family overseas, they thought that the teenage daughter was obnoxious and they didn't say anything until they couldn't take it anymore and then they snapped and the relationship was severely strained. And I'm just wondering why, Christine, do you think that people have so much trouble speaking to people who are supposedly their friends, to say, you know, I'd love to see you but I can't handle any more kids right now, or I just prefer not to host kids at this event. Why do you think we have so much trouble with that?

KOH: I think saying no can be very difficult. I mean I tend to be a yes person. But I think also that as, you know, parents or - and just people in general are so busy, it's when there's an opportunity to get together you sort of want to take advantage of it. And then, I think it creates all this pressure and expectation around the event. You know, we've gone on vacations with other families and I think there's a lot of pressure on the kids too to get along, to, you know, have the best summer ever, and it just adds these layers of complexity to the relationship. And I find that I'm definitely a person who's willing to step in and if I - I kind of act on instinct. If I see that the kid's acting out and the parent looks like they're about to lose it, you know, they're not going to be in a good place to resolve the situation. So if I'm, you know, close with those people, I'll say, you know what? Let me just take a breath. You know, take a minute. You know, let me chat with her. And I usually take the kid to the side in a very, not in a I'm-going-to-discipline-you sort of way, but just in a way to listen because I think a lot of times kids are acting out because they have something else that is going on and they just need to sound off a little bit.

MARTIN: Here's an email that we got in response to our conversation last week about the use of corporal punishment and I also think it's relevant to this week's conversation. This mom writes: I have a son who has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism. To every person in the grocery store, library and carpool line, he looks and talks like any normal seven-year-old. But he's not, and the only way to parent my son is to respect him and respect his differences. When he throws a tantrum on the floor of the museum or screams at an overly friendly lady on an airplane, I take a deep breath and wait for him to calm himself. I tell him I love him and suggest a distraction. It doesn't always work perfectly, sometimes I'm tired and grumpy, but I do my best. My plea is to tell people not to judge. With so many children out there struggling to grow up in a complex world - many with social, emotional, or health challenges - give those brats compassion and their parents a warm smile. They might be the worst parents on Earth, but more likely they are struggling to do their best.

What about that, ladies? How about it? Jolene?

IVEY: Well, it's true that all kids are different and it's really up to parents to know your own children. And that's one thing that kind of troubles me. Whenever we talk about spanking, people immediately go to some different scenario. You're talking about abuse or whatever. In this case, here's a special-needs child. That child needs different care and I would never tell a parent, this is how you have to do it.

MARTIN: That speaks to another issue, Lucinda, that you got a letter about in your column. I'm not going to read the whole thing because...

ROSENFELD: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...it's actually fairly involved. But it's about a woman who has a friend who she's very concerned about because she believes she's become neglectful, and in some ways I think you might find it fair to say dangerous to her children. She says she dumps them off with whoever...

ROSENFELD: Right.

MARTIN: ...so she can go out drinking and clubbing. And this friend says that she's so disgusted by this woman's behavior she doesn't want to be friends with her anymore. But then she feels guilty because she feels, well, do I owe the child something? Should I maintain a connection for the sake of the child? What did you say?

ROSENFELD: I suggested that she sit this woman down and find out what's going on and suggest not so subtly that she's going to lose her children if she doesn't shape up. And I also thought that I felt sorry for this baby that had been born into the world in such an awful place. And I said you want to be the best friend you could possibly be to this woman. You know, volunteer to take this child in a little bit while things are straightening out. You know, take this little baby into your home and show them what a happy one looks like.

MARTIN: And what was some of the reaction you got from readers on this?

ROSENFELD: I mean, some of the commenters said, you know, that's ridiculous. She'll, you know - you open that door and let this woman dump her baby in your house, you might as well leave her forwarding address or something. I mean she'll take advantage of you immediately. She's that kind of person. Don't even think about it. But I thought, you know what, this situation is going to end badly. Make a gesture to the child. That's the best - that's the nicest thing you can do.

MARTIN: I want to hear from each of the moms on this. Christine, what's your take on this?

KOH: You can't control other people's behavior. You can only control your reaction and sort of the way that you sort of mitigate the situation. So I think if it feels good to you to try to be a positive force in this kid's life and, you know, help out in some way, then that's great. But if your ultimate goal is I want to solve this person's problem, you're sort of setting yourself up for defeat there. So I think you can, you know, do the most that you can, you know, as a friend but it's very, very tricky to try to set up, you know, the expectation that you're going solve this situation.

MARTIN: Dani, what do you think about this?

TUCKER: I actually had that. I talked about it over a year ago on one of the shows. A young lady was on crack and she was a part of our moms circle, we didn't know, and her son was always at my house. So I let him stay at my house once I realized what was going on. Because you get them in a situation where, what are you going to do? That child's going to suffer. I talked to his mom. We all did. But she didn't hear us. So we took turns, you know. I didn't mind him being there. I didn't mind him eating there. God made a way. That's the way I felt about it. And, you know, this went on for a year and then what happened was his family came and got him. But, you know - and he'd always let us know, you know, that that meant a lot to him to have somewhere to be, to, you know, to have extended family, because I couldn't imagine him being there by himself.

MARTIN: Did your children, Imani and DeVaughn, ever resent the attention that you devoted to this child? Because I have, you know - I don't want to go into details, but I think a lot of us have been in similar circumstances and then you wonder whether immediate family members feel okay, this is the situation but we need you here. We need your attention on us and...

TUCKER: Never.

MARTIN: ...that whole putting water in the soup pot thing doesn't work for some people.

TUCKER: No, they never did and I think that's because our family is like that. My grandfather raised us, you know, to be like that, to be there for each other, so they never did that. You know, and I was really proud. Actually, it was more so their idea, you know, because they would go, well, let's go make sure Eric's got something to eat. Because I wouldn't have known unless DeVaughn had brought it to my attention, so I was really proud of them.

MARTIN: Jolene, what do you think?

IVEY: I think this is the village we're always talking about. We say it takes a village to help raise a child, and this is the village we're talking about. We have to look out for each other. I have had the situation where we, not like raised another child, but had a kid over a lot who was having some problems at home. And this was a kid who's a little bit older than my children so they weren't natural playmates, but we really felt like we needed to step in. And my kids did sometimes resent having him there. They did feel like, why is he always here? He's here. He's spending, you know, using up our time with you, with the computer, eating our food, whatever - not like we don't have enough food to go around, but they would occasionally complain. But I would talk to them about it and say look, you're lucky. Be nice to this kid. And, you know, we got to the point where the kid was a little better, was a little solid, more on solid footing. And I'm glad we did it at the time that we did do it and I wish we could've done more.

MARTIN: So your focus is focus on the child, not the parent...

IVEY: Yeah, there's nothing...

MARTIN: ...because there's only so much you're going to be able to do as a friend...

IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: ...with the parent, so focus on the child if possible.

IVEY: Absolutely. And...

MARTIN: But you felt you had the capacity. What if you felt you hadn't? I mean, you know, you had a couple difficult pregnancies...

IVEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...where you are on bed rest and, you know, what do you do then?

IVEY: It is tough.

MARTIN: There's a parent who wrote in to Lucinda, had a very young child...

IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: ...and sounded to me like she had her hands full.

IVEY: You have to know your boundaries and I do know that at the time that we were taking a lot of time with this other kid, he had friends he wanted to bring in to us, too, who were also having problems. And I had to draw the line in the sand and say I'm sorry, you and no more.

MARTIN: Wow. Tough. Lucinda, what are some of the other issues burning up your blog, if you will?

ROSENFELD: Women with small children who complain that their friends who don't have children have lost interest in them. That seems to be a recurring theme. That - there's a lot of miscommunication and hurt between those with children and those without.

MARTIN: Any kind of just quick word of wisdom that you have been sharing on that?

ROSENFELD: I just, you know, I suggest understanding and, you know, you do have to make an effort. Just because you have a baby doesn't mean - you know, life's not over. Find time for the coffee date. Find that hour.

MARTIN: I think...

ROSENFELD: And there's email too.

MARTIN: And I think that there's also another show to do. So I think we'll save that topic for another day. So with that, I'll say goodbye to Lucinda Rosenfeld. She's the author of "I'm So Happy For You." She writes the Friend or Foe advice column at doubleX.com. She joined us from our bureau in New York. Christine Koh is the founder and editor of the blog BostonMamas.com. She joined us from her office in West Medford, Massachusetts. And, here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio, Jolene Ivey and Dani Tucker, our TELL ME MORE regular parenting contributors.

Ladies, moms, thank you so much.

KOH: Thank you.

ROSENFELD: Thank you.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

TUCKER: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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