It's hard to love a brat

Many parents these days seem to have forgotten to teach their kids basic manners.

The other day, my friend Tamara (the names in this column have been changed) called, sounding upset. "What's the matter?" I asked. "I don't know how to tell you this," she started. "I was visiting my friend Sophie the other day because she was sick. She was lying on the couch and Danny, her six-year-old, was sitting on the bean bag chair next to her, looking dreamily the other way. At one point, she looked over at him and smiled for a long time and stroked his face. The love she felt for him was so evident in her face - even though he wasn't looking at her. "Then, yesterday, I saw that exact same look on another friend's face as she leaned over to kiss good-bye to her eight-year-old, Ya'ara, before we went out to dinner together. She just stood there for a few extra seconds, stroking this kid's face, also smiling, and I could see the love pouring out of her face." "Sounds really nice," I said. "Lucky kids." "Yeah, that's just it," said Tamara, sounding miserable. "I don't look at my kids like that." "Of course you do!" I said. "I've seen you look at them like that." "I don't know," she said. "It doesn't feel that way to me." We decided this conversation needed to continue in person and we met for coffee the next morning. Tamara was still pretty down. "You know what I realized?" she asked. My ears perked up; I'm always interested in realizations. "I think Danny and Ya'ara are such happy, well-adjusted kids because their mothers' love flows so freely toward them. And either it flows so freely because they are good kids or they are good kids because it flows so freely. Whichever it is, it made me realize: It's hard to love a brat." I knew exactly what Tamara was thinking. She has four kids, three of whom were particularly challenging as they were growing up. Each one seemed to settle down after his or her bar/bat mitzva, but until then, they had given Tamara and her husband a run for their money - literally. They had all spent hours in family, individual and couples counseling without much noticeable improvement in the children's behavior. Although they were all smart and could be charming, her children were more often disobedient, rude, combative, contrary and sometimes downright obnoxious. "Everyone is always saying why it's so important for parents to be firm and consistent," Tamara says. "But I think the best reason is that if you're not, you're at risk for having misbehaved kids, and the expression on your face when you look at them will be cross more often than it will be loving. I can only imagine what that does to a kid's sense of self." "Would it have helped," I asked, "if you had known this earlier?" She sighed. "I don't know. I seem to be genetically incapable of setting limits and sticking to them. But maybe if I felt that not only my peace but my children's emotional wellbeing was at stake, I would have tried even harder." I reassured Tamara that despite their rough beginnings, her kids were doing just fine and were each leading productive lives. We also decided, not for the first time, that some children have challenging temperaments and parents can't bear all the blame for a poorly behaved child. But even (especially) temperamentally difficult children can benefit from consistent expectations. And many parents these days seem to have forgotten to teach their kids basic manners. When was the last time you had an uninterrupted conversation with a friend when her kids or yours were around? How many adolescents do you know who open a door and stand aside for the adult behind them to enter? How many teenagers introduce themselves to a friend's parents - or even say hello - when they enter their home? In case you know a parent who could use a few guidelines for setting and keeping limits - and who doesn't - following are some tips I've culled over the years from one of my favorite mothers - my sister-in-law, Ellen, who managed to raise three of the nicest kids around. "Parents these days are afraid to be strict," Ellen says. "And they give their kids too much of everything - but not enough boundaries and not enough attention." Here's what she recommends: • Parents need to guide their children and to prepare them for adult life. • Expect good behavior and you will get it. • When a child feels he has rules, he also feels loved and cared for - and a rule is a rule. Don't bend it here and throw it out there. Kids should never feel like they're ruling you. They don't make the rules. When they get to be adults, they can make the rules. • What you give is what you get. If you want a child to respect you, you have to respect him. If you don't want her to yell at you, don't yell at her. • Children will test limits and fight boundaries and that's normal, but they have to know that certain behaviors are unacceptable. • The word "punishment" is no longer in fashion. But if you love your children, you will punish them fairly - and never physically. Take away a privilege, something your child cares about. For one it's TV, for another the computer, for a third it's baseball. • If a child does something you don't like, instead of saying "You shouldn't do this," tell them how you feel. If you tell them your feelings are hurt by something they did, they're more likely to listen than if you accuse them. • If you threaten something, carry it out. Otherwise, you lose all credit. • Start expecting good behavior early - by the age of one or even sooner. • When you want your child to do something, don't call to them from across the room. Instead, go up to them, get down to their level, look them in the eye, make sure you have their attention and say it like you mean it. • When you can, involve them in decisions by giving them a choice. If they feel part of the decision, they're more likely to follow through. • When you're with your kids, be with them completely. Talk to them and listen to them with your full attention. If you're focused on the thoughts in your head, then you're not really with them - and they know it. • Compliment them when they do something you like. • Never tell a child he or she is bad or that you don't like him or her. Your child's behavior may be unacceptable but your love is unconditional.