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Are We Raising a Brat?

Photograph by Getty Images

“Sam, can I ask you something?” asked my 6-year-old stepdaughter, Chloe, as she and I were hanging out in the kitchen, making some kind of craft with an array of beads.

“Of course you can, babe. What’s up?”

“I was just thinking about how mama never buys me or Trey any toys when we go to the store. She always says she can’t, or just no. But every time we go to the store with you, we get whatever we want,” she said, staring straight at me.

Uh-oh.

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I took a deep breath and tried to think about what to say. The thing is, I was already worried about her coming to this conclusion. Truthfully, I do not buy Chloe and her brother, Trey, whatever they want. Nine times out of 10, they do not get what they ask for and I have to wheel two pouty kids in my grocery cart to the next aisle. But, I’ve been aware the past few months that, because the kids are only with us every other weekend, the little treats they get seem much more frequent.

In her mind, she gets something every time she sees us. In my mind, she’s getting something small, like a coloring book or a new Polly Pocket doll (five dollar items, usually) once or twice a month. I don’t think we’re spoiling her or giving in to every desire she has. Instead, I feel like I’m parenting her the way my parents did me. If I was good all day and if my parents had a few extra bucks, I sometimes got a pack of stickers or a new Barbie outfit. It was a treat, and I knew to enjoy it.

But now? Now I’m terrified that I’m turning Chloe and Trey into “I get whatever I want at my daddy’s” monsters. You know the ones. The ones who brag to everybody that their dad’s house is basically Disneyworld. There have already been several instances where Chloe has told someone that she can do whatever she wants at her dad’s. In fact, she often says to me, “Sam, I can do whatever I want when I’m with you and daddy, can’t I?”

Of course, I tell her no, she can’t. But why does she feel this way? Trust me, she does not get to do whatever she wants, but maybe rules at our house are a little different than rules at her mama’s? Or maybe, once again, the every other weekend situation makes her feel like she gets to do more than if she were with us all the time? I just don’t know.

I hope anyone who happens to hear Chloe’s confessions about “getting whatever she wants at her dad’s house" takes it with a grain of salt.

“Well, Chloe, you don’t always get everything you want when you’re with us. I think because you’re with us for less time than you’re with your mom, it feels like you get more. Does that make sense? Your mom’s not telling you no just to be mean, just like I don’t tell you no to be mean. We say no for good reasons,” I told Chloe, crossing my fingers that she didn’t say this kind of stuff to her mom.

Chloe didn’t reply, I think she was distracted by our crafts. But the conversation rattled in my head like the beads in my hands. I thought about one morning when I dropped her off for kindergarten and her teacher said to me, “Oh, we didn’t think Chloe was coming into school. One of her friends said that Chloe doesn’t have to go to school when she’s with her dad.”

Disregard the fact that a grown adult believed a 5-year-old about another kindergartner not having to come to school, but focus instead on Chloe telling her friends her daddy didn’t make her go to school. Did she get her words twisted, meaning to say she’s with her daddy on weekends? Did her friend just make some silly assumption because Chloe wasn’t there yet?

All I know is I hope anyone who happens to hear Chloe’s confessions about “getting whatever she wants” at her dad’s house takes it with a grain of salt. For one thing, she’s 6 and quite the embellisher. For another, she sees us for such a short amount of time each month, it’s easy for her to feel like she gets whatever she wants.

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For the first time ever, I felt a lot of sympathy for the parent who’s around the most. Before, I felt bad for my own husband—the man who loves his kids like you wouldn’t believe, the man who only gets to see them every other weekend. I hated seeing him miss his kids and hated to see him hurt, but when Chloe told me she gets what she wants from me and not her mom? I truly felt bad for the “most of the time” parent. I worry that Chloe brags about her daddy’s house being the best place ever and makes her mom feel bad. I worry that the parents who are with her most of the time feel like we’re trying to win her over by doing whatever she wants. And most of all, I worry that Chloe really does think every wish of hers is granted at our house.

This stepparenting thing? It’s a lot like parenting: full of worries.

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