It’s Not All Mary Poppins

“I HATE you, mommy!”

angry childI remember saying that to my mother. I have no idea what the offense was, but I blurted out those words in a fit of childish frothing-at-the-mouth, I’m sure. If I was old enough to remember it as clearly as I do, I was probably at least 7; I don’t think I was in my teens yet.

I still remember her response. She did not “validate my feelings”. She did not soothe or comfort. Though corporal punishment was part of the family parenting repertoire, there was no spanking for that level of insubordination, either. (None of us were spanked after the age of three or so, anyway.) Nor did she respond with outrage, though she was clearly offended.

Nope. My normally cheerful, easy-going mother directed a gaze laced with ferocity at me as she put me in my place. “You don’t hate me. You are far too young to know what ‘hate’ is, and I hope you never have to find out. And do not say that to me, ever again.”

There was further discussion about what I could say. I could say I was angry; I could say I didn’t like something; I could say any number of negative things, so long as they were said respectfully. But “hate”? Not allowed.

I don’t recall if there was follow-up. I don’t know if she had to battle this into the ground, or if that one pronouncement was enough to kill that nasty behaviour on the spot.

I do know that I agree with her.

Children raised in a loving home have no idea what hate is, nor should they. “Hate” is not a variant of “dislike”, and shouldn’t be treated as such. In the same way that we don’t allow our small children to use the “bad words” adults might occasionally let fly in their presence, we needn’t allow this one, either.

We’ve been raised as parents to respect our children’s emotions. That is as it should be. But we needn’t revere them. Nor should we buy into the notion that respecting an emotion means that we allow its full expression without reservation. Nor is “he’s too little to understand what [emotion] means” stop you from the task of guiding the expression of that emotion.

“Emotions are neither right nor wrong. It’s what you do with them that matters.” I have a vague notion that I’m quoting someone here, but it’s mine now. I’ve said it so often in our home that my teens can chant it along with me.

Good!

We can start teaching that at toddlerhood, when a child is told “You may be angry, but you may not scream (hit, bite, kick, spit, whatever).” Or, “I know taking a nap makes you sad, but your body needs the rest. You will feel better when you wake up.” Or. “You want that toy, but it’s Suzie’s turn now.”

I often am heard to say, “If you need to cry, cry quietly.”

Unreasonable? No, since they can pretty well uniformly manage it, from about two and a half, and even earlier, depending on the child. Disrespectful? No, because I’m not saying they may not feel the emotion, or that the emotion is wrong or bad, only that they must moderate its expression.

So, Ms/Mr. Enraged Toddler. You can be angry, very, very angry! You can stomp your feet. You can scowl and pout. You can not like me right now. You can tell me to go away. (And I will, assuming it’s safe for me to do so.)

But “hate”?

Nope. You don’t know what the word means, and I hope you never do. I can safely bet that those of us who do know what it means rather wish we hadn’t had to live through the experience that engendered it.

Don’t be afraid to put limits on the expression of your child’s emotions. Not the feeling of them, but their expression. Feeling an emotion is always acceptable. Emotions are morally neutral. How you act on them is not. Learning to respond constructively to your emotions is merely part of learning to exist in a world shared by millions of other people, all with their own emotional centres, all worthy of their piece of the planet.

Instead of a blanket tolerance of any and all emotional expression, try this:

“You can be [insert emotion here], but you may not [insert behaviour here], but you can [insert alternate expression here].”

And the carrot at the end of this stick? If you start when they’re two, you’ll have a way easier time of it when they’re twelve…

November 14, 2008 Posted by | aggression, parenting, tantrums, the dark side | , , , , | 13 Comments