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.


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 | , , , ,


  1. Words of wisdom which I know I will be using here! Thank you!

    You’re welcome!

    Comment by Anita Kaiser | November 14, 2008 | Reply

  2. What wonderful timing this is.
    Thank you.

    Been hearing this, have you? You’re welcome!

    Comment by Dani | November 14, 2008 | Reply

  3. What a wonderful post! I still cringe at the memory of the few times I said things like this to my own mother. My 19 month-old daughter is still a little young to be this articulate when she’s very angry, but I know it will happen someday, and this is a really thoughtful approach to that kind of situation. I liked it so much I forwarded it to several other parents. I’m a big fan of your blog; keep up the great work!

    Thank you, Erin, both for the compliment and for forwarding it! Nice to know when what I say is meaningful enough to share with friends. So much of parenting is done “on the fly”; it’s nice to have an approach thought out in advance. Even if you end up modifying it a bit to suit your particular situation, a little advance consideration can help a lot!

    Comment by Erin Baler | November 14, 2008 | Reply

  4. first time reading your blog… i agree with your words and thoughts. I have no kids of my own yet but the theory of your blog is true with no faults.

    Thank you.

    Comment by jrbro | November 14, 2008 | Reply

  5. I remember uttering those words to my mother once….. later in life she imparted (real word, correct use?) some knowledge upon me that turned out to be very valid. “You have not truly lived life until you have honestly fully hated someone” I hope I never need to say this to my children. I raised my children to think that “hate” was a four letter word just like the others they were not allowed to say. It is a strong emotion and until you are older and more wise, use it with care. Great post btw!

    Hatred is a valid member of the family of human emotions, if, that is, it’s focussed on something truly hate-worthy. Vegetables and (99.99% of) mommies and daddies, and later, homework and unruly hair are NOT hate-worthy. Hatred, like anger, can motivate us to take action in a positive way. As a motivator, it can be a positive. As a temporary response to a particularly vile experience, natural and, on the whole, neutral. As a way of life? Entirely destructive.

    Comment by Alexandra | November 14, 2008 | Reply

  6. Wow. I like your mom’s reply much, much better than mine (a breezy, “but I always LOVE you.” Need to write that one down and make it my own.

    My mum’s a smart woman. She was a terrific parent, and I’ve adopted a lot of her approaches and strategies.

    Comment by Allison | November 14, 2008 | Reply

  7. Oh I wish he’d cry quietly. He does nothing quietly and simply cannot moderate his emotional outbursts. We do this too, and Child One handles it fine. Child Two is just made of different materials.

    He’ll get there. It’ll just take longer!

    Comment by Jill in Atlanta | November 14, 2008 | Reply

  8. Great advice, thank you!

    You’re welcome!

    Comment by Merrilee Faber | November 14, 2008 | Reply

  9. LOVE this advice!

    I fear I tend toward the “always validate at all costs” end of the spectrum (a bit of an Earnest Mommy, I’m afraid!) but I’m working on it. My 2 and 1/2 year old is becoming very bossy and self-centered (I know this is age appropriate but STILL) and I’m finding myself needing to assert myself and my rights and the rights of others more and more. She WILL NOT rule this roost!

    Good for you! “Age appropriate but STILL” is a totally appropriate response. In fact, I prefer the term “developmentally normal” to “age-appropriate”, because really, just because it’s developmentally normal doesn’t make it appropriate. We hear the word “appropriate” and there’s a tendency to think we shouldn’t try to change it. Pfft. (Oh, and just because it’s “normal” doesn’t mean we can’t expect them/encourage them to outgrow it! As soon as possible, thanks…)

    Comment by Clueless But Hopeful Mama | November 15, 2008 | Reply

  10. Working on this at the moment. The 4-year old and I are trying to negotiate outrage in the face of being hit/hair-pulled/scratched by younger sisters and not being able to retaliate. This is especially problematic in the car. But he’s said some milder variants of “I hate you”, which I’ve tried to moderate without invalidating his feelings. But you’ve given me better words to use now, so thanks!

    It’s a tough position for a four-year-old — but just THINK of all the CHARACTER he’s developing!! I’m sure you’re managing it in your usual loving and down-to-earth fashion.

    Comment by Kat | November 17, 2008 | Reply

  11. “Just becaue it’s develpmentally normal doesn’t make it appropriate.” I said almost those EXACT words to my husband last night as I was helping my 2-year old eat properly at a pizza parlor (i.e. sit down and face the table, don’t put your feet up, etc.). How else are kids going to learn if you don’t teach them what is and is not appropriate? On a related note, later that night my husband mused at how often our child says “thank you” without prompting and how nice it is to hear her say it. Again, she didn’t just spontaneously develop the habit, it’s been taught to her as something that is appropriate (whether it’s “age-appropriate” or not). She thinks it’s fun to say, and she’ll come to undertand the significance in time. Your point about the word “hate” is excellent and I’m definitely adding it to the parenting files in my brain.

    Comment by Kiera | November 17, 2008 | Reply

  12. Even though my kids are older now (20 and 13) I get so much validation from reading your blog.

    I grew up in a house where we were taught that we had no right to be angry, period. (no distinction was made between the feeling and any particular expression of it).

    When I had children it was always something I vowed to “NEVER DO TO MY KIDS”. I made every effort to make clear the distinction between being entitled to your feelings and responsible for your actions.

    “You may be angry, but you may not scream (hit, bite, kick, spit, whatever).”

    That’s exactly what I used to tell my kids when they were little… recently adding “not speak to me in that tone of voice” for my 13 year old daughter.

    Comment by Zayna | November 17, 2008 | Reply

  13. We’ve been dealing with this. And of course Laurel (almost 3) is starting to repeat it since she hears Ian (4) yelling it. He has said he hates me when a negative consequence is given out. I usually say, “No, you don’t hate me, you just don’t like the consequence.” They do need help in sorting such things out.

    Comment by mamacita tina | November 22, 2008 | Reply

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