Testy Toddlers and Discipline

Dr. Sherri Edelman offers tips on setting limits with fussy children.
Dr. Sherri Edelman offers tips on setting limits with fussy children.

Getting over the sting of these and other words your child's trying on for size

My daughter Margaret thinks that I am a "poopy doopy snorty poo who wees in her butt". That's a direct quote. And no, she is not a seaman first class in the Seventh Fleet. She's a (usually) charming 3-year-old. Her salty opinion stems from the fact that I would not let her have a fourth ice pop this afternoon.


Oh, mean is the mommy! Oh, fickle is the preschooler! Oh, devastating is the first time the (other) love of your life, flesh of your flesh, apple of your eye, spits out the dreaded sentiment, "I hate you!"

The exact phrasing doesn't matter. (Though the more precocious the child, and the more older siblings he or she has, the earlier the H-word seems to appear.) It's the vitriol. The contempt. The turncoat nature of the business. Where did this come from, we're left wondering?

Our love fest had started out so blissfully. Right on schedule, at six weeks, Margaret had bestowed her first gratifying feedback, an unmistakable smile of delight whenever my big head crossed her little line of vision. A few weeks later, we advanced to outstretched arms. Later, she'd snuggle her head on my shoulder, the perfect warming pad to cure whatever ails you. Toddlerhood brought the full flowering of unbridled affection, the way only a toddler can give it - puckered lips, python embraces, body-slamming hugs.

And that, as it turned out, was just the problem. Everything about 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds is larger than life. They're big-time happy, big-time sad. They can also be big-time cranky and big-time mad. You know the expression "wearing your heart on your sleeve"? A young child wears her heart more like an oversize T-shirt: It's impossible to miss; it overwhelms her tiny body.

Combine these emotions with a budding vocabulary and you get phrases that make you want to laugh as much as cry. ("You meanus weenus!" was one memorable epithet.) Factor in the realization that words aren't merely satisfying to say. They have power. ("More crackers!" "I don't want to!" "No!") Words get things done. Words make your point. Words can hurt.

A thin line between love and hate. And who's the most convenient target Poor, unsuspecting Mom or Dad, of course.

Me: "Let's get dressed. Here's your underwear."

Margaret: "I don't want Blue's Clues underwear."

Me: "Well, your Hello Kitty panties are in the wash."

Margaret: "I don't like Blue's Clues underwear. I hate you, Mom!"

A few minutes later, we've advanced to socks.

Me: "Can you find your socks?"

Margaret: "I don't want to wear socks. I hate you, Mom!"

Well, good morning to you, too.

Usually I chirp something like, "I love you, no matter what. You're just mad because you can't find the socks, aren't you?" I remind myself that she's just experimenting with new words. She doesn't talk this way all the time; it's just a phase.

I understand, intellectually, that she's giving voice to her frustration, and doesn't really truly in her heart of hearts despise me. I've heard other moms patiently explain that "hate" is a hurtful word and must never be used, but that only seems to fuel its potency. So I tend to name her feelings and move on. Don't take it personally, I mechanically tell myself. Still, the emotions sting. I miss the simple unblinking devotion of Baby Love.

As my friend Jo, a mom of three, likes to point out, the feelings flow both ways. Sometimes we hate them, too. Granted, that's a strong word. I don't mean it in the sense of true evil-as in hate crimes, hate mail. I love my children more than life itself (as I know Jo does).

But sometimes, yes, we hate the drudgery of endlessly cleaning their messes, of shouting for the hundredth time to stop jumping on the bed and get to sleep, of being on the losing end of a power struggle, of enduring a loud tantrum in the grocery store when our full-to-the-brim cart is just one customer away from the cash register in the check-out lane. We do - indirectly, occasionally, momentarily - very strongly dislike our kids, anyway. (Even though we really adore them.)

Love and hate are two sides of the same coin. If a parent can feel both emotions at the same time, why can't a child? Calling your mom a "poopy doopy snorty poo" is, in its own way, a baby step toward maturity (whether you like it or not).

Granted, we still need to work on the finer points of what constitutes socially acceptable speech. But I've got to admit, in one eloquent tirade over ice pops, Margaret made me see that my relationship to her is, well, just as complex as my relationships with everyone else I know. And that is as it should be.

Paula Spencer, a mom of four, is a Parenting magazine contributing editor.

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