Well, I finally got mine this week.
I’ve heard that it happens to every parent. It’s really just a matter of time and there really isn’t anything you can do to stop it. You can set up the circumstances and plan as best you can, but even the most skilled veteran parents are going to get it at some point or another. I’ll admit, I don’t know that I expected it this early – is four years of parenthood even considered early? – but I figured it was coming sooner or later.
Last week, Eitan told me he didn’t love me.
Well, he didn’t exactly say it as much as he screamed it at my face. I was sitting at the foot of his bed and he was near the head. He was in the middle of a gigantic tantrum that involved him not getting what he wanted (more about that later). His face had gotten red and he had been yelling so loudly that he started coughing and dry heaving at one point. I tried to talk to him calmly to help him come down a bit but he ramped right back up and threw out the line like a 100 mile an hour fastball.
“Daddy, I don’t love you anymore! I love Mommy and Shayna but not you!”
I barely acknowledged it in the moment. I think I said, “That’s fine” and kept trying to calm him down. I didn’t show any anger or sadness; I really just tried to keep from rolling my eyes. As angry as Eitan was and as much as he was obviously trying to hurt my feelings, I would have hated to think that he would have felt even more invalidated by an outright dismissal of what he thought was a silver bullet. At least “That’s fine” shows that I heard him make the comment, even if I didn’t respond or throw back a return volley.
There were a few reasons I didn’t want to make a big deal about the comment. For one thing, I knew he didn’t mean it (at least, as much as one can “know” what another person is feeling). My interpretation was that Eitan was just really angry and that he was looking for a way to express his extreme displeasure with me and with the situation. I also knew that Eitan hadn’t quite matured to the point where he could differentiate between the feelings “like” and “love.” He said he didn’t love me but what I heard was, “I don’t like you right now because I’m angry with you.” Granted, hearing something different than what is said can be quite dangerous, especially in relationships, but I think it’s usually fairly safe in certain situations with young children. Plus, even if Eitan really did mean what he was saying in the moment, I was fairly confident that he and I would be able to move past the argument in time and that he would “love me again” later on.
Second, as I said earlier, I figured it was just a matter of time until Eitan told me he didn’t love me as part of an argument. Kids use these kinds of comments – I don’t love you, you don’t love me, you’re ruining my life, you’re a horrible parent, etc. – as tactics to deflect from the issue at hand and to elicit a reaction that will make their parent question their actions and, hopefully (from the child’s point of view), change their mind to give the child what they want. As a social worker with experience watching families throw all kinds of emotional barbs at each other, this was probably one of the lighter remarks I’d ever heard. Of course, it was different because it was a younger child and it was my son saying it to me, but it was still hardly the most awful thing I had ever heard a child say to a parent.
The last – and probably the most important – reason why I didn’t want to make too big a deal about Eitan’s comment is that the tantrum started largely because of my own mistakes as a parent. Eitan had wanted to look at pictures of toys on my phone and I said yes initially. Then he went to get his tablet to look at some YouTube videos of those toys on there instead and I said no. The videos he wanted to watch weren’t harmful or inappropriate for his age, but there was also no real value to them.1 So I said that he could not watch the videos and suggested that we play with his actual toys instead.
That moment where I said no, after having originally said yes, was the critical mistake. Part of the point of childhood is looking for an understanding of the world and structure is what helps kids do that. When the structure is inconsistent or unpredictable children react accordingly because they cannot figure out what is expected of them. If something is allowed at first but then immediately revoked, it is understandable that a child would get upset. Had I said no from the very start, Eitan might have still thrown a tantrum but I could have explained my reasoning more clearly at that point. It’s also possible that he might have allowed me to redirect him towards a different activity instead.
When I got home later that evening, Eitan was fine. He didn’t seem angry at all and didn’t bring up the argument from that morning. I brought it up to him before bed, though. I apologized for my part2 and also reminded him that he would not be watching those videos anymore, whether he was using a phone or a tablet or the computer. Eitan said that he understood, gave me a hug and a kiss and said that he loved me before falling asleep. And so we both moved on, at least until the next time Eitan decides that I’m ruining his life.
1. I know, on the one hand, it shouldn’t really matter. Eitan had just woken up a little while ago, he likes the videos and he was keeping himself occupied, so what’s the big deal? On the other hand, considering all of the things he could be watching, like actual television shows that provide educational content, for instance, I would rather not have him sit and use exactly zero brain power to watch other people play with children’s toys. It would be even better if he would actually play with his own toys in the first place, but that’s a different issue. The bottom line is that, if he’s going to be watching something to begin with, I want it to have some sort of value beyond just occupying my child’s time.↩
2. Eitan likely heard me say that the whole argument was my fault; that’s obviously not what I said, but remember what I said before about hearing something different than what people are saying? It happens all the time. It’s also important for Eitan to hear me apologize when I’ve made a mistake and to see me change the behavior in the future. That’s part of parenting too.↩