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Reality Check: The Meaning of Hate

Q. My toddler says that I'm a bad mommy when I discipline her. But worst of all, she says that she hates me. Should I say something back to her or just ignore it? Should I punish her?

A. A woman I know, Lisa, is the mother of five, ages 15, 12, 9, 2½, and 16 months. She's had lots of experience dealing with the "I hate you" remarks, which, by the way, virtually all parents hear at one time or another.

When Lisa gets it from the older kids, she just ignores it and figures it's an indication that something else is bothering them and they'll talk about it later -- after tempers have cooled. When she gets it from the younger kids, she tells them, "Words can hurt, and what you just said hurt me," so they know that what they say has the power to cause hurt feelings. And she pretty much leaves it at that. Toddlers are famous for testing limits and for saying and doing things just to get a reaction. In fact, they may not even know what "hate" means -- they just know it must be a powerful word because it gets a strong response, and who doesn't like wielding a little power every now and then?

My standard response to the allegation that I am hateful and bad is, "That's okay. You don't have to love me all the time." If I'm feeling Gandhi-ish, I'll throw in, "You know what? It's like a green card lottery, I love you anyway," which makes them mad, but underneath that, glad. And if I really want to blow their little minds I say, "Did you know you can only hate someone you love?" which they sort of get.

Obviously, it's important to teach children that words can hurt and that parents have feelings too. But I also want to teach my girls that it's all right for them to vent their anger once in a while; that it's not the end of the world to tell the person you love most that you hate him or her; that relationships are more resilient than that. So don't take to heart what your toddler says in a heated moment. And don't punish her for saying something you both know she doesn't mean.

Contributing editor Trisha Thompson is a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk magazine.