I’ve told my parents I hate them, and you have too.
You probably said it when you were a little kid, like mine did last night, and you also probably said it again when you were a teenager, and maybe you’ve even said it recently, deep into adulthood, you ungrateful man-child.
Every kid says it, and every parent knows it will happen, because kids are mean af.
They (read: G.I. Joe) say knowing is half the battle, but does anyone know what the other half is? Because despite the fact that Mom and Buried knew it would eventually happen, and despite the fact that she knows Detective Munch is only five and essentially a walking sack of undeveloped emotions and barely-there communication skills, and despite the fact that she knows he didn’t mean it and didn’t even really understand what he was saying and what it meant, when he yelled “I hate you!” merely because she threatened to withhold dessert, she still cried.
And who can blame her? Because despite all that stuff, it still sucks. But, with the benefit of our own experience as asshole kids once upon a time, we have to power through. We know kids are vicious because we were once vicious kids ourselves. They don’t have a lot of tools at their disposal, and the ones they do have are mostly ineffective, so they tend to go for the big guns, early and often, consequences (should they recognize any) be damned.
The scary thing is, as mean as our kids can be to us, that’s nothing compared to how mean they are to each other. They hurt each other’s feelings all the time. They call each other names, they exclude each other from games (I feel like there’s a song about this…) At least when we’re attacked by a feral five-year-old, we have our emotional intelligence and life experience to lean on. Other five-year-olds are sitting ducks.
A few weeks ago my son attended a birthday party, and the birthday boy’s brother walked up to him and said, “I didn’t invite you. I don’t want you here.” COLD-BLOODED! This did not make my son feel good. It did not make my wife, who witnessed the whole thing, feel good. It did not make me feel good either, but I was mostly able to shrug it off, because I know what kids are like: kids are like wolverines. They look cute from a distance but let your guard down and they’ll pop up from a hole in the ground and shoot you with a rocket launcher to fight back in the name of a besieged America. WOLVERINES! (I think I lost the metaphor.)
Everyone – aside from those of us who’ve blocked it out – remembers high school. Everyone has seen Mean Girls (yeah, that movie makes more sense here). The casual cruelty of children is well-known and widely accepted, as one of the unfortunate side-effects of youth. Adults can be harsh and petty, but unless they’re rich, those people tend to be ostracized or, at the very least, easily avoided. When you have agency, you can control who you interact with. Kids mostly can’t, and are often forced into arbitrary groups. And they clash. We need to get used to it, and we need to do our best to get our kids used to it. Which, like almost everything about raising kids, is easier said than done.
It’s difficult to explain to a five-year-old why one of his friends suddenly decided to start calling him names. Kids don’t have the “benefit” of having been through this already and come out, only to be on the other side, like we do. And that’s a big deal. As much as it sucks when your little guy is horribly mean to you, the fact that you can remember having been horribly mean to your parents is actually reassuring. As painful as it is to be on the receiving end of “I hate you!”, your own experiences as an asshole kid can provide some comfort. You know that you were being irrational and impulsive and that you didn’t really mean it, and thus understand that, odds are, neither does your kid. But children don’t yet have the benefit of that experience.
Selling your bawling child on the idea that kid who hurt his feelings probably didn’t mean it isn’t easy. Nor is the idea that it’s probably going to happen again. “Don’t take it personally,” is a tough thing to explain to someone who takes it personally when the pizza you ordered for dinner doesn’t magically materialize the minute he says the word pizza, and adding, “you’re all little assholes,” isn’t exactly reassuring. But it’s true; because as inevitable as it is that our kids will occasionally be the victim, it’s just as inevitable that at some point they’ll victimize someone themselves.
I know there will be more days when some little punk says something hateful and hurtful to my little guy, and I know there will be more days when my little punk says something hateful and hurtful to me or Mom and Buried. As badly as we want to protect our kids from being victims, we also need to make sure that their hurt feelings don’t boomerang back at someone else.
I’m not yet sure what’s harder, seeing your child get victimized or watching your child be the bully, but while we all eventually get used to the reality of mean girls and boys, I don’t know how a parent ever gets used to the fact that their little girl or boy has actually become one. And that’s the biggest reason we have to soldier on when our kids lash out at us; it’s a perfect opportunity to show them the effect their behavior has, and how hurtful words can be.
Besides, it’s not often you get to cry in your kid’s face. I say, milk that shit!