Rolling with Childish Insults

"I like Daddy better than you."

At first I couldn't believe I'd heard those words come out of my loving son's mouth, and totally out of the blue. Then he said them again, and I was deeply hurt. I knew he had a good daddy, a playful daddy, a daddy who wasn't around as much to nag and yell at him. But I loved him so much and I worked so hard at being the best mother I could possibly be. I was trying to figure out how I could talk myself into being content with (or at least accepting gracefully) the role of second best, when I noticed his face. It looked as if he were waiting for something and a little disappointed at not getting it. All of a sudden, I understood. He was not stating a reality; he was offering a challenge. Was I willing to accept second best?

Having recognized the challenge, I was delighted to rise to it.

"WHAT?!" I roared in great offended outrage, as I approached him with a gleam in my eye. "What did I hear you say?"

He started to laugh and back away, seeing the potential for a very good game.

"I said I liked Daddy best."

"Uh-oh," I said. "You're in big trouble now!"

I ran after him and he ran away, now screaming with laughter. I caught him, scooped him up in my arms, turned him upside down and dumped him into an easy chair.

"What did I hear you say?" I demanded again, putting on the stern, threatening tone of voice.

Ready for more, he repeated the challenge and I repeated the outraged response, with more chasing, catching, throwing and laughing.

When he got tired and changed his tune ("Okay, I really like you best") my response was uncompromising (even though by then I'd gotten all the aerobic and weightlifting I needed for the day). "You'd better be careful; if you say that, you're going to be in big trouble with your daddy."

"Okay, okay, I love you both the same."

I take up the ready-to-attack pose. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, yes," he giggles weakly.

"Well, that's good," I say, dropping into the chair with him and turning into a mommy, "because I love you too." He snuggles in my arms for a minute, then hops off to play, relaxed and happy.

What a narrow miss! What if I'd heard only the words and not the intent? I would have gone around thinking I was a second-rate mom, mad at myself for not doing better, baffled at him for not seeing the depths of my love, resentful of his dad fur usurping my spot. For his part, he would have had to watch the deadly effect on someone he loved of words that had not been meant to hurt, too young to anticipate, much less untangle, such a result.

And all he was trying to do was engage my attention on the issue of our love for each other. He certainly didn't want to have a second-rate mom, or to love one of us best, or have us competing for his love. He was calling out for strong, confident reassurance, not passive acquiescence. It made me realize--once again--how important it is to our children for us to know how good we are.

When I am in touch with the fact that I love him and my love is good, and I'm doing a fine job as his mother, then he can just soak up and enjoy that confidence. It's when I forget or lose track that he starts to wonder, to get worried, to try to check it out. And it's right at those points, of course, that I'm most likely to misinterpret his questions, to let them feed my doubts and insecurities.

It's useful to me to hold in my mind as an unalterable truth--whether I'm in touch with it or even believe it at all at the moment--that I love my children deeply, that they love me and that I'm a good mother. If I can frame any problems that come up, any questions that they raise, in that reality, then whatever else happens, I'll be standing on solid ground with confidence to share.