"Mommy, I don't like you," my 2-year old said when I set the unreasonable boundary of insisting he wear his pants to dinner.
I smiled at him. "You don't have to like me, but you do have to wear your pants."
We have this exchange regularly -- I do something that offends him, and he responds with an "I don't like you, Mom" -- but the first time we had it around one of my friends, I noticed her surprise.
"Did he just say he didn't like you?" She asked, a mix of curiosity and horror in her voice.
"Yes, it's his new thing. I think he got it from his older sister." She dropped the subject and so did I.
What I didn't tell her is that I am grateful that my children express their dislike of me to me. They don't have to like me or my decisions, and they certainly don't have to pretend that they do. My relationship with my children is replete with plenty of firm boundaries, such as no hurting other people, saying "please" and "thank you," and no name calling.
But having to like me isn't one of them. And stifling the urge to tell me that they don't like me isn't one either.
I have thought through counter-arguments to this practice.
Don't I want my kids to respect me?
Of course I do, which is why I don't force them to swallow their feelings or words in those moments when they're upset and don't like me. To me, it's not a sign of disrespect to have my children honestly share their opinions about me, even if those opinions are not positive. I don't see honest communication as a barrier to respect. In fact, I think it's essential to the type of respect I want from them. After all, I don't want them to fear me. I believe that it's my job to earn their respect and allowing them to say what they want (or need) to say to me -- even if it's not "nice" -- is precisely how I want to earn their respect.
What if my kids say that to others?
I admit my practice of allowing my kids to tell me they don't like me feels tricky when I think of them taking that habit out into the world. Other children probably don't want to hear that my kids don't like them. Same with teachers and other authority figures they will encounter along the way. But, I'm sticking with this for two reasons. First, with other children, I would prefer my children use their words to express dissatisfaction instead of resorting to other, more physical methods of communication. Second, I expect other adults to set their own boundaries. I have told my children that some people don't want to hear "I don't like you," and that they will have to respect those boundaries. I've made it clear that just because I am willing to hear that they don't like me doesn't mean that other people will welcome that sentiment.
If nothing else, I will be ready when the teenage years descend on my household, because I will probably hear more than my share of "I don't like you" then. I hope I am as open to it then as I am today.