Dear Rachel,

My four-year-old daughter calls herself “Miss Grumpy Toes,” and we all think it fits perfectly! She hates to be told what to do. No matter how reasonable my instructions and requests are, my daughter gets mad. For example, the other day Miss Grumpy Toes was being rough with the baby. Of course, I told her to stop doing what she was doing. She turned around, folded her arms across her chest and marched off, frowning. As she passed by me, she said, “I DON’T LIKE YOU.” This is typical behavior for her. She always tells me she doesn’t like me when I tell her what to do. I have no idea how to handle this. Usually, I just look at her dumbfounded!

What should I do?

Mother of Miss Grumpy Toes

Dear Mother,

At least the youngster is honest. And she seems to have no difficulty in expressing her feelings! However, you are right to be concerned. For two very good reasons, a child is not allowed to say unkind words to a parent. The first reason is G‑d’s command to honor and respect parents. Even a four-year-old has to be prevented from behaving in an insulting or otherwise disrespectful way toward a parent. Allowing a child to be rude to a parent is like TRAINING her to disrespectful; every time the child engages in disrespectful behavior, the “disrespectful wire” grows bigger in her brain. Practice makes perfect, and soon verbal abuse will roll off the tip of her tongue just as surely as a song spins off the tips of the fingers of a seasoned pianist. With repetition, a behavior becomes a trait, and so a child who behaves disrespectfully again and again becomes, Heaven forbid, a disrespectful child. Not cool.

Beyond the injunction to honor one’s parents, the Torah places extreme value on interpersonal relationships. Bottom line, as Hillel said, we are not to do to others that which we don’t want done to us. A child must be helped to acquire this sensitivity, to become compassionate, kind, humble, appreciative and caring. Parents need to inculcate these traits both by their example and by their teachings. Impulsive, arrogant, insensitive, egotistical pre-schoolers (who are, by the way, normal at this point in their development) need to be gently educated (for the next twenty years) until they become more refined. Parents cannot just stand by and wait for their youngsters to mature. In fact, the Talmud explicitly warns parents not to ignore the misbehavior of their youngsters in the hopes that it will vanish on its own. Rather, parents are meant to intervene and do their best to guide the development of their youngsters.

So what should you say when Miss Grumpy Toes defiantly announces, “I DON’T LIKE YOU”? You should take the opportunity to help her build a feeling vocabulary. This is a body of words with which one respectfully, yet honestly, communicates one’s emotions to another person. You do this by naming your daughter’s feelings for her. For example, you can say, “I know you don’t like Mommy to tell you what to do,” or “I know you’re upset with Mommy right now.” That’s ALL you have to say for now. (If the child were older, further teaching could occur AFTER the child had completely calmed down.) Eventually, little Miss Grumpy Toes will be able to say to you (and others), “I don’t like when you to tell me what to do” or “I’m mad at you.” The honest expression of feelings will replace insults, name-calling and other disrespectful ways of conveying negative emotion.

If you would just say, “DON’T SPEAK LIKE THAT TO MOMMY!” or “DON”T BE RUDE TO ME YOUNG LADY!” you would simply be doing exactly what your daughter is doing—speaking hurtfully and disrespectfully when feeling upset. Instead of teaching your daughter how to express her feelings by naming them, instead of helping her feel heard, understood, cared for and respected, you would be alienating the child and harming the relationship. When you name your child’s feelings, you help guide her into her inner world. You help build emotional intelligence, an attribute that allows for greater self-knowledge, increased empathy, improved relationships and better behavior. It will take a lot of patience on your part, because children acquire their wisdom slowly. Still, helping them get started on the road to personal greatness is a parent’s privilege and greatest joy. Keeping the big parenting goal in mind in all the small moments is what makes it all work.