My three-year-old is always pushing the boundaries: exploring what's acceptable and what's not; what we'll tolerate and what we won't; whether or not we actually do what we say we're going to do. And when she does go too far—and knows it—she's figured out ways to lessen the impact.
Often, when we're in the middle of yelling at her for something, she'll interrupt to say sweetly, "Mommy (or Daddy), I love you." She's figured out, quite astutely, that the sentiment softens us somewhat...because who can maintain a good righteous indignation in the face of a child's innocent expression of love?
Effective as that strategy may be, it rarely causes a total about-face. Both for continuity purposes—because my husband and I agreed that, as parents, we'd make a real effort to follow through on our promises and warnings—and, let's be honest, because she can be really, really frustrating, I find myself saying, "I love you too, but...," and then continuing with the reprimand. "I love you too, but you can't take things away from your sister like that." "I love you too, but you're not behaving very nicely."
What troubles me, more than the scolding, is the "but". With that qualifier, am I inadvertently teaching her that my love for her is conditional upon better behaviour, being nice, being a "good girl"? If so, what a grave mistake I've made.
My darling girl, you drive me to distraction ten times during the course of the day—sometimes during the course of a single morning. You yell and cry and challenge my authority almost daily, sometimes bringing me to anger or tears, too.
But whatever else you may question in life, know this with absolute certainty: I love you. Unequivocally, irrevocably, unquestioningly, unchangingly. There's nothing I wouldn't do for you, and there's nothing in the world that you could do to change that.
No ifs ands or buts.