Why it's perfectly natural to dislike other people's children

Screaming and tantrums should be embraced smilingly - if the child is your own.
Screaming and tantrums should be embraced smilingly - if the child is your own. Photo: Getty Images

"Am I being unreasonable to dislike my friend's daughter? She's three."

So asked one poster recently on the massively popular forum Mumsnet - and all hell duly broke loose.

Yes, you are! shouted some. No, you're not! cried others. Hundreds of comments later, the debate remains polarised.

There are those who say that the child's behaviour being complained about - constant screaming and tantrums, the child insisting on being carried even though the mother has a nine-month-old baby to port about as well - falls well within normal parameters of late-toddler-with-recent-younger-sibling conduct and therefore should be embraced smilingly. And there are those who, like me, contend that the only unreasonable thing would be to actually like a friend's screaming three-year-old.

Because, well, I mean - why would you? You most probably don't massively like your own three-year-old when he or she is in meltdown mode. You love him, of course - this is as unalterable as time and this is what stops you from dumping him in the nearest bin as soon as the first wail of the day pierces the air and eardrum. But without the shield of love, other children's tantrums are almost unbearable. Your duty, in such circumstances, is simply not to show your detestation while the child's mother deals with it, tapping into all your reserves of patience, compassion and - if to hand - gin until the storm passes.

A few generous souls went online to say that the Mumsnet user, who went by the name Thebrowntrout, didn't actually dislike the child, just the behaviour, and that that was fine. But then Thebrowntrout came back with (and it was at this point that I really began to warm to her) the response that no, it was definitely the child beneath the behaviour that she didn't like.

Again, why not? Why should people be shocked? Different children have different personalities. They're very like big people, in that respect. Granted, the younger they are, the more generic they are - my friend, a devoted mother of four, says that babies are "just grubs" - because the mastering of basic life skills subsumes most of whatever personality is there for the first few years. However, by three years old you can tell them apart. And then, of course, because you are human and because they are, too, you start preferring some over others, and hoping that some get dropped into that skip instead of entering your purview ever again.

A quick unscientific poll of my circle of friends (the selection bias should be clear from the fact that our drinking motto is "Bad mothers, worse people") reveals that one has to fight her hostility towards her daughter's best friend because "she's just got one of those faces, you know?". Another habitually cancels and clears any calls from one particular friend of her 13-year-old son, if she gets to his phone first ("Because he's horrible. Not bad-influence level horrible, just horrible").

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This dislike of one child over another can even extend to your own children - the biggest of parental taboos. I know one father of twins who has been through agonies over the years because although he loves both his boys equally, he has only ever really properly enjoyed the company of one. "They're different people," he says helplessly. "They just look the same."

I myself have disliked several children over the years. For irritating traits such as spoilt behaviour, conversing always at the top of their voices, and instant recourse to bashing (other) infant heads when things don't go their way, sure, but also on deeper character traits, too. I find the ones who, as one comedienne once put it, persist in discussing the colour of a cement mixer long after one's own interest in the subject has waned particularly trying. These children, let's face it, are the pub bores of the playgroup years and, like their alcoholic equivalents, you really wouldn't invite them into your life if you had a choice.

By the same semi-irrational token, I have liked - nay, adored - several children, including sometimes my own, because ... well, just because. Because our senses of humour meshed. Because of a quizzical look in one's eyes, because of the lugubrious air of another ("How was school today?" I once asked him after he came out of his kindy class. He shook his head wearily and replied: "I've learnt enough"). Because he's indefinably charming, because she's irrepressible. One five-year-old I love because her favoured method of entering a room is to throw open the door and roar in a broad Lancastrian accent: "Right - what's goin' on 'ere then?" 

Being expected to like all your children's friends is absurd. What's next - having to like your friends' husbands? You might, you might not. Their connection with a third party doesn't guarantee or preclude things either way.

The hated Mumsnet poster, however, was further slammed when it emerged that she didn't have children of her own. This, for a certain vocal minority, explained everything. Who are, of course, as wrong as vocal minorities always are. Sometimes, having your own personal experience of toddler horrors helps - you know that it is just a phase, you know the true extent of their volatility, as you were there in the morning when they were laughing at a sock and also there 10 minutes later when they were crying in terror at a sock, and this gives you both perspective and patience.

Or maybe having your own personal experience of toddler horrors does not help at all, because when someone else's starts it triggers post-traumatic flashbacks and you snap immediately. "Where is she?" asks the child's mother when she comes back from the loo. "She's in the bin," you say. "Sorry. Was that unreasonable?"

The Telegraph, London