Hey! My kid likes me best. Isn’t that awesome?
Wait. A. Second.
This is actually not awesome. At all.
If you’re the one your kid likes best, I’m sure you get what I’m saying. If you don’t feel me yet, check out this scenario:
It’s nearing bedtime and you’ve spent the day doing all kinds of parenting tasks: preparing and serving meals, brushing teeth, putting on and taking off shoes, providing potty assistance, playing cars, playing superheroes, playing more cars and more superheroes, and so on. You are tired. You say, “Daddy needs to help you get into your pajamas now.” This is met with a flood of tears and screams of “You do it! I want Mommy to do it!!”
Not only is it exhausting, it’s also heartbreaking.
Is there a way to guide children toward being kinder to the parent who is not the “preferred” one? How can we do it without making it into an awkward situation every time?
This has been happening—less so lately, thank goodness—for about two years in my house. Z used to “need” me to do everything for him, and he would rarely include his dad in any conversation or play.
Thankfully, now he will let my husband help him with most things.
The play and the conversation, unfortunately, have not gotten much better unless I’m out of the room. For example, if Josh says something and Z doesn’t quite hear him, Z will say, “Mommy, what did Daddy say?” Like I’m their mediator or something.
Uh, kid, ask your dad. He’s right next to you.
Why might a kid prefer one parent over another?
Well, Google Scholar totally failed me here. I couldn’t find any real, hardcore scientific information about this issue, but I did find some more informal articles with reasonable—if not somewhat obvious—explanations for it. One of the main points made by most authors is that, like most things involving young children, it’s normal, it’s healthy, and it’s a phase.
Primary caregiver: From the beginning, there’s usually one parent who does more of the caregiving. For example, I nursed Z and he refused a bottle for a super long time, so I was pretty much his only source of food. And comfort, for that matter.
In addition to attachment based on feeding patterns, there’s the fact that usually one person is home more often with the kid is home. That was—and still is—me.
One favorite at a time: According to Elissa Sungar, a child development specialist, young children can generally only be truly attached to one parent at a time. She says that they must “find one person who provides the child with ultimate support and trust,” and that this person can switch based on what they need at each life stage.
Closeness to non-favorite: Okay so I’m going to admit I find this one pretty counterintuitive. A child psychologist quoted in this article claims that children might “reject” one parent because they actually feel very secure in their relationship with that parent.
Essentially, kids know that the parent isn’t going anywhere, so they feel free to shun that parent.
Just growing up: Within the same article mentioned in the previous paragraph, a different psychologist notes that this preferential treatment is just part of the growing-up process and is a sign of normal, healthy development.
They are beginning to understand that, by spending more time with only one parent, they can build a bond with that parent. They are flexing their independence muscles and trying to “exert an influence on [their] environment” by (loudly) voicing their preferences.
How can we encourage our kids to be kinder to the other parent?
If you have read any of my other posts, you know that I think developing our children’s social and emotional intelligence is super important and plays a big part in solving many social problems (sharing, apologizing, and tantrums). My feeling is the same about this, but I also think there is more to it.
Honestly, when I try to use my social-emotional tactics on Z in our “playing favorites” situations, it really doesn’t seem like I make much headway.
That doesn’t mean I think it’s useless! I know that he’s absorbing the lessons somewhere deep in his cold little three-year-old heart (kidding, he’s a sweetie!), but he doesn’t show any immediate signs of understanding that his behavior is making his dad (and me) feel sad.
So, yes—let me start this section by going the empathy route. Then I will explain the other things we try to do in our house to encourage Z to be cool with his dad.
Building empathy: I have a quick talk with Z about how his dad feels when he isn’t included in Z’s playtime. I explain that his dad feels sad because he wants to play but Z is not letting him. Then, I usually try to bring it back to how Z feels when his friends at preschool don’t want him to play with them.
Honestly, I’m not sure if he’s at an age where he can really appreciate the connection there. By the time he’s home, his brain is likely not thinking much about what happened five hours earlier, but I think it’s worth discussing anyway, just in case it sparks something.
Then, because it might be helpful, I also explain that it also makes me sad to see his dad feel upset.
Cheerleading: Whenever it’s warranted (and sometimes out of nowhere), I tout my husband’s amazingness. I will talk about how super fun Daddy is, how nice he is, and how much he does for us.
If Josh does something really special (last week he planned a whole day of Z-focused activities, from riding on a train to visiting a train museum), I make absolutely sure Z knows it was Daddy who did it, not me. Daddy is the cool one.
Letting Daddy help: Like any other kid, I suppose, Z has a “default” helper. I try to switch that up when possible. I want Z to know that his dad is comforting, trustworthy, and helpful. If it’s appropriate and if Josh is accessible, I suggest to Z that he let Daddy help with whatever task he’s stuck on.
Giving Daddy the more cherished tasks: Just because it’s the way things went, Josh is often in charge of the not-so-fun stuff in the land of parenting. He has to change diapers, wipe poopy booties, and force the unwilling kid to go from naked to jammies as quickly as possible.
To offset this, we try to also have him do things like read stories occasionally (traditionally a mom-only job in this house), routinely do bath time, and hold him when he gets tired on walks.
I’m sure there’s more we could distribute more evenly, but this is a good start.
Backing off: There are two types of interactions that I purposely try to stay out of.
One—not so fun—is discipline. If Josh is dealing with an unruly little man, I do not step in unless called upon to do so! I am a strong believer in the idea that kids respond well when adults in their lives establish and enforce healthy boundaries.
When Josh has to do time outs or when he is talking to Z about unacceptable behavior, I try to stay far away, so that Z can develop an understanding that we are both loving, stable forces in his life.
The other—way more fun!—is when I hear or see them having a blast.
One of the reasons I fell in love with Josh is that he is such a fun, entertaining guy who is always up for doing things that make life more exciting. I think Z needs to understand that. And he needs to see that his dad is fun with or without me (usually more fun without me, since tend to be a scaredy cat).
If I know that the two of them are doing something fun, I stay away for a while. I want Z to associate those fun times with his dad, so I let them establish whatever it is they’re doing for a long time before I come and join in, if I ever do.
As I said earlier, things have definitely gotten better. It’s been a long road, but I know we are making progress. Whether that’s due to the strategies we’ve used or to the fact that Z is just getting older, who knows.
What I do know is that I’m much less exhausted all the time now, and much happier, since my heart isn’t constantly breaking for my husband.
Have any of you experienced parental preferences? How have you handled it?