“No—Daddy reads to me!” Tamisa exclaims when her mom, Audra, plops down beside her, eager to start the bedtime book. Audra, hurt, pleads: “But it’s mommy’s turn and I love reading books with you.” Tamisa responds: “I want daddy!!” Audra slams the book on the floor as she says, “You’re making mommy very sad.” She promptly exits the room as she is shouting to dad that Tamisa is all his.
Playing parental favorites, while very painful for the parent who is experiencing the rejection, is actually quite common. It’s almost always situational, not personal. Some children forge a fierce attachment to the parent who is acting as the primary caregiver—the one doing most of the diapering, feeding, bathing, and comforting. It doesn’t happen solely in families with a stay-at-home parent, but usually occurs when one parent shoulders the bulk of the caregiving responsibility. Children may make a strong association about who they feel safe with and trust and glom on to that person exclusively, even if the other parent is very loving and involved. Sometimes it’s the opposite, the parent who is less available becomes special in the child’s mind and so the child demands to have that parent to herself. It is also common for a child to favor one parent over the other after the birth of a new baby. In some cases, the older child comes to rely more heavily on the parent who hasn’t given birth, whom they perceive as more available. Other times it’s the converse, the child clings to the parent who gave birth as a result of the jealousy she feels about the attention the new baby is getting. And sometimes the genesis of the preference is unclear, but it is usually a way to cope with a complex or challenging experience the child is trying to manage.
Regardless of the reason for the preference, it is important for your child’s healthy development (and for a healthy marriage or partnership!) that she develop a close, trusting relationship with both parents. (For single parents, this same favoritism dynamic can occur with other trusted caregivers.) It is also important that she not be in a position to decide who does what when it comes to parenting. So, what can you do?
Don’t react to your child’s rejection, as hard as that may seem. It’s not personal and does not mean he loves one parent more than the other. If you take it personally, you are more likely to respond with hurt and anger, which may perpetuate the preference. Further, when you act defensively it is confusing and overwhelming to your child, since this is not his intention, and can further complicate his ability to move through this phase.
Validate your child’s feelings, but don’t give in to her demands. “I know grandma lets you have 2 cookies after dinner, but my rule is 1 cookie. Grownups sometimes have different rules.” Or, “I know you want daddy to read tonight. But it’s mommy’s turn and I love reading books with you. Your choice is for mommy to read or to just go to sleep. You decide.” Another options is to just go ahead and start reading. Showing your child with your actions that you are not going to get into a debate will often lead to acceptance and adaptation. Your tone should be totally upbeat and matter-of-fact, not tinged with hurt or annoyance. You are setting a limit— showing your child that you acknowledge her desire, but also that she is not the decider when it comes to parenting.
Agree to work as a team to show your child you are united and supportive of each other. The preferred parent needs to send the message to the child that he will not participate in the favoritism. In the case above, that would mean Dad not stepping in to read after the rejection of Mom, but instead, lovingly confirm that it’s Mom’s turn. This is critical because your child will look to the preferred parent for cues about how to respond, so that parent’s reaction is especially important.
Create opportunities for the rejected parent to have special time with the child. This provides a chance for the her to reframe her relationship with that parent. If the child protests and cries when the preferred parent leaves, the remaining parent should validate the child’s feelings and then just start engaging in an activity he enjoys. “I know you are sad to see daddy leave. He’ll be back after your nap. I am going to play with the trains. I hope you’ll join me soon.”
Consistently responding to these kinds of situations in this sensitive way will enable your child to work it through and benefit from a loving, close relationship with both his parents.