Our son Henry has always been a daddy’s boy. As of late, however, his preference for me has reached extremes. If I’m not home to take him to the bathroom, get his breakfast, or brush his teeth, his day is completely ruined and he breaks down into tears. It’s fun, and flattering, to have a toddler helicopter circling you all the time. But it gets old fast. It is also a source of tension for everyone else at home as Henry demands all my time and attention and spurns any overture by Lizzy to maintain a relationship.
Apparently, Henry’s preference of dad over mom is not an uncommon characteristic of toddlers. It seems a little manipulative to me, though, and there are some who back me up on that. In reality, however, a child favoring one parent over the other is a developmental stage through which everyone passes. Remember, it takes 25 years for the human brain to fully develop. As they grow, kids deal with a lot in a period of only a few years. Preferring one parent over the other is only natural as they make sense of their world.
So when your toddler has one parent wrapped around his little finger and the other parent relegated to the sidelines, how should you react?
Remember You’re the Parent.
For starters, remember that you’re the parent. Kids have a lot to teach us, and sometimes, being more like your child can make you a better person. It’s important to remember, though, that your kids crave your leadership and constancy. When your 3 year old insists on clinging to your spouse and won’t pay you the time of day, mirroring her behavior is nothing but destructive. You don’t want any negative feelings you have toward your child to influence how you treat her.
Don’t avoid your child simply because she’s attempting to avoid you. Don’t let your child know you’re hurt. Instead, put yourself in your child’s path at every opportunity. Rather than withdrawing, act the adult, and try being with your child more, not less.
Communicate With Your Spouse.
Make sure you’re communicating with your spouse. While communicating with your child will be hard, communicating with your spouse is essential in working through a child’s preference for one of you over the other. Brainstorm ways the two of you can work together to help your child through this stage.
For example, is one of you always the rule enforcer while the other is all fun? Make sure you put up a united front when it comes to discipline. And remember to create opportunities for whichever one of you is not preferred to interact positively with your child.
Communicating with your spouse is also essential to your well-being. Does your spouse realize you’re hurt by your child’s clear preference? Going for a long stretch without feeling the love from your child can be depressing. Ask your spouse for extra support and understanding while you work through this phase with your child.
Work in Tandem to Eliminate Preference.
Communicating with your spouse will also allow you to work together in diminishing your child’s favoritism. Whichever parent is on the in with the child wields a huge amount of influence and sway over the way your child behaves. If you’re the parent on the in, make sure to show extra affection, in front of your child, to your spouse on the outs. Tell funny stories about your spouse to your child. And look for opportunities to participate in activities with your spouse. If bed-time routine is too difficult to disrupt, maybe take a walk or a bike ride before bed, and make sure you’re both there to interact with your child.
Raising kids is not a competition. If your child prefers you over your spouse, remember that the tables could turn any day. If you’re the favorite parent, don’t revel in the extra snuggle time you’re getting each day. Instead, encourage your child to include both of you as often as possible.
Create Daily Traditions.
Too many of us think of traditions as time consuming acts that require preparation and creativity. In reality, though, a tradition should be small, simple, and easily repeatable. Both Mom and Dad should develop daily traditions of their own with their kids. It’s through these traditions that kids of all ages connect with their parents.
In our home, I get the kids up every morning for a breakfast of oatmeal. That one simple act is a defining moment each day as we connect with each other after a night apart, talk about bad dreams, and make plans for the day. We talk and laugh and reconnect, all in a matter of a few minutes.
Don’t underestimate the power of spending time with your kids, even in the most simple of ways. If you’re not the favorite parent, develop a tradition with your child and make sure to interact consistently with him each day separate and apart from your spouse. Go outside each morning and look for bugs. Or look for the moon each night. Get an ice cream cone together at McDonald’s. Creating a daily ritual with your child ensures enjoyable interaction, even if it’s only minimal to begin with.
Be Willing to Say “No” When Your Child Shows Preference.
This is especially important if you are the preferred parent. Be willing to bow out of doing something with your child to give your spouse the opportunity. If your son wants you to buckle him into the car, consider telling him, “No, Mommy will do it.” Saying “no” will teach your child it’s ok that routine is sometimes broken.
Be careful, though. Remember, it’s natural for your child to prefer one parent over the other. Saying “no” too often can be frustrating to a child, and can often feel like punishment. Pick your battles and be wise in how you limit your interactions.
Humility used to be a virtue in our world. Though that’s not the case anymore, try making it a virtue in your home. Recognize the reasons your child might favor your spouse, and be willing to change your behavior. Are you shouting frequently? Try toning it down. Are you on the constantly scrolling through social media? Try putting the phone away.
If you’re not a part of the parent-child clique, don’t be afraid to model some of your spouse’s behavior as you spend time with your child. It’s even ok to ask your spouse for advice on ways you could improve your relationship with your child.
And if you are your child’s favorite, resist the urge to coach from the sidelines. When your spouse is with your kid, let it happen without critique.
Don’t Conflate Preference With Love.
Though your child’s favoritism can be hurtful, remember it’s also natural. “Preference” does not equal “love.” If your child prefers your spouse, be grateful for your spouse and wait for the stage to pass. Make sure your child knows you’re there for him, and show your love at every opportunity. Most likely, his preference for your spouse will be short-lived. And you’ll be happy you never let his behavior get the best of you.
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