The good news: Playing parental favorites—”No, Daddy do it!”—is surprisingly common behavior among older toddlers and preschoolers. It’s an equal-opportunity whim too. Either parent is liable to be rejected.
The bad news: It sucks to be the one on the outs!
Rejection is a horrible feeling no matter who’s doing it to you. Being shunned by your adored child can dredge up deep crazy feelings of having been rejected back in third grade or by a past love. For the parent who’s carrying the bulk of child-tending grind, it’s deflating to watch your partner get showered with all the love. Or when it happens to a parent who’s less hands-on or away a lot, being pushed away can intensify feelings of guilt or unhappiness.
The OUCH is real, then. Small consolation: Fortunately, we’re the grownups here.
WHY it happens:
No single thing causes bouts of favoritism—it can be a response to several different things. Your child may be…
- Separating. A toddler gradually discovers his or her identity as an individual separate from mom. It’s typically mom because she tends to be the primary nurturer in infancy, especially for breastfed kids. One way of establishing yourself as your own person is to…branch out! After being connected so tightly with one parent, a child can discover a new fascination with the other. (This is a big reason behind Dad-is-best.)
- Exploring what it means to be a boy, girl, man, woman. At ages 3 and 4, preschoolers are trying to work out big, vague concepts like relationships and gender. They sometimes pick one team over another to study that parent and learn how to be like (and not like) him or her. It’s almost anthropological.
- Drawn to the other parent’s novelty, fun, and excitement. Parents may also have different personalities from each other. To an observant preschooler—whose brain is wired to what’s new or different—one parent’s play-style, sense of humor, or way of doing things might be just a bit more mesmerizing at the moment. They want to copy that parent or do things to gain his or her approval and attention.
- Feeling a little insecure. Kids tend to get more attached to the one they see the most. If they’re feeling sick or stressed by something (a new sibling, a new preschool), they’re apt to revert to all the things that fortify them. Bring on the blankie, the bear, the cuddling…and the primary caregiver. (This is a big reason behind Mom-is-best.)
- Calling for attention. Wanting only Dad, say, to comb hair or read bedtime stories can follow when Mom has been on a trip or working long hours. Preschoolers aren’t conscious of what they’re doing, of course, but the rejecting behavior can be a way of saying to Mom, “I missed you” or “Hey, I need you and I want to see more of you.”
- Just indulging in a little bit of whim. By 3, most kids also declare strong preferences about toys, colors, and food—so why not parents? Preschoolers aren’t very good at understanding how their actions affect others yet. Favoritism is made more of enthusiasm and obliviousness than intentional meanness.
- Remember that rejection is temporary. It’s not a reflection on your parenting skills or likability. Your kid still loves you deeply (even when it doesn’t seem like it). What’s more, it’s because she knows you love her unconditionally that she’s able to feel secure enough to push you away!
- Avoid letting your hurt show. It gives the behavior more power because your child senses your distress and turns all the more to the “in” parent for reassurance and comfort. Act cool, and this phase will pass faster. Likewise, the favored parent shouldn’t play it up or say things like “Uh-oh, we’re making Mommy feel sad!”
- Avoid overindulging the preference. For sure, it’s an ego boost to be #1. If one parent is the go-to for kissing boo-boos or hand-holding on a walk, no harm done. Just don’t let it rule the flow of everyday life. If it’s Mom’s turn to give the bath, Mom gives the bath—even if an ugly tantrum roars through. Neither parent should be expected to provide all the hands-on caring. Giving in too much to favoritism also gives your child unwarranted power that you might come to regret.
- Play back the feelings, but hold firm: “You sound mad that I can’t give you your bath. But I can’t tonight. Mom will do a great job, and I’ll read you a book later.”
- Back each other up. Kids feel most secure when they sense their parents are working in tandem. They can pick up friction like a Geiger counter. It makes them uneasy more than pleased if they sense that one of you is frustrated by being left out while the other is basking in the attention and even encouraging it.
- Pay attention to how you divvy up responsibilities. Is Parent A all sock wrestle, disciplinary softie, and bedtime stories while Parent B is feeding, limit-setting, and toothbrushing? You may be unwittingly setting up a game of good cop, bad cop that feeds favorite-playing. The softie should be sure to play the heavy sometimes, for example.
- Find ways for both parents to have 1:1 time. Simplest way: The favored parent can just disappear for chunks of time. The less-favored parent can also try doing something extra fun with the child—not to set up a “one-upmomship” rivalry but to help remind your child that “Oh, yeah, Mommy is fun too!” Remember the silver lining also: Time to yourself is bliss, especially when you’re the primary caregiver.
- Do stuff together as a family. Having fun together and silly play can make preferences evaporate.
The spotlight comes and goes. But the love is forever.
As disappointing and annoying as “Daddy do it!” (or “I don’t want Daddy!”) can be during these years, the fickleness is fleeting. Kids outgrow the habit—although, as in any relationship, there will be bursts of feeling closer to one parent or the other all the way to adulthood.
Whichever side you fall on at the moment, avoid reading too much into it and focus on the big picture. You love your kid. Your kid loves you. We all just have funny ways of showing it sometimes.