For toddlers, having a “favorite” parent is second nature. But favoring toddlers can lead to tension in a household. A child who plays favorites can make every day feel like some horrible reality competition. The only thing missing is someone who says, “I didn’t come here to make friends.” But know that like most emotionally destructive child behaviors, this one is completely natural.
As a baby, a child may have smothered one parent over the other because they found the person from whom it was easiest to get things. It’s nobody’s fault. And in fact, both parents are in their child’s broader hierarchy of “people who can get me stuff.” This hierarchy most likely has a deep evolutionary root that allowed our species to thrive. Unfortunately, it’s hard to use “evolution” as a way to feel better.
“A child definitely needs to attach,” explains educational psychologist Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of UnSelfie: Why empathic kids succeed in our all-about-me world. “They usually attach more to and love more the person who is with them the most and with whom they feel the safest.”
When babies become toddlers, the reasons for favoritism change a bit. They claim a newfound independence. And that’s a great thing for a toddler to do. This is what they will end up leaving home in 30 years (probably). However, that doesn’t take away the sting.
Borba returns to the idea of closeness and safety. “Certain parents do certain routines or rituals that seem to work more with a particular child,” she says. “If it resonates and works, the child will be more attracted to that particular parent.”
It is also possible that parents will meet specific emotional needs at different times. Borba notes that it will absolutely shift back and forth as time goes on. The most important thing to remember is that a child is not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings. And in fact, the ability to say “push pops” may just be an indication that they feel so confident with a parent that they aren’t afraid of losing them.
But Borba notes that figuring out the reason for favoritism can be a complex matter. “The best parents dig a little deeper to understand the ‘why’ factor,” says Borba. She notes that favoritism can be linked to a child’s preference for spending time with a certain gender, or an affinity with a unique parental mindset, or the fact that one parent lets them get away with things.
“Instead of being jealous, learn from each other when you see this stuff,” says Borba. “Ask what works and what you need to apply so you can both get the same gains and help the child be the best they can be.”
What to do when a toddler plays favorites
There are a few ways parents can help each other if one of them is being smothered by a toddler. It just takes a little subtle thinning and some good self-talk.
1. Don’t take a toddler’s favoritism personally
Serious. Parents are dealing with a new person who is not particularly emotionally sophisticated. They have only been on the planet for a few years. “It’s a long way developmentally,” says Borba. “Children will change just as parents will change.” She adds that the favorite today may not be the favorite tomorrow. And remember that it is not your child’s job to make you feel good about yourself.
2. Get in or get out
Favoriteness can easily be tied to the amount of relative time a parent spends with a child, Boba explains. She notes that this can be common in dual-earner households where work schedules don’t match sleep schedules. The solution is to let the favored parent leave the unfavorable parent for some good times of one-on-one bonding.
It also works if the new parent gets into the game as much as possible. They can do things like take a child on errands, go get ice cream or hang out. All of this builds a case for being a good choice. There’s a nice bonus if that time is tied to the favorite parent getting out on their own to do things like cut her or drink beer with a pal.
3. Communicate regularly with your toddler
Borba notes that one of the biggest issues in favoritism comes when the disfavored parent gets a chip on their shoulder. “Resentment can build,” she says. “And we don’t realize that that resentment can spill over to the child.” Instead of letting it eat away at you, Borba says that parents should have real conversations. This can be during date night, or in the evening when the child is sleeping. But either way, the conversation should take place calmly.
4. Divide discipline between mother and father
Dads who have ridden the fun-dad wave and avoided the tough talks need to do their part. Having one bad guy in the house is not good for anyone. A united discipline front shared between you and your partner can help your child spread the cuddle wealth.
“What often happens is that the child will favor the parent who is more lenient and calm,” says Borba. “The bottom line is that if you’re on the same page about discipline and strategy, not only will you get faster results in turning the behavior around, you’re less likely to hold grudges. It’s better for the child.”
5. Don’t push your toddler
Being demanding, or pushing back against toddler nagging, can actually make the situation worse. Instead, parents should reaffirm their love for their child. It’s all about parents letting the child know that they are available for them no matter what.
“It’s better to find out what works for the child and how they react,” says Borba. “Find relaxed pleasure time with the child and you will build a healthier relationship. It’s child-driven. Not parent-driven.”
Of course, all of this can do little to lessen the reality competition that parents feel on a day-to-day basis. But Borba points out that parents should be happy their child is attached to a parent at all. “See it as positive that the child is self-confident, the child feels safe and realizes that your turn will also come.”
How to deal with toddler favoritism
- Never push back on toddler sticks. Rather, affirm your love for the child.
- Don’t get jealous if your toddler prefers your partner.
- Never take your child’s parenting preference as a personal attack. Resentment can build up and spill over to the child.
- Explain to your partner how you feel when you are rejected by the child.
- Plan for the privileged parent to take some time away so that the non-privileged parent can connect one-on-one with the child.
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