Barbara F. Meltz writes the Globe's Child Caring column. She is author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes, Understanding How Your Children See the World," and a frequent speaker to parent groups. Join her chat on the first and third Monday of the month at noon.
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Does your 3-year-old like daddy more than mommy?
Children play favorites, that's a fact. But probably not for the reasons you think.
The Boston Globe
July 17, 2003
CHILD CARING /BARBARA F. MELTZ;
As a child psychologist at Children's Hospital, Marcus F. Cherry may be better able than most fathers to shrug it off when his almost-3-year-old son, Alex, insists, "Mommy! Mommy! No Daddy!"
As a father, he admits, "It can be excrutiatingly painful."
Showing preference for one parent is something children do throughout childhood as they struggle to understand more about the complexities of relationships and about themselves. It's normal behavior, but that doesn't make it easy for any parent to live through, even when you are the one in demand.
"It's very flattering," says Cherry's wife, Christine. "It also can be very overwhelming."
For one thing, she says, it can be exhausting to always be the one Alex wants, especially at the end of a long day when baby Alaina, who turns 1 today, also wants Mommy. For another, the tables could turn at any moment.
Whether you are the parent who is "in" or the one who's "out," whether you're feeling pummelled or pumped up with your child's love, your response matters. Children of all ages need to hear that our love is unconditional, says developmental psychologist Pamela Cole of Penn State University.
By preferring one parent to another, at some level a child is asking, "If I'm not paying attention to you right now, if I'm unkind or dismissive or downright mean to you, will you still be there for me?"
Whether they are 3 or 13, the answer they need is yes.
Although it may feel as if a child is playing favorites, the shift from one parent to another rarely is intentional and almost never reflects a true loss of love or serves as a commentary on the quality of your relationship. Shifts most likely reflect emotional and cognitive development:
This doesn't mean the non-preferred parent needs to copy the other parent's every move; babies can tolerate differences. "It means the other parent needs to spend more time with a baby so you become familiar, too," she says.
Toddlers' preferences almost always are fueled by the need to assert independence, exert control over the world, and maintain predictability, all at the same time. Child psychologist Edward Christophersen of Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City remembers when his son, Hunter, was 3 and Christophersen was about to wash his hair. "I wanted to do it in the sink, but his mother always did it in the tub," he says. Hunter wanted none of it.
Christophersen could have acquiesced or his wife, hearing the fuss, could have come in and taken over. Once in a while, and especially if a tantrum is extreme, that's OK. A steady habit of it, however, amounts to a rescue in a child's eyes and reinforces the thinking that only Mommy can do this.
With a child's magical thinking, that easily translates to, "Mommy loves me more, so I love Mommy more."
Chistophersen didn't back down. He knew Hunter's protests were his way of saying Daddy's way was different and therefore wrong, not a measure of his love. So how did he convince Hunter to let him wash his hair in the sink? "We got through it because I didn't broadcast my anxiety," Christophersen says. He proceeded gently, matter-of-factly, acknowledging to his son that, yes, Mommy washes hair in the tub, Daddy washes it in the sink, and next time it will be Mom's turn. Christophersen is author of "Parenting that Works, Building Skills that Last A Lifetime" (APA Books).
In the preschool years, a child may prefer the same-sex parent because that parent is a model for what it means to be a boy or girl, says parent educator and consultant Doris Blazer, professor emeritus at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. Similarly, they may ascribe sexist roles to parents and get stuck in a cognitive rut: Only Mom can comfort me when I fall because that's what moms do.
Cole says it's not unusual for a preschooler to blurt out, "I love Daddy more than you." If you can see where this is coming from - you've just set a limit he's unhappy with - a good response might be, "I know you're not happy with me right now. That's OK. I still love you, even when you don't feel like you love me." If the statement seems to come out of nowhere, Cherry might say, "Sometimes it feels like we love one person more than another. You know what? No matter what, I always love you."
As hurt as you may feel, avoid reacting in anger ("Well, I don't want to read to you anyway!") or telling a young child he has hurt your feelings. While it is important for children to learn that words can hurt, this is a message to convey after the fact, when both of you are feeling less vulnerable.
School-age children have long figured out that buttering up one parent sometimes gets them what they can't get from the other. This is usually transparent enough that parents know to stand united in response, says Cherry. What's less obvious and not so intentional is when a child develops a preference based on shared interests or an intangible affinity. That can leave the other parent feeling very left out.
Blazer suggests creating a routine together around some mutually enjoyable activity. At the same time, the favored parent can gently try to include the other parent: "I think Daddy would really like this book. Let's invite him to read with us."
Sometimes what a child may express is not that he loves you more, but that he loves his other parent less. One reader, in a recent e-mail, said her 7 1/2-year-old son told her, "I don't think I have room in my heart to love Daddy as much as you." She wrote, "This would break my husband's heart if he knew."
At any given moment, a child can have a swelling of emotion, an overwhelming, overpowering feeling of love for one parent and then feel guilty for having it, says Cherry. His response would be simply, "I love you very much too, and you know what? So does your dad."
Cole says children this age may not understand that love is not finite or that it is possible to love different people in different ways. She might say, "It's OK to love people differently. I bet you have a different kind of loving feeling for Grandma, too."
Through the middle school years, preferences may flop back and forth, often as a function of which parent a child perceives is more tuned in to him or can teach a skill he wants to master.
With any age child, the worst response is to shut down. "Don't take this personally," insists Cole.
Almost always, there is some way to re-gain a foothold. Cherry found it in steak and cheese sandwiches. Sometimes when he and Alex bring them home, Alex won't even share with Mom.
Sidebasr: Bring out-of-favor parent in from the cold
1 While the times when one parent can do no wrong and the other no right can last for long periods of time (up to the toddler years), a preference should never mean that a child can't tolerate the other parent at all. If a child is openly hostile or negative, or can't bounce back when he is with you, seek professional advice.
2 The favored parent can ease the way for the out-of-favor parent by arranging an activity ("Why don't you and Daddy go to the playground?"); taking turns ("It's Mom's turn now; it will be my turn next time."); showing support ("Did you know Mom is just as good a reader as I am?"
3 When you can see that something specific annoys your child about a parent (Daddy isn't fun because he always wins), let your spouse know in a supportive way ("I can see how much this hurts you.") but also talk to your child ("I can see it hurts Daddy's feelings that you don't want to play with him. What would make it more fun for you? Is there a way we can tell Daddy?"). This is also a better way to teach empathy than for the parent who is hurt to say so directly; that can be too threatening.
4 Initially, children generally are not trying to pit one parent against the other, but they will be quick to pick up on that and use it to their advantage if parents allow it to happen.
5 A parent should never force his or her presence on a child. Rather than let it come to that, back off gracefully ("I hope it will be my turn next time.") and try again another time.
6 In the school-age years, a child who has traditionally had more in common with one parent may now prefer the other as a way to buffer herself from the intensity of the relationship.
7 It's OK to comment on a child's preference ("I can see you really enjoy spending time with Daddy these days."), but it's not healthy to blame a child for your hurt feelings or force him to choose between you ("You're making me feel really bad. Don't you love me as much as Mom?"). Go with the flow and know that unless there is some serious relationship problem, children love both their parents.
8 In most circumstances, be careful not to buy into it when your child tells you, "Don't tell mommy! or 'Don't tell daddy!" It can subtly reinforce that it's OK to exclude the other parent. Some possible answers include, "I can't promise that;" "In our family, we don't believe in secrets like that between mommy and daddy."