When it comes to parenting, the division of labour is necessary. But what happens when your little one makes a big noise about which parent they prefer to do the job? Ciska Thurman sheds some light
Abby thinks Mom is better at doing a ballerina bun and puts up a big fight when Daddy tries. Thabo only wants Daddy to lie with him after waking from a bad dream in the middle of the night. And Janice sobs for Mommy to ‘help me!’ when Dad says ‘no’ to a sweet treat.
Should all of these requests be humoured? And should parents present a united front, or one that considers circumstance as well as age?
‘It can become upsetting for a parent when a child, of whatever age, shows an obvious preference for the other parent. There could by many reasons for this and, when it is appropriately handled by the parents, the situation can actually be easily overcome,’ says Anne Cawood, social worker and author of the Boundaries parenting books.
She outlines four potential origins of a child feeling inclined towards one parent.
Temperament A child can be drawn to a parent with whom they identify temperamentally. Equally, similar interests (such as art or sport) may create a bond. But sometimes, opposites attract – a shy, introverted child may just prefer being with the outgoing, extroverted parent.
Development Babies and toddlers – in fact, children up to about six years old – may feel more strongly attached to their mothers. This is normal: the maternal bond is the first and the most crucial bond for developing children. It is essential for establishing basic trust and will stand children in good stead for future stages and relationships. As children grow older, often the paternal bond becomes stronger and Dad can quickly become the favoured parent. In many instances, the father is perceived as the more fun parent, who offers active and exciting opportunities.
Obtainability Children also crave attention from a parent who is less available. If Mom is accessible all day, Dad becomes the favoured one when he gets home. Similarly, the little one of a working mother may push their father away in the evening to get a bit more time with their mom.
Change Separation, divorce or the addition of a new sibling can also upset a child’s sense of security. One parent consciously setting out to alienate their child against the other may well result in parental preference. Likewise, a new baby and the infant-parent bond that plays out in front of older children may cause them to actively pursue Mom and ignore Dad.
‘Children tend to gravitate towards the parent who makes them feel emotionally safer,’ says Anne. ‘Their “radar”, which helps them to assess when their world is emotionally and physically safe, will respond when a parent is overly judgemental, harsh, punitive or critical – and they will quickly pull away.
‘A child feels understood by and close to a parent who truly listens, is dependable and shows empathy,’ says Anne.
The partiality approach
Parenting constantly presents us with opportunities for personal growth, and accepting the ups and downs of your children having preferences is a prime example. ‘Being a parent is not a popularity contest – but it certainly is an opportunity to develop empathy and true understanding of childhood stages and varying needs,’ says Anne Cawood, a social worker and author. She also offers the following practical pointers to deal with children of all ages and stages:
Decode the message, and don’t take it personally When your toddler is upset and shouts ‘No! Not you … want Daddy!’, calmly translate their message into, ‘I know you want Daddy, but he is busy and I need to put you in the bath.’ Try to be mature about it, and don’t take the seeming rejection too personally. The preference will almost certainly begin to dissipate slowly.
Develop empathy – balanced with firmness Don’t fall into the trap of being overindulgent (children can start to manipulate the situation). Sometimes a parent may encourage the popularity, and then slowly disempower the other parent: ‘I have to lie with her at night – she only wants me and becomes furious if her dad puts her to bed’.
This is where a balance of firmness is needed: ‘I know you want me to lie with you, but your dad is coming to read to you now’. You should never actively facilitate a child’s preference. When a child shares negative feelings about the other parent, it’s important to show empathy, while remaining objective: ‘I can see you’re upset with your mom, but I don’t want to hear you saying such unkind things’.