When they’re babies, we secretly love that our kids prefer mom. Until we want one night out without a he-won’t-take-a-bottle-from-me phone call from dad.
Sound familiar? It’s natural for kids to bounce between parents much of their childhood, feeling closer to one or the other for different moments, days or even months.
A recent bedtime at our house: Tell mom to come in. No, mom said she would read to me. I can’t go to bed without mom. I need to tell mom something. I’m good at bedtime. I cuddle into meandering conversations and pour on love like a water fountain gone Niagara. In those moments, I’m singularly focused, which is rare — and they know that. Thankfully, so does my husband. He’s able to be grateful that the kids and I still have joy to share at the end of a day, instead of throwing himself a pity party in the hallway. But let’s be honest: It stings, even when I’m-on-Dad’s-team days are just around the corner.
A traveling or deployed parent can find it harder to connect, especially when kids are young. Single parents also can simply have fewer connected hours with their children in which to bond. Parenting pros say kids can subconsciously guard their hearts against the sadness of repeated departures by remaining at arm’s length, and preferring the parent who’s most often at hand.
Sometimes the preferred parent might be the softer disciplinarian or the one who ups the fun factor most consistently. Explore the patterns in your household, but remember that unconditional love is what these moments call for. Keep in mind …
It’s a phase. Strong preference is usually a phase children outgrow.
Preference doesn’t mean rudeness. Encourage kids that a whiny or mean voice isn’t ever an appropriate way to express feelings.
It’s not a child’s job to affirm our worth as adults, says psychologist Ellen Weber Libby, author of The Favorite Child (2010). So don’t let your kids’ reactions dictate your view of yourself in this way.
Talking openly with your spouse — away from little ears — about what’s happening, how you’re both feeling and how you can foster bonds, helps keep feelings of resentment from building up.
It’s not a popularity contest. An outward desire to be preferred can harm your parenting. Your role is to raise little people into quality adults by setting boundaries and administering discipline, not to be most popular.
Stick together. Divide and conquer in family life will often be necessary, whether changing a diaper or attending overlapping soccer games. But don’t default to chopping up the family; strive for full-family togetherness.
Don’t buy things to earn affection. Look for activities to help connect, such as a special game to play or a tradition to share.
My kindergartener recently apologized for wanting dad to pick him up from school.
“I’m sorry, Mom, I’m just really into dad since you were gone forever,” he said. Never mind that “forever” was only three days, broken up with a half day home. But I actually pulled the car over so I could look in his eyes and tell him, “You never have to apologize for loving someone. And you never have to pick a favorite parent, just like I’d never pick a favorite child. There’s plenty of love to go around.”
In her better moments, Susan Besze Wallace can rejoice when her three boys choose dad. After all, she chose him too.