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Ask Dr. Sears: Father And Son Bonding

Q  My 3-year-old often rejects help or cuddles from his dad. This is hurtful to all of us, and awkward for me, since my son is very affectionate toward his little brother and me. What can we do?
A Play show and tell. Show dad some ways to increase his "touch time" with his toddler and tell Dad not to take the rejection personally. For the first three years, children usually display a preference for mommy, yet at some time between the ages of 2 and 4, most fun-oriented children associate Dad with play and Mom with caregiving. Let your 3-year-old see a show of affection between both parents. This models for him that people who live together in the same house do a lot of hugging and that hugging is a normal way to communicate with people who care for you.

Set up Dad to succeed. Three-year-olds go back and forth between positive and negative moods. When your child is feeling generally positive, arrange for Dad to take over most of the caregiving. You and your other son should spend some time out of the house to let your husband and 3-year-old have some time by themselves. Once your toddler begins to associate Dad more with caregiving, the cuddles are soon to follow. For a few days, have Dad help to get your child dressed, do the bath and bedtime rituals, and have some fun at the playground. Encourage Dad to spend lots of "holding time" with his son; for example, he should hold the child on his lap while reading to him or watching a ballgame on TV. The child should enjoy Dad's lap too. Frequent father-child outings do wonders for father bonding. Explain to Dad that it takes time to woo children to a change in style of caregiving. Reaffirm to your husband how important he is to your child. Dad's more than a pinch hitter for Mom: The mother-child relationship is not better than the father-child relationship, it's just different.

Children thrive on different relationships. Mothers usually get top billing as the family comforter. It's very common to see a hurt 2-year-old bypass Dad and run right to Mom. Yet comforter comes from the Latin word that means "to give strength." If dads are going to be models of strength, they also need to be models of comforting. Finally, it's important for your husband to model gentleness to his son so that your child (perhaps someone's future husband and father) learns that males can be tender too. It's important that children view their fathers not only as disciplinarians but also as nurturers. The importance of modeling tenderness to children, especially boys, was shown to my wife, Martha, and me one day in a heartwarming situation involving our son Jim, who was a 16-year-old at the time. We were in the kitchen when we heard 9-month-old Erin crying in our bedroom. Upon arriving at the bedroom door, we saw a beautiful sight: There was Jim, our almost grown athlete, lying down next to Erin, stroking her head and consoling her as she stopped crying. We've always modeled to our sons that big people comfort little people, regardless of their gender. Encourage your husband to give his child a nightly back rub as part of the before-bed ritual. This will get your child used to the uniqueness of a father's touch.