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Fickle Affections

When my husband, Taylor, and I planned a beach vacation in Florida last spring with our 18-month-old daughter, Anna, we knew exactly what we wanted. We pictured long days frolicking together in the surf, playing in the pool, walking hand in hand  -- just the three of us. But Anna had a completely different idea. She apparently envisioned lots of time riding around in Mommy's arms, playing with Mommy, sitting with Mommy  -- and, well, being with Mommy all the time. What's more, she really didn't want an intrusive daddy hanging around to mess up the mix.

I'd never wanted to be the sole object of my daughter's affection. In fact, during Anna's first year, she went easily from me to Taylor and back again. And then it all changed. A week before our vacation, I told Anna her dad was home from work and she jumped into my arms. When he tried to remove her for a hug, she reached out and hit her doting daddy in the face.

No matter how even-handed you try to be in your parenting, it isn't unusual for a child to literally drop one of you at certain times as she navigates her way from toddlerhood to grade school. These rapid switches will often catch you by surprise  -- and, when it comes right down to it, hurt your feelings too. But a child's pattern of shifting alliances is normal, and marked throughout these years with distinct phases.

Barbara Rowley, who lives in Montana, is currently writing a book on activities for babies.

A Need for Security

In Anna's case, her mommy preference was part of the process of forming a primary attachment, which experts say is necessary for emotional health and usually occurs with the parent who's more involved in the day-to-day care, even if both work. (Perfectly equal attachment to both parents is possible but rare.) This process almost always takes place between 1 and 3 years of age, and often reaches its peak at about 18 months  -- exactly when we went to Florida for our vacation.

During this early attachment phase, both parents should try to remember that preferring one parent isn't the same thing as loving that parent more, says Sarah Pierce, Ph.D., a professor and researcher in parent-child relationships at Louisiana State University. "Attachment isn't love," says Pierce. "The child just depends on one parent more than the other. This is about the child's need for security."

Dealing with a sudden change in your status takes patience and an understanding of a toddler's truly different way of thinking. Adults are accustomed to a certain cause-and-effect logic in their relationships, but logic plays no part in the mind of a toddler, whose passionate likes and dislikes often have nothing to do with your recent loss of patience or your husband's greater talent for impersonating a tickle monster.

So what should the out-of-favor parent do? First, don't blow things out of proportion, says Robert Pianta, Ph.D., a professor of education at the University of Virginia: "Try not to overinterpret or feel rejected. Even when a child is very much connected with one parent, you shouldn't assume the child prefers everything that parent does."

In other words, don't withdraw from the entire bedtime routine just because your toddler wants your husband to read him stories. Perhaps you can bathe your child or fetch the last drink of water. In fact, it's important that both parents be available to help each other  -- even if this means going against your child's current preferences. After all, it's difficult to be shunned, but it's exhausting to be the one to whom the child turns for every need. To keep both parents in the game, the favored parent has to give himself a break and pass the toddler over.

This isn't always as easy as it sounds. No one likes to hand off (or be on the receiving end of) a screaming child. If possible, the nonpreferred parent can try finding certain activities that the child will enjoy doing with her (and her alone) on a regular basis. If these activities involve chores, so much the better.

In my house, Anna has always watered the plants and changed the water in the fish tank with her dad  -- no matter how mommy-attached she was feeling. And when she didn't want to do anything but sit and read books with me, my husband took over such chores as the dishes and laundry.

Sometimes, though, Taylor just took Anna whether she was screaming or not. (Besides, she finally stopped crying when I left her sight.) But even though handing over a howling toddler is fine when one parent is just too exhausted, you should avoid forcing your child to spend more time with your mate just so you can spare that parent's feelings or because you want the burden of childcare to be equal, says Pierce. "It won't work, and it won't help a child who is simply trying to develop an attachment to you," she says.

The Age of Manipulation

Once a preschooler has established her attachments, new issues arise. As early as age 3, she's beginning to know enough about her mom or dad to sense who will assent to what. This is also the time when a child tests the limits of parental love. "This is the age when kids often say, 'I hate you,' and that they like their other parent better," says Fran Litman, director of the center for parenting studies at Wheelock College, in Boston. "When this happens, it's important not to placate a child to gain favor, and not to yell back or tell the child that they have to like you."

Parents also need to be careful to leave their childhood baggage out of these debates. If you didn't get along with one (or both) of your parents, you may be tempted to believe that history is repeating itself when you hear your preschooler say negative things about you. "It's easy to fear your child is going to hate you forever, and that you have to nip this behavior in the bud," says Litman. "Rather than tell her that she can't or shouldn't feel this way, just acknowledge her feelings for what they are  -- usually anger or frustration  -- and move on without further discussion."

During these testing times, parents also need to listen to each other. One parent may be unconsciously giving in to blatant manipulation, and the other may be the only one who notices. Parents should also listen to their intuition. "If you feel like you are trying to please your child all the time, you probably are," says Darlene Hoffman, Ph.D., chair of the education department at Millikin University, in Illinois. "And if at any time you begin to feel as if the relationship with the child is taking precedence, you need to remind yourself that the relationship with your mate is the primary one."

Trying on Roles

Seeing our kids imitate us is flattering, and more than a little charming. So when your son switches from imitating you to imitating his father, for example, it can feel like rejection. Children usually begin to understand their gender and identify with their same-sex parent anywhere from age 3 to 5, and experts agree the process plays a role in how a child relates to both parents.

This is when you may see boys walk, talk, and act like their dad and girls perform equally refined imitations of their mom. In some cases, as a youngster concentrates intensely on one parent, he tends to dismiss the opposite-sex parent. "It's kind of like 'we're boys' together or 'we're girls' together  -- stay away. You can't tell us what to do," says Hoffman.

Later on, it may reverse. As kids identify with the same-sex parent, they may eventually begin to seem as if they are competing with them for the affection of the opposite-sex parent. (See "Will You Marry Me, Mommy?") Once again, the trick is not to take this stage personally or to see such intense focus on your partner as permanent. A child may switch from imitating his father to copying his mother and back again several times during these years.

It is also important that parents, relatives, and friends not begin to reinforce what is probably a temporary stage by broadly labeling a child's behavior. "Calling a child a mommy's girl or a daddy's boy isn't helpful, and it often isn't accurate," says Litman. "These kinds of slogans just add to a child's confusion in figuring out his identity. Because ultimately, kids aren't just like their dad, or they don't only want to hang on to their mommy's skirts. They are individuals with different temperaments and preferences."

Of course, some comparisons are almost inevitable  -- and they're perfectly acceptable as long as they are specific and positive. Telling a child he's a good reader like his mom or a talented artist like his dad is often a helpful way of building a child's self-esteem and supporting family relationships at the same time. And this should be a primary goal in every family, says Jay Belsky, Ph.D., professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University, who suggests thinking of your child's relationship with each of you as separate investments: "Sometimes one is up, sometimes the other--and sometimes they're both paying dividends."

Love's Not Quantifiable

As with any long-term investment, it's best not to pay too much attention to how high your particular stock is with your child at any given moment. And, says Belsky, try to not be overly concerned with comparing it with your partner's. "Thinking of a child's love in terms of equal is the wrong notion  -- love isn't quantifiable. What's more, mothers and fathers don't offer the same thing. You don't ask if the Mexican restaurant is as good as the Italian one  -- by offering different things, both can be good for what they are."

The best course is to concentrate on enriching your relationship with your child while accepting that you and your partner's efforts may not be immediately rewarded. "Lots of times, it isn't fair. You may be the parent who is giving most of the day-to-day care, and the other parent may be lavished with affection immediately upon arriving at the door. It's easy to get jealous of each other," says Belsky.

But it's also an indulgence. When both parents are more involved in raising a child, there are bound to be more challenges  -- and more opportunities for rewards. After a month or two of what we have come to call Anna's Mommy Madness, Anna stopped screaming in anger when Taylor picked her up and started screaming with joy. At the ripe old age of 2, she now gives a kiss to Mom, a kiss to Dad, and then insists on a family hug. It's a ritual we all cherish. "We know that having a sense that two people are invested in their child is a really good thing," says the University of Virginia's Pianta. "And the more ways that this investment can be expressed and experienced, the better."