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Reality Check: Parental Obsession

Q. Henry, our 3-year-old, has started to be mean to his father and wants me to do everything. How do we get through this?

Personally, I enjoyed this phase. When our two girls went through a similar preference period, the object of their obsession was my husband, and I actually found it a relief to have Fred thrust into the role of Most Wanted Parent. Sure, there was a little ego bruising ("I want Daddy to sing. Daddy sings better!"), but I also got to read the entire food section of the newspaper without interruption.

If it's any comfort, your son is perfectly normal. "It's extremely common for three-year-olds to show a preference for one parent -- especially the parent of the opposite sex," says Parenting contributing editor Marianne Neifert, M.D. But no matter which of you is the parent du jour, it can be exhausting for the chosen and a blow to the rejected.

The best thing you can do: Act cool. Otherwise, cautions Dr. Neifert, "it could take on a life of its own," and a perfectly normal three- to six-month phase could be prolonged. It's hard not to react when your child seems to have the owner's manual to all the buttons you don't want pushed. But, Dr. Neifert promises, "the behavior you don't like will go away faster if you can underreact."

I've never been accused of underreacting to anything, so I asked Dr. Neifert for play-by-play instructions. When Henry throws a fit because Dad is reading to him tonight, repeat back to him what it is he wants so that he knows you know. Then say what the reality is and why what he wants is not possible at that moment.

Then give him a different choice: "I know you wish that Mommy were reading to you tonight. But Mommy's on the phone right now (or busy paying bills, or anything plausible). So would you like Daddy to read this story or that story, or would you rather have no story tonight?" Henry won't like his options, but he'll know what they are and that you understand, and you'll stay calmer sticking to the script.

If it makes your poor rejected husband feel better, at age 3 he probably did the same thing to his parents.

Trisha Thompson is a contributing editor to PARENTING magazine and a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk.