I should have seen it coming. For months, my 3-year-old son had been asking my husband to do crafts with him, give him baths, read him stories, and play his favorite board game. He waited eagerly each night for my husband to get home from work and asked, "Where's Daddy?" whenever my husband left the house. As parents go, I was definitely second choice.
When he insisted one night that my husband put him to bed (one of my favorite rituals as a parent), I braced myself and asked, in what I hoped was a casual way, "Why do you want Daddy to put you to bed instead of Mommy?"
He looked up at me from under his long eyelashes and said matter-of-factly, "Because I like Daddy better."
Ouch. I've always been prone to mom guilt, so his guileless confession sent my mind racing. Was it because I'd recently begun working more? Was I focusing too much on his older siblings? Or was it just another (mostly) harmless curveball tossed by my busy, emotional, and sometimes confusing 3-year-old?
First things first: Is it normal for a young child to favor Mom or Dad? Thankfully, yes. "This is very normal and very common," Dr. Reischer assures me. "The issue comes up in a lot of families I see."
For parents experiencing this favoritism dynamic, Dr. Reischer suggests to first assess the situation: Is the favoritism an occasional issue? Or is there a daily struggle with a child who prefers either Mommy or Daddy?
If it's the latter, Dr. Reischer suggests examining your big-picture relationship with your child.
"Everyone in a parenting role needs a warm, supportive relationship with the child," she says. "This type of favoritism may be mirroring something in the relationship—not spending enough time together, not being hands-on enough in parenting, maybe a good cop/bad cop dynamic among Mom and Dad."
Why do young children express favoritism? They're simply figuring out how to navigate relationships. "As I always say, they're little scientists, just watching to see how we work," Dr. Reischer says. "They wonder 'What happens if I do this?'"
If you've ever experienced this dynamic, whether as the preferred parent or the rejected one, consider Dr Reischer's five tips to deal with the situation to get your relationship back on track:
1. Never respond in a negative way.
"But I want Daddy to put me to bed!" your child shrieks. You may feel rejected, but resist the urge to snap at her or withdraw emotionally. "Kids are candid—they don't edit," Dr. Reischer says. Refusing to edit yourself will only make both of you feel worse. Additionally, don't dwell on the situation—if she asks you to play a game, the worst thing to say is, "Well, you didn't want me to play yesterday!"
2. React with empathy.
You may not like what your child is saying, but you should validate it anyway. "If your child says, 'I want Daddy!' you can say calmly, 'I hear that you want Daddy, and I know that you love Daddy,'" Dr. Reischer says. Even if you can't (or choose not to) honor his request, it's important that he feels heard.
3. Ensure each parent strikes a balance between work and fun.
Perhaps you take your child grocery shopping, make her sandwich, and brush her teeth—then your partner walks in the door and it's non-stop playtime. For everyone's sake, it's important that each parent take on a mix of "fun" and "work." As Dr. Reischer points out, "The child may just want who they perceive is easier—the parent who gives them one more story or dessert."
4. Formulate a predictable schedule.
If a struggle ensues regularly when your child prefers Mom or Dad for certain activities, you can combat it with a regular schedule. Kids thrive on structure, and if you and your partner alternate nightly bathtime duty, your child will get to know the routine. Rather than "Daddy can't give me a bath because Mommy is being mean," the situation becomes "Mommy's giving me my bath tonight because it's Monday."
5. Above all, focus on love and respect.
Feeling like the least favorite parent can sting, but it's vital to respond with kindness, respect, and love no matter what your child says. "You want to maintain a loving connection," Dr. Reischer says. "That's what unconditional love means: I love you no matter what, even if I don't like your behavior."