You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook page.
Today, I’d like to talk about why kids go through swings of preferring one parent over the other. This is another topic that comes up really frequently in the Posse. Generally, because one parent is feeling really guilty or rejected and is desperately wondering what they did to make their child hate them and how to get back in their good books.
This is a really emotionally charged topic. It doesn’t feel good when your child screams “NO!!!” when you try to comfort or help them, or when they scream for the other parent. But this happens to pretty much everyone at some point, and there are some really good reasons for it.
There are two developmental periods where children generally start to exhibit parental preference: when they’re toddlers and are starting to assert their independence and sense of self, and when they’re preschoolers and they’re starting to firm up their gender identity.
For toddlers- around 2ish, they go through a series of cognitive leaps that have them realizing that they are separate from Mommy or Daddy, and they can have their own opinions and that they have the power- through language- both body and verbal- that they can communicate and enforce those opinions. It’s a LOT of power for a child that up until now has been a baby who has largely been at the whim of the adults. Saying “No, Daddy do!” is a test and display of that newfound ability. They’ve got IDEAS and YOU ARE GOING TO LISTEN TO THEM whether you like it or not.
A lot of parents conflate preference with love. Let’s get something straight- preference does not equal love. Your child loves you. I promise. They just- for whatever reason- want Daddy to do it. Maybe Daddy does it a certain way that they just like. Maybe Mommy’s voice is softer so they want Mama to comfort them. Preference is not love. It’s not an expression of a lack of love, and it’s not an expression of more love. It’s just preference. And preference is a pendulum. It SWINGS. Enjoy the break when you’re the non-preferred parent because it’s going to come back to you- and then you won’t get 5 minutes peace. It’s just a way that they’re exerting their free will and their newfound ability to be understood and enforce their way of doing things. And that’s okay! We want to encourage children to express their opinions and do it firmly. Now, at 2 it’s usually rather maladaptive- but that’s okay, they’re 2, they’re learning, and we’ll help them express their preferences more adaptively as they get older. Remember- 2-year-olds are just developing their executive functioning skills. Their flexible thinking is usually pretty awful. That’s a skill we need to support them in developing.
The other time children display preference is generally when they’re in the preschool years and they’re reinforcing their gender identity. Male-identifying children tend to go ALL IN on Daddy, and female- identifying children tend to go ALL IN on Mommy. I’ve also had same-sex couples worry about this because suddenly their son wants NEITHER Mom and is always screaming for whoever is a strong male presence in their life- like Grandpa or an Uncle. Or they reject everything remotely female and go all in on the play fighting and bathroom talk. Kids- generally around 4/5- tend to swing to the EXTREMES of gender identity, and they tend to identify their gender as being not the other. So boys tend to identify being a boy as NOT being a girl. And girls tend to identify being a girl as NOT being a boy. There are obviously exceptions and that’s a gross generalization- but it’s not uncommon- for instance- for little girls who have never been particularly “girly” to suddenly be all about the pink and purple and sparkles and reject anything that might be construed as male- and that can sometimes even mean rejecting Dad.
And I’ll throw my hand up here. Right now? My boys are ALL ABOUT DADDY. My oldest is firmly in the gender identity space and my youngest is two so he’s more in the independence stage- and he’s asserting his independence by choosing whatever my older son models. Which is difficult because my husband is away a lot for work. So while it’s mildly annoying / kind of nice to have a break on a day to day basis- when he’s away- it’s HELL. And yeah, it felt pretty crappy when my 4yo split his chin open and chose Daddy to take him to get stitched up. Cause I wanted to comfort him! I know his medical history off the top of my head- my husband was totally texting me questions like “Is he allergic to anything?” and “The doctor wants to know if he’s on Ventolin or Flovent for his airway.” Like- I KNOW THAT STUFF! I should be at the emergency room with him! But he wanted Daddy. And once I took my ego out of it I was actually pretty glad that he knows that Daddy is just as competent (even if he needs to be helped via text by me) to take care of him. And yeah, it sucks when I’m bathing my boys and they’re both sobbing for Daddy because Daddy is the one who baths them usually. But again- they know that Daddy can take care of them, and they miss him, and that’s okay. I’m at home with them ALL DAY EVERY DAY. They KNOW I’m capable of taking care of them- I’m the one who mostly does! So I try and enjoy those moments where they call for him in the middle of the night and he’s the one who has to get out of the warm bed and go deal with demands for soothers and more water while I get to stay where I am and go to back to sleep. Cause heaven knows for every one time he gets up, I get up 10. And EVENTUALLY, the pendulum is going to swing back the other way.
The way I find that is best to deal with this is a division of labor. My husband does baths and bedtime hygiene routine. That is his thing. If they’re all about Daddy- great. If suddenly they’re all about me- sorry, it’s still Daddy’s job unless he’s away. On Sunday mornings my husband ALWAYS gets up with them and makes them breakfast while I sleep in. ALWAYS. And that will not change if they suddenly decide I’m the bee’s knees. He will not let them wake me up and go back to bed while I make them eggs. NOT HAPPENING. I am the one who sings them their bedtime songs and does their mindfulness routine with them. Doesn’t matter if my name is mud- Daddy isn’t going to take it to overcome hell or high water. I read the after school books with them. We sit down when my son gets home and we read a book. If my husband is home he’ll usually sit in- but he won’t read the book. I read the book. Of course, if I’m not home he will do it. But if I’m home- its’ my thing. Having those things where you’ve divided up tasks that- unless the other is absent- are THEIR TASK and that will not change- keeps things consistent and it means that whether your kids are all about your or not- you’re getting quality time with them. And if that is ALWAYS your thing, they’re MUCH less likely to try and freak out for the other parent because they KNOW IT’S NOT THEIR THING! And then the rest of the menial stuff- sure- if you want Daddy to cut your meat up instead of me- here you go honey, I’ma eat my dinner while it’s hot.
The other tip is not to alter plans based on parental preference demands. So yeah sure- cut their meat Daddy- but if I was going to take my son to a doctor’s appointment and my husband was going to stay with the little one at home and work on his truck while he naps and suddenly my older one goes “I WANT DADDY TO TAKE ME TO THE DOCTOR!” Well, no, sorry, you’re stuck with me kiddo. Daddy has shit to do. Or- if I’m going grocery shopping and suddenly the little one becomes a clinger and this was my attempt to get some alone time- sorry buddy, I know you’re upset, but you’re staying home with Daddy. It is OKAY to say to your child “I hear you, you want me, but I am not available right now, so deal with the other parent.” And I give this advice a lot to moms who feel like they can’t leave their child with their Dad because they’re in a Momclinger phase- LEAVE THE HOUSE. It’s okay that they’re crying for you, you’re leaving them with their parent- not a random. Generally, kids warm up a lot faster to the non-preferred parent if you GTFO and let them figure it out. Dad’s not going to do it the exact same way you do. That’s okay. He doesn’t have to. Referencing back to our video from the other week about your kids needing time away from you- it’s GOOD FOR THEM to learn that other people are capable of caring for them, even if that care looks different than their normal.
I know it’s hard, I know it hurts and it sucks- but it isn’t personal. It isn’t a rejection, it’s not an expression of a lack of love. It’s just a preference. And that’s okay! Sometimes we get what we prefer, sometimes we don’t. I try and think of it as a breakfast sandwich. If I ask for a breakfast sandwich on a biscuit and they say sorry- all out- you can have it on an English Muffin… I will still enjoy my breakfast sandwich. I still like English muffins! It’s just not my preference. I’d PREFER a biscuit. I don’t wish English muffins would cease to exist. I don’t resent the English muffin for being available when the biscuits aren’t. But given the option, I’d take the biscuit every time.
Anyways- I hope that helps. I hope that puts some minds at ease. I hope that gives you a couple of ideas of how you can balance the preference. If you want more tips from me- grab my Scripts for Managing Crazy-Making Behaviour. It’s available by clicking the box below.