My oldest son was always Mommy’s baby. There was little doubt that he preferred her, invariably going to her when he was hurt or frightened, cuddling with her when he was sick, and generally seeking her out for comfort and companionship.
Then, around the age of two, he began to say, in my presence, “I love Mommy.” The obvious implication resided in the omission. But a little later he’d go one step further: “I love Mommy but I don’t love Daddy.”
Of course, “having a favorite parent is totally normal,” says Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, psychotherapist and author of The Favorite Child. When your son spurns you it means that “he’s secure enough in your love to know that he can jilt you and still get a warm welcome back,” explains child psychologist Krista L. Swanson, PhD. That’s what you think, you fickle little punk.
I don’t need to tell you how it made me feel to have my toddler say he didn’t love me. I would do my best to shrug it off, but man, it’s hard to let this one roll off your psyche. And this despite the fact that I was the one who cooked for him, cared for him during the summer months, and generally did the lion’s share of parenting. Ungrateful pygmy.
According to a Parenting.com poll, “more than 90 percent of mothers and fathers said their child has favored one parent over the other at some point.” But “playing favorites is actually a sign of emotional and cognitive growth. It helps your child explore relationships and intimacy, exercise her decision-making skills, and assert her independence.”
That’s great. Really freaking great. I’m all for decision-making skills and independence, but when your kid’s independent decision is that Mom is fantastic – the only one who can pour your milk or wipe your bum (actually, I was pretty okay with that one) or kiss you goodnight – and Dad is essentially an expendable jackass, it kind of cuts close to the bone.
Around the age of 4, though, things began to change.
First of all, I spent much more time with him than his mom. At the time I was director of his preschool, so we went together, sometimes lunched together, and saw each other frequently throughout the day. But it wasn’t just the time spent together, it was also that as his personality developed it became evident that he was, to an unfortunate degree, much like me.
Our eldest – we call him D – is a darker, more brooding personality, more prone to pessimism and innately sensitive (over-sensitive?) emotionally: More like me.
So shared time and personality, I think, are two factors at work here. Another is probably age. As kids get older they tend to become less dependent on their mothers for, well, everything, and boys I believe in particular gravitate toward their fathers, who are more apt to roughhouse, sword fight, and just be generally rambunctious. Boys relish rambunctiousness.
Favoritism is completely normal and innocuous, Libby states, and “what is important is that neither parent, the favored or ‘runner up,’ treat the child differently from one another. The expectation that each parent has of the given child should be similar.”
The problems lie in buying into the favoritism, in reinforcing it with statements like, “I know Mommy’s your favorite,” or “I don’t mind that you love Daddy more than me.” This seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me, one that adds fuel to a fire that flares or dies depending on the winds of mood, circumstances, or situation.
In other words, you need to be more emotionally mature than your kids. When your daughter states flatly that she doesn’t love you it’s searingly painful, but you probably shouldn’t say, “Well I don’t love you either you little brat.” Or when your son doesn’t want to give you a goodnight kiss, you probably shouldn’t say, “Well I didn’t want to kiss you anyway.”
“It’s best not to look at it as favoritism. We all have different roles,” says Dr. Donna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at the Michigan School of Professional Psychology. “A child may be more comfortable talking to mom but going out and playing in the backyard with dad. Perhaps the ‘other’ parent can look at that and ask, ‘How can I be more available to this child and invite this child to feel more comfortable with me?'”
Our youngest, now three, is still Mommy’s boy. While he has never displayed the freaky Freudian Oedipal renunciation of his father as his older brother did, he is still at that age when he seeks out Mom (when she’s around) far more than Dad. Moreover, his personality is far more akin to my wife’s – sunny, hopeful, optimistic, devoid of antisocial impulses and woefully lacking in misanthropic tendencies.
Nowadays, I see a familiar pattern emerge when the family is all together. We tend to pair off, whether we’re walking the beach, hiking in the forest, or just hanging around the house. D is far more likely to take my hand than his mom’s when we’re all together, to address his questions to me, to exchange silent glances with me when his brother does or says something silly.
G tends to get on my nerves more than his brother, and so there’s another set of subtle factors at play. D is, of course, more mature, more amenable to reason and so more malleable and easily bent to my will. You can talk to him in terms he understands and lead him to paths that you would like him to follow. G is, at three, a tiny person who will smash his head with a mallet if he doesn’t get what he wants, even if what he wants is, to you, ridiculous.
So your own favoritism might manifest itself in subtle but recognizable ways. You break a cookie in half, and give the child who shows a preference to you the bigger half. You display more patience with the child who favors you than with the child who doesn’t. You do what teachers around the world do- you have an unconscious but discernible pet.
It’s easy to look at it like D is ‘mine,’ and G is my wife’s. Although that’s mistaken, it is to a very small extent true, and that’s okay. In a week, or a month, or a year, the situation may be completely changed. But what do you do when one of your kids shows a clear preference in his or her affections?
- If you’re the favorite, don’t buy into the temptation to feel smug. Give your partner a chance to do the things that your kids love. For example, if their favorite game is UNO and they beg you for a few hands, say that you can’t at the moment but maybe mommy (or daddy) will play with you.
- Bail. Get out of the house and let your less-appreciated partner take the reins for a while. You’ll be relieved, and your partner will have some quality time with the kids.
- Love them no matter what, and let if show. Even as you’re being shunned like a stripper in Amish country, don’t become spiteful or retreat from your kids. Tell them how much you love them, because you know what? They love you too, even when they’re saying they don’t.
- Avoid displaying your own favoritism. Sure, you might prefer to spend time with one of your kids more than another. That’s perfectly normal, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. But you also should never let your kids sense that.
- Don’t let your ego get involved, whether you’re the Golden One at the moment or not. All your kids need is a healthy, loving home environment. Get over yourself and make sure you’re providing one.
Children are both inaccurate and inconstant with their emotions. They’re new to this whole thing, after all. Don’t attach adult meaning to what your kids say, because that’s not how they see it, and remind yourself that Nemo didn’t really hate his father. And if you instantly recognize that allusion, you’ve got kids. Kids who love you and need you more than you can begin to imagine. So get over it and get on with it. I all too clearly have.