My 2-year-old son, Tom, was such a mummy’s boy, we nicknamed him Oedipus. Don’t get me wrong: he really loved his dad but he was far more interested in me, to the extent that he’d planned our wedding down to the last detail (bride and groom both in pink dresses). My hubbie was relegated to a gooseberry whose parenting confidence visibly shrank each time his son said, “Go away! I only love mummy!”
So one evening, Hubbie and I sat down with a bottle of red wine and came up with an action plan. I needed to butt out and daddy needed to be more hands on. The result: six months later, young ‘Oedipus’ is now a dedicated follower of daddy, and has decided to marry his sister instead of me.
He and I will always be close, but Tom now has a really special father-son relationship, too. Whether they hero-worship dad or are tied to mum’s apron strings, lots of children go through a stage of preferring one parent to another. While common sense tells us it’s just a phase and we shouldn’t take it personally, it can be really hard on the shunned parent.
Why do children have favourites?
“I’d say that all children have ‘favourites’, but some show their preference more overtly than others,” explains child psychologist Linda Blair. “Children instinctively create ‘pecking orders’ to make sense of the world they live in – it’s completely normal behaviour.”
According to Linda, there are lots of factors that can affect how your child relates to each parent.
Up to 3 years, children tend to be closer to the main carer. Between 3 and 5, they become interested in gender roles and may gravitate towards the parent of the same sex.
Division of labour
If ‘fun-time’ dad builds train tracks and serves up ice cream, while ‘eat-up-your-greens’ mum washes up and chases you with a nit comb, favouritism may hardly be surprising!
A parent who has less contact with their child may seem more exciting than one who’s around all day. But being around your little ones is not the same as being with them: when it comes to kids, it’s the quality of the time, not the quantity, that counts.
Children are quick to perceive if one parent is more of a pushover than the other, or if one is approachable while the other is distant. Inconsistency is difficult for a child to understand, so may be divisive.
When they’re tired, ill, or in need of reassurance, children naturally want the ‘nurturing’ parent – usually the main carer. We all have different strengths as parents, and assume greater importance to our children at different times.
Shared interests or hobbies create close bonds between parents and their offspring. This may change as the child grows and develops new interests.
If parents are bickering, children may feel that they have to take sides, especially if mum and dad try to involve the children in their disputes.
Preferential treatment of one parent may be a way of getting attention, especially if it gets a reaction. This kind of attention-seeking behaviour could be indicative of other underlying issues.
We all get on better with some people than with others, and parent-child relationships are no exception. These may be the ties that bind, but some knots are trickier to tie than others!
The main thing is to show your child that love is not a competition; that we can like
and love people in different ways and for different reasons and that, no matter what, parental love is unconditional.
“Help your child build this most valuable of emotions by showing enthusiasm for any expression of affection, rather than making him feel that love is measured,” says Linda Blair.
One mum and dad story
“The main thing is consistency”
“As soon as Jed walks through the door, it’s all about daddy and I don’t get a look in. The boys really love the rough and tumble with their dad, and I think they probably get away with things a bit more with him. It’s nice to see the closeness they enjoy and by the time Jed gets home, I’m ready to hand over care of the boys to him anyway!”
“I didn’t want to be a ‘wait until your father gets home’ kind of dad. When I’m around, the boys think it’s play time! It gets to Belinda if they’ve played her up during the day, then are as good as gold for me. As Belinda’s with them all day, she does more of the disciplining, but the main thing is that we back each other up.
Belinda and Jed, both 36, mum and dad to Chris, 3, and Rob, 2
Little ones don’t intend to cause pain by preferential treatment, so avoid getting into a playground stand-off
Consistency is key
“Discuss your parenting styles, agree on an approach, then both stick to it,” says Natasha Charles, child behaviour consultant and founder of parent coaching company The Clarity Method. “Always backing each other up shows a united front.”
Look at the way you divide up tasks – if one of you is the disciplinarian most of the time, you might want to try a more balanced approach. “Ensure you both have a fair
share of the fun and the humdrum, so that you have equal opportunities for relationship building,” advises Natasha.
“For a while after Mark and I split up, our daughter had one set of rules at his house and another with me,” says Veronica, 30, mum to Annie, 7. “Mark allowed her more treats, so whenever I told Annie off, she’d say, ‘I love daddy, not you.’ We decided that we needed to be more consistent and have both found parenting much easier as a result.”
Know when you’re being ‘played’
Even young children can be manipulative! If you think your little one is using his love and affection as a bargaining tool, ignore it. “His comments will be designed to get a reaction,” says Natasha, “and even telling a child off may be reward enough.”
But if you feel he has no ‘hidden agenda’, try to get to the bottom of it. “Acting out hypothetical family situations, with dolls, for example, can help you see things from your child’s perspective,” suggests Natasha. “Asking, ‘What does baby doll think
of mummy doll?’, or exploring relationships portrayed in books or on television may
be useful for developing empathy.”
Cope with rejection
If you’re the parent who feels unloved by your child, try not to take personal offence. Little ones don’t intend to cause pain by preferential treatment, so avoid getting into a playground stand-off. Instead, show that your love is unconditional and employ a bit of patience.
“The best way to bond with your child is to spend time playing with him,” says Natasha Charles. “Follow his lead, rather than trying to direct the play. It’s a great way to connect really well with your child.”
Likewise, if you’re the popular one, you can encourage interaction between your child and your partner. Show your little one that there’s plenty of love to go around by suggesting shared activities. Modelling loving behaviour is the best way to encourage it in your child. “And try not to interfere when your partner is parenting their way,” says Natasha. “Whether they’re engaged in discipline or bonding, let it be!”
What about grandparents?
Children may feel closer to one grandparent or set of grandparents than another but, as Caroline Needham of the Grandparents’ Association explains: “Learning that relationships may be different, but of equal value, is really important for children.”
To help promote this all-important relationship, discuss how to ensure visits to grandparents are enjoyable and stress-free so that the children look forward to seeing them. Also, find things to do together that interest young and old, and talk to your child about why grandparents may have different rules or ways of showing affection.
No matter what issues you may have with parents or in-laws, don’t let them get in the
way of your child’s bond with them.
“Making a scrapbook about far away relatives helped our daughter bond with them.”
“Kitty has had fewer opportunities to get to know ‘Nanna New Zealand’, so
she wasn’t as close to her as to my mum. I’ve helped Kitty make a scrapbook about her relatives in New Zealand, which she loves looking at. Now she’s older, she talks to her overseas granny on the phone and enjoys receiving letters and emails (with a bit of help), so when they meet up they get on very well.”
Fern, 30, mum to Kitty, 3
“I offer incentives to my child if she doesn’t go with me”
“When Freya said, ‘I don’t want to go with mummy!’ I’d respond by offering incentives, such as ice cream! If her dad, Jason, heard her saying it, he’d tell her off. Either way, she got attention. Nowadays we ignore her and she hardly does it any more”
Carrie, 27, mum to Esther, 4
“I felt upset when I was pushed away”
“Being pushed away by your child can feel really soul-destroying. I found it particularly hard when Amelia did it in front of family and friends, convinced that they’d think I was a really bad father. It was tempting to stop making an effort when I was being constantly rejected, but spending more quality time with my daughter has really built up a bond between us”
Rikki, 31, Amelia, 18 months