What To Do When Your Toddler Plays Favorites

Mom carrying her toddler. Image credit: Pexels
I guess everyone is familiar with the phrases Daddy's little girl and Mama's little boy. Sorry, I'm not pointing to parents playing favorites. We parents know better than to play favorites. I'm going to address the issue of a toddler playing favorites.

Favoritism...I never liked the word. As a child growing up, my parents (they deny this, of course) had a favorite between me and my brother and eluded to the fact that they did play favorites. While at school, the best and the brightest were always favored highly above the rest of the class. Teachers would always give such great praises to that one student who was the apple of her/his eye. I guess this is the reason why equality is such a sought-after virtue among mankind.

But, how about if your child seems to favor daddy over mommy or vice versa? Toddlers play favorites for various reasons. It may be gender-based or your toddler may favor the parent they spend more time with or less time with, or favor the parent who isn't the usual parent who dishes out discipline. As toddlers try to figure out relationship basics, certain preferential treatment may happen toward one parent than the other. Although this is normal, it may cause a rift in the family dynamic- most especially to parents who are experiencing this for the first time. 

My son favors his father. If his father is present, he prefers to be with him. If we go out as a family, he will eventually end up being carried by his father. Seemed like my son would gravitate towards his father and not towards me. When his father would come home, my son would scream and jump up and down and happily announce the arrival of his father. I actually didn't mind that my son liked his father more than me. I relish the fact that they are close- he is his father.

My parents, on the other hand, pointed this out. Of course, I made the usual excuses for my defense- that I didn't play with him often enough, that I was busy with all the mundane things expected of me aside from the cleaning, cooking, and laundry, and, while the dad was away at work, I would have the daunting task of disciplining him. But, oddly enough, that was the first time that I felt a pang of guilt. Maybe it was from the fact that the perspective came from my own parents and not just people on the outside looking in. After all, they are my parents.

Yes, every child is different and they, too, have their own preferences. Usually, it is a common belief that the primary caregiver is the "golden" parent. Fathers, on the other hand, are able to rationalize this behavior in their children. After all, mommy did carry him/her for 9 months and as a newborn was the primary caregiver. So why feel bad if their son/daughter prefers mommy over daddy... It's but a given. You just can't compete with mommy.

But, how about if the tables are turned, as in my case, and your toddler prefers daddy over mommy? I know, for moms out there, it gives you that bad feeling in the pit of your stomach. After doing all the work around the house, cleaning, cooking, laundry, and taking care of the kids, bathing them, feeding them, and unfortunately, disciplining them...Daddy comes home from work and the kids all seem to rush to greet him like he's their knight in shining armor. Also, the children seem to listen and follow Dad, are behaved (at some point than their usual), and are eager to please him. Of course, Moms usually feel underappreciated if not, frustrated when these things happen but, shrug it off because at least Dad is home and can help with the parenting. Honestly, when my partner is home, I get to rest even if it's just for a bit.

Moms don't stress out. According to one family psychologist, "Sometimes it's the parent who is around less who is showered with love and affection because they are not as "readily available". That parent does fewer mundane everyday tasks, less disciplining, and are able to spend more time playing simply because of the way the roles are split." Another psychologist seems to back this statement by saying, "For mothers, it's helpful to know that when a child favors the other parent it's often because they have a very secure attachment to you which allows them to show affection for another person without compromising your relationship." Good thing to know. Whew!
Toddler expressing frustration. Image credit: Pexels

So what should parents do when their toddler plays favorites? Here are 5 strategies that can help.

1. Don't feel bad and try not to take it personally.

If you're suffering from a bruised ego, your significant other, on the other hand, is feeling guilty about being the favored parent. Don't let your hurt and frustration cause tension and resentment in your relationship as partners. Instead, don't take your toddler's initial favoritism personally and take steps to redress the balance.
One way you both can tackle this behavior is showing how much you love each other in front of your toddler. When your toddler starts to say the usual "I don't want Mommy!" or "I don't want Daddy!", the favored parent can cuddle the less-favored parent and say, "But, I love Daddy." or "But, I love Mommy." Cuddle the other parent until your child comes over for a group hug.

2. Work as a TEAM.

To tackle an issue like this, both parents have to work as a team- "I have your back and you have mine" strategy. It won't help if the less-favored parent makes all the moves to solve the issue to establish balance nor will it be productive if the favored parent keeps stepping in when the demands of the toddler are not met (meltdown). The aim is to promote and encourage family togetherness by changing the family dynamic not simply shifting the preferred status from one parent to another. Both of you should have the same time for fun and games, both of you should have equal roles in discipline, both of you should act as a solid unit and make decisions regarding the division of labor for childcare issues. Don't fold under the pressure of your toddler's demands. Rather, see this as a positive because it teaches your child an important reality of life: that you don't always get what you want.
The favored parent should back up everything the less favored parent says or does, step back to allow the less favored parent and the toddler bonding time on their own and sometimes "be the 'bad' parent" when it comes to discipline. Be consistent and don't cave in. Their initial protests are the only way a toddler knows how to negotiate his/her terms.

3. To the favored parent: as much as possible, don't exploit your favorable position and try not to give in to their favoritism.

Avoid expressing that you are the favored parent. Saying " I know that I'm your favorite", labels the behavior making it look acceptable to the child and exacerbates the situation (negatively for the other parent). Parents should know that this "favoritism" expressed by children is common that psychologists have classified it as normal behavior. But, although it may be classified as normal doesn't mean nothing should be done to change it. Parents should aim to establish a closeness for both parents even if it is in different ways.
It's hard to believe that a toddler, as young as he/she is, can be very manipulative. Giving in to their favoritism just makes matters worse and shows how much power they have over the parents. If his/her actions make you react and cause you to give more attention to him/her, your toddler will continue with this type of behavior.

4. For the less favored parent: Don't be desperate to please your child. Instead, reassure your toddler.

I'm guilty of doing this- not only as a mother but, with some people who apparently didn't like me from the get-go. Because of this, I was labeled a people-pleaser. Took me a while to learn that you can't please everyone.
Same goes for my son. When he would cry and scream (for his father), I would try my hardest to please him. It was hard to do that and discipline him at the same time. I chose to deal with discipline rather than pleasing him. I figured I didn't want him to grow up entitled and spoilt and that discipline is more important anyway. Even if he would scream some hurtful heart-wrenching words, I would shrug it off, try and give him a kiss on the forehead (he would always punch me in the nose when I tried to do this), and continue to be a mommy. He would quiet down after a while, knowing his actions weren't getting him anywhere.
According to a family psychology journal, "Less favored parents resort to pleasing their child out of desperation since it seems to be an easy solution. They are fooled into thinking that they are not good parents or are not loved by their child. Don't be fooled. Instead, know that your child feels secure in your relationship enough to show affection to another. Allow your child the space he or she needs to express their love for someone else without becoming needy."
Always reassure your child that no matter what, you will always be there and love him/her even when he/she becomes difficult. 

5. All parents should know that it won't last. It's a phase so, just wait it out.

Just as long as both parents have a healthy relationship with the child, the less-favored parent should know that this is a normal phase, commonly happens, and should just wait it out.These things take time and don't happen overnight. Congruently, relationships build over time, so don't expect your toddler just to wake up the next day and have a complete 360-degree change in attitude, behavior, and preferences.
As they grow up, everything changes, most especially when they start school.  They start to find common interests with their parents as their peer groups begin to influence them. For example, boys start to bond with their fathers as they begin to appreciate male role models and this holds true with daughters and their mothers.
Dad playing with his daughter. Image credit: Pexels

Yes, toddlers play favorites and it's up to us parents to work things out to create a balance in the family dynamic. Don't get discouraged at your child's protests at the beginning. Children usually use the "meltdown" method to get what they want. Be consistent and follow through. They will learn that you are serious. Be assured that it will even out in the end.

Usually, when I line up to pay for the groceries at the supermarket, my son and his father go off on their own. Last week, I was surprised to hear my son screaming to his father as they were leaving me behind as I lined up at the grocery, "Go back! Go back! Mama is there!" He was trying to tug his father back to where I was lined up. I smiled. I'm important after all. ☺

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  1. Wow....this stage can be tricky for everybody! I must admit, Sheila. Thank you for shedding some light unto it.

    1. Thanks for the comment! You are very welcome!


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