It’s normal for children to show preference for one or the other parent at various stages in their lives. As newborns, babies are most often fed and soothed by their mothers. As children age into their toddler years, their habit of looking to mom for help and comfort might continue—and lead to an insistence that “only mommy can do it!”
But it’s just as likely that the opposite will occur soon enough and a child looking to establish a more independent sense of self will want none of mom’s help and insist on spending all their time with dad.
In fact, it’s very common for children to switch allegiances many times throughout their development—preferring one parent to another for a while, then swapping. Or putting both parents on the back burner in favor of a grandparent or other loved one.
Here are some tips for both parents to cope when kids play favorites:
1. Choice and no choice—Sure, your daughter may only want dad to feed her, dress her, drive her to school, read her books, and put her to bed. But it’s important for parents to set some ground rules together on when it’s okay to have a choice and when it’s not. For example, your daughter may not get a choice on who gives her breakfast or drives her to school, but it’s okay if dad puts her to sleep at night.
2. Stay present—Your son insists that only Mommy can put on his Band-Aid and make him feel better. It’s okay to let Mommy take over—but try to stay in the room. Once the child sees that his preference is being respected, mom might ask your son if it’s ok for dad to help. Don’t force participation, but let your child know it’s okay that he wants his mom, but you are still there to help if he needs it.
3. Don’t show disappointment—It’s fine to feel disappointed or frustrated by your child’s preference of another parent. But it’s important that you don’t show any negative response to your child or in front of them.
4. Find other ways to bond—Take out a toy and start playing, or start drawing or coloring, and ask your child to join in. Or start a side-by-side bedtime routine where you brush teeth, wash up, and get ready together. Find creative ways to become a part of your child’s routine without making it about switching from one parent to the other.
5. Carve out some one-on-one time—It doesn’t have to be long, but during this time, your child needs to have 100 percent of your attention. Let your child guide the play and resist the urge to teach or parent (beyond ensuring safety). Just connect with your child. When time is up, let the child know you’ll plan more one-on-one time soon and that you enjoy having special time together.
6. Don’t confuse favoritism with love—Children can love both parents intensely and still insist that only one can possibly tie their shoelaces.
These tips are all toddler-aged scenarios for when families are coping with this issue for the first time. But the strategies can help even as kids get older. What’s important is to keep trying to connect and to take favoritism in stride when it occurs.
Reviewed by Dr. Eva Benmeleh, September 2020
- Children often favor one parent over the other—and may switch favorites over time or for specific tasks.
- Parents should acknowledge hurt feelings with each other—but not show any disappointment or disapproval to the child.
- Set ground rules for when it’s ok to want a particular parent and when it’s not.
- Carve out some special time to bond and get creative at finding ways for the less-favored parent to become part of the child’s routine.