Many parents with toddlers have at some point been ‘the favourite parent’ or the ‘less favourite parent’. The implications of this can be acutely felt by both parents. The favoured parent can be left feeling a range of emotions: accomplishment, exhaustion or frustration, to name a few. While the less favoured parent might feel rejection, or even relief. But whatever you feel, it’s a normal process. Parenting and emotional intelligence expert, Dr Lanie Nieuwenhuizen, explains this phenomenon, and offers advice to help parents through these temporary phases.
Debbie Rogers, a Johannesburg-based mom to Harriet and Graeme says her children often changed their minds about which parent they want. She says, “There is only an 18-month gap between my two, and very often they both decided that myself or my husband are the favourite. When they picked me, it felt quite nice for a bit, but by the end of the day I was completely exhausted. Not only did I need to be the one who does everything from taking them to the loo to making breakfast, but I also had to be holding them both at the same time! I felt like I was in a cartoon with one child clinging to my leg, the other on my hip and my free hand buttering toast that they would probably decide they wouldn’t want anyway.”
Why do toddlers choose a favourite?
There can be various reasons toddlers do this. For some, there is a stronger bond with the parent they spend the most time with. In other situations, it’s the opposite way around, and they prefer the parent whom they spend less time with. It can also be affected by a second baby, where the toddler only wants to spend time with the dad because the mom is busy with the baby, or alternatively to spend time with mom because they want her attention. Preferences can also be gender based, and family dynamics or circumstances can play a vital role. There is no given pattern or order. Every situation, toddler and family is unique. And rest assured, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with your parenting skills.
Is favouritism normal?
The good news is that this type of favouritism represents a very normal stage in a toddler’s development, and it doesn’t mean that one parent is better than the other. In fact, it can indicate a positive sign of emotional and cognitive growth. Through this stage, toddlers investigate their relationships, the closeness with their parents, their decision-making skills as well as their freedom. Parents with a toddler will agree that toddler’s just love making their own choices and being independent!
When you are not the preferred parent, don’t worry and don’t take it personally. It can in fact indicate that your toddler feels so intimate with you and so confident in your relationship that even if they spend more time with the other parent, they are assured that they will get a warm welcome back from you at any given time. How awesome is that?
And if your child doesn’t ever have a favourite parent? That is also completely normal. Not every toddler goes through this stage, so you shouldn’t worry if they don’t, and definitely don’t try to encourage it.
What are the challenges with favouritism?
The challenge with favouritism is not the toddler, but actually the parents. First of all, the toddlers should not manipulate parents. Lots of ‘less favourite parents’ will do anything for their toddler just to be the favourite again. Remember, this is only a stage and does not mean your child doesn’t love you. Carry on as normally as possible and don’t bend the rules because of this situation. Even if you feel out of control, always stay in control. You don’t have to be the ‘favourite parent’ to be in control. Sometimes children use favouritism to test the amount of power they have over you. Stay secure and don’t give in, as your response could dictate their ability to manipulate relationships in future. Rather let them know that both parents love them unconditionally! Most importantly, don’t make your toddler feel guilty for having a preferred parent at that moment, since it’s just one of their ways of exploring relationships. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The essence of our role as parents is to be responsible caregivers who provide an atmosphere where our children can grow and mature on a physical, emotional, intellectual and social level. For this to happen, there have to be restrictions, rules, opportunities, routine, respect and most importantly, unconditional love.
Furthermore, it is crucial to remember that this is definitely not the time to be jealous of your spouse and arguing with each other regarding being the favourite or not. Don’t think about it as favouritism. Instead, focus on everyone’s different and important roles. Rather shift your focus away from being the favourite, and ask yourself how you can be more open with your child and make him feel relaxed, happy and content in your presence.
The critical factor here is good parenting, and not comparing favourites. Are you trying to raise a well-adjusted, healthy child or are you trying to be the winner of the ‘favourite parent competition’? Always remember, it is not a child’s responsibility to affirm a parent. Instead, be the parent who affirms the toddler and be emotionally available when your toddler is ready.
What can you do?
Favouritism is only a phase, which can last from a few days to a few months. However, there are certain practical behaviours parents can do to demonstrate and build their relationship with their toddler during these phases.
- One-on-one time: It is necessary for a toddler to spend some quality time with each parent. When a child realises that he or she is their parents’ priority then they can connect emotionally. Great ways to connect one-on-one include:
- Toddlers love treats. Your toddler will undeniably be inspired when the two of you bake something or make hot chocolate together. Most importantly, enjoy it together at the end.
- I can’t think of any toddler who would not enjoy reading and paging through books. Cuddle up in your bed and read some wonderful stories to your toddler. Through reading, you will open essential communication lines between yourself and your toddler.
Despite the undivided attention a toddler receives during one-on-one time, he or she will also realise that they are coping wonderfully without the presence of the other parent (especially without the ‘favourite parent’), which is also a vital part of a toddler’s development.
- Listen: Even though your toddler’s communication skills are still developing, you can LISTEN to your toddler, and it is exactly what they need – to be heard. Don’t correct their half sentences, just listen, look them in the eyes and enjoy their funny, innocent stories! If you’re not one hundred percent sure what they just told you, rather repeat what you’ve heard, instead of correcting. You will certainly make them feel valued and loved.
- Both parents should be able to have authority: Some children favour the parent who is always the ‘good cop’, but it is necessary for both parents to discipline their toddler. They should be on the same page regarding boundaries and discipline. If only one parent has authority over their toddler, a toddler will be quick to pick this up and use it to manipulate one or both the parents.
- Support your spouse or partner: If you are the preferred parent, acknowledge the other parent in your conversations. You can say things like: “Aren’t we lucky to have Daddy in our house? He loves you and Mommy so much! We should give him a big hug when he gets home.” If you need to leave and you know that your toddler will refuse to stay with your spouse, prepare them earlier in the day. You can explain with: “Mommy needs to go out tonight and you will stay with Daddy. He will take good care of you and you are going to have loads of fun! Daddy is so excited to read your bedtime story to you tonight! Mommy is coming back later.”
Final words: Remember, raising a toddler can be quite exhausting. There are no quick fixes and overnight changes. Be confident in your parenting skills, keep on trying and most importantly, enjoy the fact that your toddler is one hundred percent dependent on you. These are circumstances that you may often experience as tiring, but which should actually be embraced. You are your child’s entire life and the centre of their world (even if it doesn’t feel like it every day). They trust you with everything, so favourite or not, be the mature and dependable parent.