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When One Parent Is Favored

"What happened?" That's what Christopher Oneal of Lexington, Kentucky, wondered when his 2-year-old son, Sean, stopped running to greet him at the door each evening and instead started bellowing, "I want my Mommy!" From baths to diaper changes, only Mom would do. "I was crushed," Oneal recalls. "I tried not to take it personally, but it was like I'd been punched in the face."

He may have been hurt, but Oneal shouldn't feel like the only parent in the world to have been dumped so unceremoniously. In a recent poll at Parents.com, more than 90 percent of mothers and fathers said their child has favored one parent over the other at some point.

But there's some good news to share: 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. And if you play your cards right, your family can come out of it closer than ever.

What's Going On?

Two- and 3-year-olds are known for their fierce, but fickle, preferences. They may demand grilled-cheese sandwiches for lunch for a week -- and the next week, only chicken fingers will do. So when your child says, "Go away! I want Daddy!" remember that it's not personal.

In fact, when your child plays favorites, it's a sign that he feels close to you. "He's secure enough in your love to know that he can jilt you and still get a warm welcome back," explains Krista L. Swanson, Ph.D., a child psychologist at the Early Childhood Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles.

Your child's experimentation with separation and attachment is also a sure sign that his imagination and memory are growing. He's showing that he has the ability to develop special relationships with individuals -- and that he realizes that spending time alone with one parent means he gets undivided attention, points out Lorraine McCune, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and professor at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He's also learning to put his feelings and desires into words, make his own choices, and exert an influence on his environment -- all important steps in growing up.

What can couples do to weather a bout of favoritism? Start by commiserating. Whether you're the snubbed parent or the guilty (and overwhelmed) object of your child's fierce affections, this phase can be hard.

Luckily, there are ways to make it easier. If you're the preferred parent, clear out of the house from time to time, leaving your child and the out-of-favor parent alone for a while to interact -- and hopefully grow closer again. Talk up your partner too, says Parents adviser Kyle Pruett, M.D., a clinical professor of child psychiatry and nursing at the Yale Child Study Center and School of Medicine, in New Haven, Connecticut. Say things like "Daddy really loves us! Aren't we lucky to have him?"

If you're the shunned one, try these tips.

  • Get in the game. When your child is playing, hang around and watch, then see if you can join in, says Dr. Pruett. Chances are, you'll be tolerated, especially if you get down on the floor and follow her lead.
  • Try teamwork. Invite your child to help you get the Sunday paper, separate the recycling, or walk the dog.
  • Make it a group thing. Schedule regular time for fun as a family, says Parents adviser Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., a child psychologist and author of Playful Parenting. You can try as little as ten minutes a day. Play an easy game, like Concentration, or cuddle together while Mom and Dad take turns reading a bedtime story.
  • Seek out some support. Find solace on the Web, at parenting chats and on message boards like the ones featured at Parents.com.
  • Above all, don't lose faith. Experts agree that favoritism is only a stage, lasting a few days to a few months. Eventually, the pendulum will swing back, and you'll go from dissed to desired once again.

Here are some common flash points and how to handle them.

Bathtime Waves
Problem: You always bathe your son, but now you're knee-deep in suds and he's screaming for his father.

Solution: Reassure your child that the two of you can finish without Dad (who should stay out of the room). If the episode repeats itself nightly, though, don't set yourself up for failure. Have your husband give the bath for a while.

Separation Aggravation:
Problem: You're headed out for dinner with a friend, but your daughter is screaming that she won't stay with Daddy.

Solution: Before you leave, reassure your child that she's in good hands and that you'll be back. After you depart, your husband can say, "I understand what it's like to be angry. You can calm down when you feel like it. I'll stay with you." Once she's settled down, he should offer to play with her, with a toy or game.

Running Interference:
Problem: You've just gotten home from work and are having a conversation with your spouse. Your son barks, "Daddy, go away."

Solution: Present an emphatic united front. Say, "I know it's hard to wait for Mommy's attention, but Dad is staying. That's the way it's going to be." You'll be setting limits that will help your child feel more secure.

Copyright © Reprinted with permission from Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.