When One Parent Is Favored

You suspect that your child will want nothing to do with you once he's a teenager. But it can come as a shock when your toddler or preschooler tells you to take a hike.

Playing Favorites

"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.

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