Is It Ever OK to Exclude One Child From an Activity in the Name of Bonding With the Other?

The dad of a 14-year-old boy and 9-year-old girl took to Reddit to ask whether he's a jerk for bonding with his son one-on-one over video games. Here, a family therapist weighs in on the parenting dilemma.

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Whether they're toddlers or teens, every parent who has two or more kiddos wants to be sure that they feel equally supported, loved, and included. And if you happen to have more than one child, how do you make time for one-on-one bonding without excluding the other child? That's the question a dad of two posed to the "Am I an A**hole?" subreddit in a post titled, "AITA for wanting to play games with only my son sometimes?".

The Background

The father, writing under the handle u/throwaway89942, explained that he has a 14-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. "I play games with only my son every so often," he wrote. "We play on his PS4 for a few hours, talk about anything that comes to mind, and generally have a good father-son bonding time over a hobby that we both enjoy."

"Recently my little girl has been trying to join us whenever we have these impromptu 'sessions,'" he continued, "and quite frankly I've been denying her from playing with us during these times. This is because if his sister is around, my son finds it hard to talk to me about anything private or embarrassing he's dealing with that he wants help or advice with and he has told me that he finds it more relaxing when we have some alone time together."

He went on to clarify that "this is not the only time members of our family play games together." On weekends, "all of us play multiplayer games and have a lot of fun." His daughter uses her brother's PS4, and the dad says he has "played games with all of my kids or even just her on multiple occasions if they ask me although I do not make it as much of a priority as I do playing with my son. Of course, I feel a bit bad when I tell her no, so I do go to her the day after and ask if she wants to play some video games or do something together, which we may or may not do, depending on her mood."

Knowing that he may be called "sexist" by the Reddit community, he preemptively explained his reasoning: "My daughter currently has a great relationship with her mother, going out together frequently and bonding a lot. Of course, I do a lot of things with my daughter as well, but I would say that it is fairly clear that she has the greatest connection with her mother. This is something that is to be expected, and she loves me a lot too."

He goes on to say, "However, my boy, being the moody teenager that he is, somewhat pushes his mother away and I can see myself in him. Growing up, I was raised by a single mother with two sisters. I remember during my teenage years, my sisters got closer to my mother while I got further. Due to this, I still can remember the sense of isolation and longing for a close father figure. I want to give him what I didn't have, so I've been making a bigger effort to connect with him for the past few years."

It seems the situation came to a head when u/throwaway89942 was confronted by his wife who told him that "excluding my daughter from our games can make her quite lonely, and that I should be including her next time. I explained all of my reasoning detailed above, and that since I do spend a lot of time with her, I should at least be given some time to bond with my son alone."

He elaborated, "She snapped at me, telling me that it was irresponsible of me to give the extra attention to my son, and that I should be treating them equally. I'm kind of at a loss as to what the right or wrong is, so I would really appreciate a third opinion."

Once the post had wracked up a number of comments, the original poster (OP) edited the post to note, "I do, in fact, spend time with my daughter alone. I cut out a more detailed description to follow the word limit, but I do spend time with my daughter when playing games, going shopping, and going on walks and all sorts of other things. Some people interpreted it as I choose to only spend 1-1 time with my son, and that I am willfully neglecting quality time with my daughter. This is simply untrue."

He continued, "I don't exclude my daughter purely out of my own biases or whatnot. This is something that I do as a result of talking to my son about it, wherein he explicitly expressed his desires to have some time with me alone to talk about his problems. When I do things with my daughter 1-on-1, there is no reason to exclude my son as my son usually does not want to go with us despite me trying to convince him, and my daughter is perfectly happy if her brother comes along."

"When I tell her no to joining the conversation between my son and I (the game is just a vehicle which makes the conversation easier to carry on), I do explain to her very gently that this is the only time where my son and I want some time to just ourselves, that we are discussing things that her brother wants to say to me privately and that she is welcome to come to me with things she wants to do any other time."

Nonetheless, the conversation caused him to see "how damaging it could potentially be" for his view on the nature of parent-child relationships to be "greatly skewed" by his own childhood. He said he will try his best to "build the foundation of an open, loving relationship" with his daughter so that they can have a similarly supportive relationship when she enters her teen years instead of simply relying on his wife to be her "primary adult figure."

The post was quickly met with hundreds of comments ranging from supportive to negative.

What the Reddit Community Says

u/LibertarianSuperhero said that OP was "NTA" (not the a**hole), because, "Trying to carve out time to talk on a real level with your teenage child is a very important thing to do. If this is the context that he feels comfortable sharing in, it is important to be able to meet them at that level. It's important to carve out 1-on-1 time sometimes. Your wife is being TA for not realizing that. When your daughter is a teenager, she's going to want to talk to her mom without your teenage son around sometimes too. It also doesn't sound like you're otherwise neglecting or excluding your daughter."

u/Donuts26 agreed, writing, "I think as long as Dad has other avenues to do private things with his daughter, that should be fine so I agree NTA. Anecdotally, I kind of grew up in this situation, there weren't many avenues where I really got to have 1-on-1 father-son bonding time, and I recall once that he and I tried to pick up golf together. Well despite taking lessons together, dear sister tagged along with us to go golfing once and had natural talent, so all of a sudden golf no longer was our thing. Needless to say, we're not exactly as close as he probably wishes. Nowadays, I try to bond with him over craft beers, but the damage has been done."

u/KaraPuppers pointed out, "If you gave zero time to the daughter, of course you'd be bad. But all you want is solo time with each of them separately. That is not only not bad, it is admirable. (Plus saying no to kids is super important sometimes to keep them from growing up entitled.)"

u/Marjoja, who identified herself as a mom of a 15-year-old boy, voted "NTA," writing, "The gaming sessions are important, when they give the teen a chance to talk about important things in a comfortable setting."

While u/Sr9876 wouldn't call the OP out as "TA," the Redditor wrote, "I do have a couple issues with your approach. Firstly is that you are having these private conversations over an activity that you often do all together. Your daughter will experience this as inconsistent and will have trouble judging when is appropriate to join and when isn't. It will also make it harder for her to believe you actually want her there when you do play together."

The Redditor continued: "It makes sense that it's something easy to talk over with your son, but it seems like that particular choice will just make your daughter insecure in her relationship with you." The commenter went on to suggest that OP have private time with his son in a "private or separate space" and pointed out that he needs to "be there emotionally" for his girl, as he doesn't want to "encourage her to pull away from you and only be open with your wife, as your son is doing with you."

u/Marshmallow_Mermaid didn't go so far as to call OP "TA" either, but wrote, "It's not really fair if you ask me, because the thing is to her it feels like you are flaunting your relationship in front of her, and she feels left out. There are other things you could do together out of the house if you want more privacy. She's a kid and she wants your attention too, and she isn't really old enough to understand and your son is. If the point really is to talk, you can just talk. You could send your daughter and wife out so you don't need to explain stuff like this or make her feel bad about not being included."

On the other hand, u/Vinoestveritas voted "YTA," writing, "You've openly admitted that you don't find spending alone time with your daughter as important as spending alone time with your son. It doesn't matter if she's close to your wife/her mother as well—having a good relationship with someone isn't a quota to 'fill.' Just because you have a close relationship with your daughter does NOT mean you can't have a close relationship with your son."

They concluded, "You're allowed to spend alone time with your son without your daughter. But what makes you TA in this situation is that you're purposefully not equalizing that time spent with your other kid, as well. She's 9 years old. Who knows, in a couple years when SHE becomes a moody, hormonal teenage girl, she'll push you away too. You're going to regret not wanting to spend time with her when she wanted to."

Father and Son on Back Happy Outside
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

What the Experts Say

So what does an expert think about the issue? Melissa Divaris Thompson, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) at Embracing Joy, emphasizes the importance of bonding. "It's a time that children get to have a parent's undivided attention, which allows them to feel important and helps them deepen their feelings of self-confidence and secure attachment," she says. "Children are happier, more confident, and more securely attached when parents make time for bonding."

She adds that it's probably fine to leave one child out of a bonding activity. However, parents need to tread lightly and not "set up the one-to-one bonding as exclusion," since it can make children feel bad about themselves.

"If you want to play video games with your son, ask the other parent—or a caregiver/friend—to have a fun playdate with your daughter," advises Thompson. "Allow her to experience something special as well, preferably at the same time."

It's also important to delegate equal amounts of bonding time to each child. That way, one kid won't feel like they are favored by a parent. "Talk about the plans openly with your children and allow them to help you plan it if they are old enough. Have transparency when dealing with bonding," Thompson says.

And don't neglect family time! Take a cue from u/throwaway89942 and schedule events regularly for the whole family. This allows everyone to feel more connected—and it might prompt siblings to become less competitive when seeking their parents' attention.

Additional reporting by Nicole Harris
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