The Dos and Don’ts of Playing Favorites: What to Do (and Not Do) When Your Kids Pick a Preferred Parent

It's not always easy dealing with your child playing favorites. Experts explain how to handle it like a pro.

father and daughter lying on floor indoors at home, whispering
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While favoritism begins and peaks in toddlerhood, it can crop up repeatedly—and flip-flop just as frequently. But there are ways to get through it no matter which side of the divide you’re on. Here are the dos and don'ts of dealing with a child playing favorites.

Don’t Drive Yourself Nuts About The “Why.”

“Choosing between two people makes toddlers feel powerful,” says Ellen Braaten, Ph.D., codirector of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, in Boston. But what makes them opt for one over the other is often a mystery. Some kids will cling to the parent who’s around less, while others do the opposite. And their preferences can change with their emotional state. “When my daughter is hurt, she comes to me, and when she’s scared, she goes to her dad,” says Stacey N. Doan, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College, in Claremont, California.

Do Talk Up Your Ignored Partner, And Mean It.

Make sure you keep the praise sincere. “Kids can spot fakeness a mile away, so think about what you really love about your partner,” says Dr. Hershberg. “Maybe you say, ‘Mommy works so hard to be here before bedtime every night.’”

Don’t Show That You’re Hurt Or Frustrated.

Sulking just “deepens the divide,” says Dr. Braaten, so process feelings of rejection (and irritation, if you’re parent #1) solo. And remember, spurning is a sign of secure attachment. “‘Go away’ isn’t something a child says if they think the parent will actually leave,” Dr. Hershberg says.

Don’t Play Gatekeeper.

“When one parent doesn’t allow the other to handle tasks like bath, bedtime, or the child’s dinner, it can worsen favoritism,” Dr. Doan says. So let your partner take on some tasks. It may slow your routine at first but can help your child realize that Dad really can cut up their sandwich.

Do Divide And Conquer.

Your child may request that the preferred parent do everything: feeding, bathtime, bedtime, and so on. As you might guess, that gets to be a lot. To achieve something closer to equality, decide in advance how you’ll split up tasks and activities, and stick to that despite your child’s protests. When you encounter resistance, it can help if the favored parent flees the scene. The rejected parent, meanwhile, should be “empathic but calm and clear about the limit being set,” says early-childhood psychologist Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D., author of The Tantrum Survival Guide. “You could say something like, ‘I know Daddy gives amazing baths, but I’m doing bath tonight.’”

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's November 2020 issue as “What to Do When Kids Play Favorites.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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