Playing Favourites

Handling pint-sized favouritism.

It’s bedtime at Aimee C.’s house in Waterloo, Ont., and as usual, her choosy three-year-old son, Hunter, wants Mom to read his nighttime stories. And, as usual, he won’t let his dad do the honour.

“No! Mommy’s reading stories,” Hunter says for what seems like the thousandth time.
Sound familiar? Sure, you might expect a baby to favour one of you, but what about the preschooler who insists, “Only Mommy can put me in the car seat,” or “I only want to sit on Daddy’s lap!” What’s with this late-breaking favouritism?

“It isn’t personal. Your child is doing what he needs to do developmentally,” says Rosalind Kindler, a Toronto-based child psychotherapist and president of the Canadian Association of Psycho-analytic Child Therapists. It probably has nothing to do with your parenting style or abilities, she says.

In fact, Kindler maintains that children between ages three and five are still seeking security – trying to find one-on-one comfort from the person they spend more time with, and who, naturally, makes them feel most protected. However, other kids gravitate toward the “novel” parent who is around less often because of work. And don’t forget to think of the big picture, says Nina Woulff, a family psychologist in Halifax. “Children are finding and discovering their own assertive voice at this age,” she says. So if your preschooler is vocal about what colour of pants she wears and what fruit she’ll eat, maybe preferring one parent is simply part of the same phase. No matter the reason, having affection or clinginess directed toward one person can lead to resentment in the unfavoured parent and burnout for the chosen one. Here are a few ways to level the field.

Involve the rejected parent more
To combat your little one’s mommy or daddy bias, start with regular routines like bedtime, says Kindler. “You can say, ‘Mommy is going to read you a story, then Daddy is going to read you a story.’ Or ‘Mommy is going to give you a kiss, then Daddy is going to give you a kiss.’ Try to help the child move between one parent and the other,” she says.

Create a special ritual
Culhane says her husband, John, often asks Hunter to go on outings to the bookstore or to get the car washed. Even better, says Kindler: find an activity the child really enjoys and make that the unique thing you do together. If you’re the less-popular parent and your preschooler loves to build blanket forts behind the couch, be prepared to get in on the action.

Relax — it’ll change soon enough
Toronto mom Ingrid Jain says three-year-old Alyssa’s favouritism comes and goes. Usually she clings to her mom, but if Jain tells Alyssa she can’t have another cookie, guess who she runs to? Dad, of course.



When a child favours one parent over the other for a long time, a mismatch of temperaments may be the reason. Here are some strategies to bring out the best in both you and your child.

Refuse to play the blame game. Accept yourself and your child for who you are, differences and all.

Play to your strengths. Use your knowledge of your individual characteristics to sidestep conflicts and power struggles.

Don’t stick your child with a nasty label. You don’t want “difficult” or “lazy” to become your child’s defining “brand.”

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