By Lola Augustine Brown
Judy Hunter’s* daughter Emilia seemed to prefer her daddy from birth. “At first it was kind of charming that she was daddy’s girl, but once she got the verbal skills to fully express herself, it started to sting,” says the Bowmanville, Ont., mom. “Just before she turned two, we were out for tea, having a lovely day and I said “I love you sweetie,’ and she replied “I love daddy.”
Although Hunter knows that toddlers go through phases, and she really hopes that this one will pass, she can’t help worrying that she will always have an antagonistic relationship with her daughter, who just turned three, and can now explain why she prefers dad, declaring “He’s nicer.”
Edmonton-based registered psychologist Jeanne Williams says that favouring one parent over the other is a normal phase that many toddlers go through. “It will change; although they could prefer that parent for days, months or even years, or may even always favour one parent to some degree, it won’t always be so extreme,” says Williams, who works with children and their caregivers.
There are many reasons why a child will prefer one parent, and they can often be contradictory. “Your child might prefer the parent who stays home because they are with them all the time, or they might prefer the other parent because they miss them,” says Williams. “They might prefer the rambunctious parent or the quiet one, depending on their needs at the time.”
In truth while there is very little you can do to change that preference in the short term, what you need to do is give the child space to change her own mind. Williams says that it’s important not to reinforce that preference by using language that sets it in stone, such as when you tell people “Oh, she’s daddy’s girl” or “I know I’m not your favourite, mommy is,” because that information will lodge in her mind and become a truth. A better way is to accentuate the positive, especially about the shunned parent, by saying things like, “We are so lucky to be a family. We both love you very much!”
Other things you shouldn’t do: don’t start doing everything your kid wants to make him like you more; he’ll soon learn you’re an easy mark. And don’t try and become more like the preferred parent. “Your child needs you for who you are, as much as she does the other parent,” says Williams. “She just might not show it as clearly.”
Anne Morgan, a public health nurse in Vancouver who facilitates a toddler drop-in group once a week, says that a good strategy is to get involved with an activity that your toddler loves and just start doing it near him. It could be as simple as playing a game he enjoys, letting him help you in the garden or even preparing a very bubbly bath. “Most toddlers love a bath, but maybe not with the less-favoured parent,” says Morgan. Find new toys for the bath such as a bubble wand for blowing bubbles or containers for pouring water and start playing with them in the tub. “Just sitting down and playing alongside your child would be a good idea before heading for the tub,” says Morgan. “Following her lead in play before her clothes are off and she is into a bath is important.”
As awful as it feels to hear that your baby doesn’t want you, you need to remember who the adult is in this relationship and watch how you respond. “It’s perfectly okay to let the child know that he’s hurt your feelings, but you need to deliver that message without conveying anger, because children really pick up on the underlying messages in what we say to them,” says Williams. “Make sure that your child knows that you love him, whatever he says about you.”
Children aren’t very accurate at conveying their emotions, and although they’ll say things that will hurt you, they don’t really mean it. “We hear toddlers’ words and attach adult meaning to them, when the truth is, as articulate as our toddler is, they don’t really understand what those words mean,” says Williams. “For example, a lot of kids will tell their parents that they hate them, but they don’t mean it — they love you!”
Single mom Lola Augustine Brown loves that she is number one in her two-year-old daughter’s life, and hopes it stays that way forever!
* Name has been changed.
Keep reading for more on parental favourites.