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What To Do When Your Toddler Plays Favorites

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

My husband is a great father. We have a 3 year old daughter and an 18 month old daughter. He does everything right, from getting up with them on weekends to play and watch cartoons (so I can sleep) to taking time off work to come to the 3 year old’s preschool open house and gymnastics classes, to helping put the kids to bed every single night. They are truly blessed. I chose for them the kind of father I always wanted.

My 3 year old girl, however, has always preferred me. I breastfed her until 28 months, and had supply problems in the early days. I really feel like I nursed her constantly until she started solids. Of course, that can’t be true, but I remember handing her to him so I could go to the bathroom or eat or something, and she would scream until I took her back. If she gets hurt, she runs to me. If she needs comfort, she runs to me. She wants me, and only me, and sees Daddy as a poor substitute. I also had a rip roaring case of postpartum depression in the early days (actually, now that I think about it, her whole first year) so I couldn’t endure any crying. It made me feel like a failure as a mother, so she learned that if she cried she got me right back.
Now that she can talk, it’s even worse. Last night when we were going to bed, she woke up, too. He laid down with her so I could brush my teeth and change into my jammies, and she said, “I don’t want you, Daddy. I want Mommy.” I told her that since she’d hurt Daddy’s feelings, I was going to sit in the chair instead of laying down with her. I’ve talked to her about not saying mean things to Daddy, before, and I needed to give her some kind of consequence. Even after I sat down in the chair, and she knew I was staying there, she told Daddy to go away. She would rather lay by herself than snuggle with him! I just don’t understand, because he is such a wonderful dad and he loves her so much.

When I came back to bed, after she’d finally fallen asleep, he said, “Do you think she loves me?” The poor guy was near tears. I just don’t know what to do. I feel like it’s my fault, like if I had had enough breastmilk, she wouldn’t have learned to associate me with food and comfort so heavily. I should’ve let him give her bottles or something. I should’ve left them alone together before she was a year old. Hindsight is 20/20, right? But now I feel like it’s my job to fix it.

The other issue is that her behavior really deteriorates from the time he gets home from work until bed. She gets more timeouts during those 3 hours that he’s home per night than she gets the other 40 – 60 hours a week that she’s home, alone, with me and her sister! I know that dinner time is the “witching hour” for little kids, but it doesn’t happen on the nights when he works late or when we’re out of town.

His relationship with our other child is much better. She lights up when he comes in the room. The only solution I’ve been able to come up with is to talk Daddy up all day while he’s at work. I need to say things like, “Boy, I really miss Daddy! I can’t wait until he gets home!” and stuff, and talk about how much he loves her, etc. Then when he gets home, I need to make a big hairy deal about it, like, “Ok, the party can start now that Daddy’s home!” I’ve also asked him to lay off of the discipline entirely – to let me be the “bad cop” to his “good cop” to see if maybe she’s just intimidated by him (he’s over 6 foot, deep voice, and although he never raises his voice, even his “serious voice” can be intimidating for me, and I’m a grown up. I can only imagine how it sounds to someone who is 1/10th his size!).

Do you or your readers have any other ideas for how I can encourage a healthier relationship between them? It’s so bad, I’ve been thinking about leaving the two of them alone for a few days so that they can work it out. I don’t know what to do. Please help!

Thanks, in advance,
A

Say it with me: PHASE.
PHASE PHASE PHASE.
And also, PHASE.

I know, she’s “always preferred you.” Still. Phase. Stop blaming yourself. Right now! Stop blaming breastfeeding, stop blaming PPD, stop blaming everything and anything except that this is something that just happens, that a lot of kids go through, and there’s nothing that you “did” to cause this. It’s just one of those things that kids DO.

I preferred my mother over my father very strongly for awhile too. (My mother never had any supply issues, and I weaned myself at five months old, so…there goes that theory.) My mom stayed home, my dad worked, but he was a loving, wonderful father. I just…wanted my mom. I actually remember getting in the car with him — he was trying to take me to a movie or something similarly awesome in the world of a three-year-old — and screaming my head off as we backed out of the driveway because nooooo! mommy! He eventually turned the car around and came home, completely defeated.

And then I grew out of that phase and father-daughter outings became the greatest thing ever, all the way through high school, when my dad and I regularly would go out for lunch and movie together, or to baseball games, and I assure you my mommy phase as a toddler was absolutely NO indication of the kind of relationship we’d have later in life.

But. Still. It’s not a great phase. It hurts the “rejected” parent, it’s a strain on the “preferred” parent. Beyond just gritting your teeth and repeating that THIS TOO SHALL PASS, what can you do?

Well, I’d stop punishing her for her preference. I know you’re explaining it as punishment for hurt feelings, but I think that’s kind of above her comprehension here, and just causing her to dig her heels in. I’d also be very careful with the “good cop, bad cop” routine, because above all things, you guys need to present a united front when it comes to discipline. If there does a time when one parent really needs to play the heavy, then yeah, make it you. Just don’t send her mixed signals about discipline or appear to disagree about it in front of her.

Also, remember that any time she is tired or hungry or in a general toddler funk is NOT the time to be pushing for daddy time. If she’s hungry and wants Mommy to make her a sandwich, and you’re all, “No, Daddy will make your sandwich, Daddy makes the best sandwiches!”, I guaran-damn-tee that all your three-year-old is going to hear is “NO” and THAT will be what triggers the resulting freak-out. Have Mommy get her the sandwich…and have Daddy get her dessert. Like you noticed, toddler behavior deteriorates at night, so maybe focus more on the weekends for chances for him to get involved rather than trying to force the issue with an out-of-sorts kid. Again, her bedtime rejection of him probably isn’t so much about HIM, but because she’s tired and cranky and all she wants in the world is her regular routine, and why won’t you let her haaaaaave that, Mommy? Why is Daddy ruining things?

Aim to encourage time with Daddy when she’s at her best. Trips to the playground (where he can be “there” but she can still be independent) are good. A Saturday morning trip out to pick up donuts or bagels for the family could be a nice ritual (especially as it involves a treat AND doing something nice for Mommy). Have her call Daddy on the phone while he’s at work like a big girl, or have him bring her home little treats from his office. (My dad was a teacher, and used to bring home colored copier paper or little notebooks or highlighters for me, and OH MAN, that would make my whole night.) (And also possibly started my own life of stolen office supply crime.)

Also, do not underestimate the impact of a new sibling. The age difference between your girls is not much, but don’t think for a second that your older daughter doesn’t remember that there was a time when she had you all to herself. She may be afraid that if she doesn’t cling to you and constantly assert her preference, that you’ll suddenly “belong” to her sister. Maybe, instead of constantly praising Daddy during the day, she needs to hear more about you, and how special she is to you, and how you love spending time with her, blah blah blah — all the stuff that we all feel but sometimes forget to say out loud on a regular basis. Build up her confidence that you are not going anywhere, and that when Daddy steps in it’s not because you want to hide from her or prefer being with her sister.

But really, it IS a phase. A really normal, common phase. I hope, in the time it took me to get to your question, you’ve already seen an improvement. And you will, I PROMISE, as your daughter grows and matures and well, STOPS ACTING LIKE A THREE-YEAR-OLD. And all the wonderful, loving (but currently unappreciated) things your husband has been doing for his children will be the foundation to a fantastic father-daughter relationship for the rest of their lives.

 

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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EdenSky
Guest

I just wanted to help heap on the reassurance here, because you need it. My eldest daughter was the same way. For the first two years of her life she cried every time Daddy came into the room. When he got home from work he was greeted with “Oh no, not Daddy!” And I know it really hurt him. Like you I had PPD, and like your husband mine was a wonderful, caring, involved father. Like you I also have an 18 month old who adores Daddy. He’s always been more easy going than me, so by default I have… Read more »

De in D.C.
Guest

My son had the same preference for me that your daughter does; and I did all of the things you lament (his father occasionally bottle-fed; I was out of the house 2nights/week for classes). But my boy just preferred me and wouldn’t have anything to do with his father. We finally broke out of the rut when I was out of the country for 2mos right before he turned 6. When I came back, surprise, he wasn’t as dependent on me for EVERYTHING (just most things, haha). Even now, at 8 1/2, he still wants me more than his dad,… Read more »

Procrastamom
Guest
Procrastamom

My boy, who’s the baby of the family, preferred me over my husband for years. It was only after his preschool years that he wanted to spend extended periods of time with his Dad. My husband is the same as yours…completely involved in his kid’s lives, fed them, changed them, played with them every minute he was home, etc. What a let down it was for him to not be able to spend time alone with his only son. BUT!!! It did change eventually and now they’re the best of friends. They spend their weekends trolling the comic book and… Read more »

EH
Guest
EH

I have the reverse issue — my baby boy (almost 1) prefers his dad, a little bit. He doesn’t usually outright reject me, but if it’s a choice between going to Daddy or Mommy, he picks Daddy every time. As a mom, that is hard hard hard to take, and like the dads in these examples, I have questioned “what is wrong with me?” My husband is super-involved with the baby, but not MORE than me. So I am hoping the PHASE advice applies to me, too, and just adding my voice to the chorus of “there’s no logic to… Read more »

JennyMooMeow
Guest

My son is going throught this very same thing right now. He’s almost 3. Some days are very much all “Mommy do it” days, and some days he’s ok having Dad do things. I think he waffles a lot because of having a good day or bad day at daycare, so that influences the level of comfort he needs. It’s hard on me too, especially now that we have his new 4 month old baby sister in the picture. He’s normally very good with her. I’ve been careful to give him lots of attention and involve him in things I… Read more »

professormama
Guest
professormama

Completely a phase, totally normal, so so normal! Kids love their mommmies, until they get a little older and realize daddies are cool for al the reasons daddies are cool. My son was such a mama’s boy despite the fact that I work and his dad stayed home with him for a couple years. Now that he’s 4, his dad is by far way cooler than me, they go on adventures and build things with legos etc. He still likes a kiss and hug from mama when he gets hurt, and prefers me to put him to bed, but otherwise… Read more »

Kara
Guest
Kara

Totally a phase. My niece is three and OBSESSED with her “Papa” but wants little to do with her “Nana.” It’s just a thing. They do this. They’re fickle little creatures. My friend’s little girl (also 3) will yell at her, “You’re NOT my mommy and daddy IS my daddy. Go away, Mommy.” They’re three. It’s what they do. It’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s a developmental thing. They don’t understand hurt feelings because they don’t yet get that others have feelings. I agree that you shouldn’t punish her for her preference. But don’t pander to it,… Read more »

Lori
Guest
Lori

I echo the earlier posters and add my two cents: My husband felt horribly rejected by our infant daughter, who never, EVER had a bottle o’ NUTHIN’. All Mom’s boobs, all the time. I wore her like the proverbial sweater. It was a phase. He taught her to ride a bike at three, tell time at four, hit the snot out of a baseball at five. Fifteen years later, the daddy-daughter bond could not be stronger. I think he’ll be teaching oil changes this weekend. And for god’s sake, they go on ice cream dates. Relax. It’ll pass. I hope… Read more »

Angela
Guest
Angela

My son is three and he has always preferred his father over me. Just today at dinner, he told me “I don’t like you!’. Eh.. it didn’t really hurt my feelings because he loves me in other ways and I know it’s just a phase! He really doesn’t know what he is talking about and after all, he’s only three! They do not realize the impact their words make. Your husband will get his time with his daughter. I have my time with my daughter (21 months) and I know eventually, she’ll be all like ‘ Daddy!’. Funny thing though,… Read more »

Umi Hashitsume
Guest

I don’t have kids, but I still remember ONE day my father came to pick me up in Kindergarten. Boy, I CRIED! After that, my mother tells me he refused to come pick me up, because that incident traumatized him that bad… Later on it gets better. With my father, we grew distant, because he moved away… I think the important thing is this IS a phase and as long as the fathers keep at it the children will start being able to relate to them.

Amy-May
Guest
Amy-May

As the mother of 6, I’ll try to smack you gently 🙂 STOP PLAYING THE GAME! 3 year olds do not make decisions for adults. Period. Short of genuine illness, a 3 yo should not have the power to change a parents plans. Let her make 3 (1 per year of age) decisions a day. Stuff like, red shirt or blue, turkey or ham sandwich, or which book to read. NOT which parent helps her get dressed, makes the sandwich, reads the book or puts her to bed. You’re teaching her to be a fit thrower by allowing her “preference”… Read more »

Biju Mohan
Guest
Biju Mohan

Hi all, I’m a father of the cutest, 20 month old daughter. However, u can imagine my plight that I’m resorting to ‘googling’ what should a dad do when his child does not want him !!! I’m glad I read these reverts from all of you. It make me feel much much better to know that this is a normal phase; and that she too, like most of ur kids, will grow up to like & love her Dada as much as he loves and adores her. Gives me renewed strength to keep doing my part without expecting anything in… Read more »

Jamie's Mom
Guest
Jamie's Mom

I’m so glad to have found this site and hear that this is normal. I’m sure hoping you’re all right about the phase thing. My little 22 month old so often makes me feel left out when Daddy’s around. I can’t help but take it personally and it breaks my heart.I know there are times when she’s happy to be with me but it’s so hard not to be hurt when she chooses favorites.

jonah
Guest
jonah

Thank you Amy-May for offering some advice that very few parents are willing to follow: the parents make the decisions! My daughter regularly attempts to manipulate with the ”I don’t love daddy. I only love mommy” tactic. It goes over like a led balloon with me and my ex-wife. No, this is NOT a phase children go through. Enough with these silly blanket statements, please? The majority of children do not show intense inclination toward one parent over the other. Of our five children it is only the youngest who was 8 months at the time of divorce, who has… Read more »

Kinga
Guest
Kinga

I was looking up on this “preffered parent” subject, when I foung this forum. Thank you Amalah and guys for the comments.  I am home with my two girls, 9 and 34 moths old. My older one always wants Daddy and sometimes says: “go away Mummy” in additon to “I want Dadd to do it!”. I breastfed her until she was 1 and she was so clingy on me, she wouldn’t go with Daddy, she sreamed, cried….And here we are. She got clingy to Daddy just before my younger one was borne, since that, she’s acts differently when Daddy is… Read more »

LouB
Guest
LouB

Hello, Thanks for all these positive messages. It helps to know that I am not alone. My 2 year old son has ALWAYS preferred his father over me. He is wonderful with my son. But I am also very involved and do my very best to be a loving and funny mummy. Nothing works. He always wants Dad and tells me to go away. I cannot describe how I feel about this. I am so sad. Now, to be honest, I also have ALWAYS preferred my dad over my mum. As my two sisters did… I am ashamed about this… Read more »

Hillsbe
Guest
Hillsbe

I am glad to read all of these posts that are very similar to my situation. My son rarely wants to have anything to do with me and will always choose his mother over me. I hope this is just a phase and will come to pass I truly do. It’s very heart breaking to me.

H. Denise
Guest
H. Denise

Thanks for all the replies! So great to read about others going through same thing. Really helps me to feel not so alone.

J. O.
Guest
J. O.

Babies cannot “self-wean” at 5 months old. Most children wean on their own between 2 and 4 years old.
Other than that, good advice.

Jessica Brader
Guest
Jessica Brader

Yeah I did a double take on that sentence, I thought it was a typo, but I saw “self”, and just no..