“I Want Mommy!” How do you handle a kid who plays favorites?

You know those days when you child worships the other parent as nothing less than an emissary from Mount Olympus while you are greeted with the same enthusiasm she reserves for a plate of lentils? For some reason, dining out seems to encourage this behavior. You sidle into your booth at the kid-friendly, sticky-plastic-menu-restaurant, only to be shoved by your offspring, who announces that only sitting next to Daddy will do. Or, at three A.M. your six-year-old, who claims to be on the verge of death-by-dehydration, refuses so much as a dribble of water if it isn’t delivered by Mommy. At times like these, parenthood can feel like a bad middle-school drama where you are definitely not invited to the cool table.

I’d love to hear how different couples handle this situation. A toddler or pre-schooler’s favoritism can be subtle, but sometimes the hostility toward one parent is so thick it’s troubling. No blog or parenting web expert can diagnose why a particular kid is voting Mom or Dad off the island or tell you whether it’s something to worry about. But, if all else seems to be going well for a child and the snubbing hasn’t gone on for months, it’s probably just a part of growing up.  At different stages kids gravitate more toward one parent or the other for various developmental reasons. There certainly isn’t one perfect approach to handling these slights. But here are some guidelines I’ve culled from talking with parents, child psychologists, and child psychologists who are parents:

Don’t Compete. It’s a fact of parenthood that kids play favorites. But vying to be number one in Junior’s heart by overtly or subtly encouraging him to love you more is going to wound both your marriage and your kid.

Keep Your Sense of Humor The best response when your daughter bats her lashes at Dad and treats Mom like the evil stepmother (or vice versa) is a good natured laugh. Repeat to yourself over and over that your child’s feelings are perfectly normal and not any indication of your real worth to him or the world. You wouldn’t take as gospel a two-year-old’s objective assessment of anything else, so why should his current view of your self-worth or parenting skills merit serious consideration?

Indulge It. As long as a child’s preference doesn’t infringe on others’ rights or inconvenience them there’s no harm in granting a child’s request to sit next to his current favorite or have Daddy read his goodnight story. (Lopsided affection is sometimes a sign that the kid has missed one parent lately.)

Let Them Know It Hurts.  Guide kids toward seeing that playing favorites makes people feel bad. By three or four, children start to understand that their words and actions affect others. But it’s still implausible to them that they could truly influence the emotions of their all-powerful parents. The discovery can be pretty eye-opening to a young child. You don’t want to instill guilt in a kid for doing what comes naturally, so a light touch is recommended. Just point out how it makes you or the other parent feel. The odds are that your child isn’t going to grasp what you’re saying in any comprehensive way. But it’s still worth laying the groundwork. (In older kids, showing a preference is deliberate mean-ness and should be addressed as such.)

Keep Them in Their Place. It’s a normal part of growing up for young kids to develop “crushes” on one parent or the other. When he was a toddler, Ethan whined whenever his father announced he was going on a business trip. But at five that whining was replaced by a look of calculation in his young eyes. “Good,” he announced matter-of-factly. “I can kiss Mommy like you do.” Ethan needed to be told gently that kissing Mommy like grown-ups do wasn’t goiing to happen, whether his dad was at home or on Mars. Ethan wasn’t happy to hear the news, but life is filled with such necessary disappointments.

Get Used to It. Expect to spend plenty of time as the unfavored parent. By the teen years it will probably even out–it’s doubtful your kid will friend either of you on Facebook.

I’d love to hear what you think of this advice and if you have anything to add.

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