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What to Do When Your Child Has a Preferred Parent


Published February 2, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated April 6, 2022 at 9:23 a.m.

Keegan with his family - COURTESY OF KEEGAN ALBAUGH
  • Courtesy of Keegan Albaugh
  • Keegan with his family

"All right, time to get out!" I exclaimed, lifting my 2-year-old daughter, Penelope, out of the tub. As I dried her off, her giggles quickly turned to cries when she realized how cold it was.

"Just a moment, Penny," I told her. I quickly toweled her off, wrapped her up and carried her to her bedroom while she vocalized her displeasure.

There, I attempted to get Penelope's pajamas on, typically a quick and easy process. On this night, though, my daughter was crying and wet enough to make slipping on pajamas difficult. I tried to move quickly, but it wasn't fast enough.

"I want Mommy," cried Penny.

"It's OK, Penny. I can help you," I responded.

"I want Mommy!" cried Penny, once again.

"We're almost done, Penny! Just give me another minute," I pleaded.

"Mommy! Mommy!"

My partner, Stephanie, had been in the other room listening to the situation unfold. She was walking the line of letting me take care of our upset daughter versus knowing when to step in. At this moment, she decided it was time to intervene.

"Can I help?" Stephanie asked, popping her head into the doorway. Regardless of my answer, I knew Penny had seen her mother and it was time for me to tag out. I left the room and let Stephanie take over.

I felt defeated and upset. It was just another example of Penny expressing her preference for Stephanie over me.

Because this was a moment of distress, it was understandable that Penny cried out for the parent she prefers. But there are so many other times she asks for her mother instead of allowing me to assist her: when it's time to read a bedtime story, when she needs her face cleaned after dinner, and even when she needs her butt wiped after using the potty.

Most days, Penny reminds me dozens of times that she prefers her mother over me. And it hurts. A lot.

It hurts because I feel like I am giving Penny and her 4-year-old sister, Coraline, so much of myself. I drop them off and pick them up from school almost every day. I cook for them and pack their lunches. I read them stories and take them on hikes. But no matter what I do, I usually feel like I'm a second-class parent.

According to Dr. Jennifer Bragg, a neonatologist at New York City's Mount Sinai Health System, "most babies develop a preference for their mother within 2 to 4 months of age. From birth, the combination of sight, smell, and sound likely all help babies distinguish their mother from others. Breastfeeding is the perfect distance between mom's eyes and baby's eyes, and babies like to look at their mother's face while they breastfeed. Then there's clearly smell, and the sound of their mother's voice, which they've been listening to the entire time they were in the womb."

That all makes sense. I understand why a child may be naturally inclined to prefer their birth mother over anyone else. Combine that with the fact that Stephanie was able to take 12 weeks of maternity leave after each child was born, and it's obvious there was a lot of bonding happening.

But also, according to research published in 2013 in the academic journal Infant Behavior & Development, toddlers show a preference for their primary caregiver when experiencing distress. I guess it depends on how you define "primary caregiver," but I feel like I'm the parent who spends more face-to-face time with our children. So shouldn't they prefer me most of the time?

It isn't always clear why children have a preferred parent. It could be who gave birth to them. It could be who feeds them more snacks. It could be who makes the best voice when reading a book or who gives the best kiss on a boo-boo. It could even be who dances best to MC Hammer in the kitchen or who more closely resembles their favorite character in a television show.

And that preference ebbs and flows. One parent may be the favorite for a week. Or a month. Or a year. But from what I hear from parents of older children, a child's parental preference can bounce back and forth many times over the years.

That being said, navigating those moments of rejection is hard. And these days, nearly a year into a global pandemic, the last thing you need to feel is that someone in your own home doesn't like you. Here are some tips for getting through it.

  • Remember that it's not about you. It's easy to feel bad about your parenting when you're the second choice, but this is also totally normal in a child's development.
  • Balance the time as much as possible. Do what you can to ensure that both parents are spending plenty of quality time with the kids. Additionally, make sure one parent isn't always doing the "fun" things while the other focuses on the necessary things, such as feeding, bathing, trimming nails and brushing hair.
  • Get on the same parenting page. Similar and consistent responses from both parents can help children understand they'll get the same message regardless of the messenger. If, for example, one parent takes a class on raising children with emotional intelligence and the other doesn't, it's easy for divides to form. When you learn new strategies, share them with your partner.
  • Establish routines. When kids know what to expect, they're less likely to feel distressed and seek out the parent with whom they feel safest. Predictable routines for occasions such as bath and bedtime help kids understand the plan and who is responsible for each role.
  • Build up excitement. For a while, Penny wasn't letting me put her to bed at night. So at breakfast, I started pointing to her and saying, "Hey! Guess what? It's Daddy's turn to put you to bed tonight!" and then doing a little dance. It's been great to see her go from crying at the idea of me putting her to bed to laughing and clapping her hands.

Recently, I had a successful bedtime experience with Penny. We read stories, sang songs and both cracked up as she tried to "eat" the strings on my sweatshirt. Two hours before, she had been crying as I tried wiping her after she used the potty, saying emphatically that she wanted Mommy to do it. The preferences of a toddler can be all over the place, even within a few hours. And that's normal. I just need to keep telling myself not to take it personally.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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