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Parenting Traps

Playing favorites

Sometimes preschoolers prefer one parent.

By Shawn Peters
February 28, 2010

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Not long ago, in the middle of his bedtime routine, my son, Teddy, asked: “Daddy, who do you love more? Hazel or me?”

Since Hazel is his sister, I responded without hesitation, “I love you both the same.” But things weren’t always so balanced for our 4-year-old where his mother and I were concerned. For four months last year, I was Teddy’s favorite. At dinner, he wanted to sit with me. At Story Land, I had to ride with him on the Polar Coaster. If I arrived home while my wife, Sara, was reading a book to him, Teddy would demand I come in like a relief pitcher. Sure, he would accept his mother if I wasn’t around. But if I was within shouting distance, there was shouting until he got me.

Despite being our second child, Teddy had taken us into uncharted waters. Hazel always favored Sara, and I always accepted my second spot on the parental podium. She loved me but just wanted her mommy more. However, Teddy could be downright cruel, proclaiming, “I only love Daddy” in some of his least politic moments. Add to this the fact that the shift coincided with Sara’s return to teaching full time and it was easy to sense an element of payback.

I attempted to play peacemaker, telling Teddy, “I love Mommy very much, and I like people who are nice to her.” He wasn’t buying it, and for good reason, according to Stephen Robinson, a Needham developmental psychologist. “Children of this age see affection as a zero-sum game. They don’t understand that they can love or want two things the same,” explains Robinson. “But don’t pass judgment or try to talk a child out of his or her preference, and understand it can shift quickly from one parent to the other, depending on a child’s mood, age, or circumstances.”

Indeed, circumstances did change. One night, Teddy awoke from a nightmare crying, and when I dragged myself out of bed to comfort him, he wailed, “I only want Mommy!” Moments later, Teddy got his mommy, she got the parental validation she needed -- and I got to go back to bed. Finally, everyone was happy.

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