Playing favorites (reprise)

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  September 13, 2011 06:00 AM

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My wife and I have a wonderful 3 year old. Our daughter shows incredible empathy for a child of 3 and is developmentally near the norm in every other way.

Recently, I changed shifts at work, temporarily, to a shift that gets me home after she goes to bed. I get to spend time with her in the morning and she is very well behaved. We have fun, eat breakfast, play (time permitting) and I get her ready for her day care. I love that time.

My wife picks her up from day care and has the exact opposite experience. Our daughter tells her she doesn't like her, they aren't friends and that she wants daddy. She melts down if there are any delays in getting what she wants and resists going to bed. My wife is at the end of her rope. It is a drama that may as well be called The Tale of Two Children.

Is this my fault for changing shifts? If so, how do we help her cope and convince her to be as good with mom as she is with me?

From: Brendan, Rhode Island


Dear Brendan,

I know you may not believe me, but this is not about you, it's about her. (Besides, your logic doesn't follow; if she's angry at you, why would it be mom she's rejecting?)

This is a phase and, as I wrote here in response to a similar question last month, playing favorites is about asserting independence, exerting control over the world, and maintaining predictability. The best way to think about this is that your daughter is testing the absoluteness of mom's love: "Will mom still love me if I'm not nice? Will she still take care of me? Will she still be my mommy?"

Mom's answer, obviously, needs to be yes. She communicates that through her consistency and limit-setting, and by not venting the hurt feelings she may well harbor. Don't compare to your daughter how she behaves with you versus with mom (or vice versa, as in, "Why can't you be good for me, like you are for daddy?!") That amounts to a competition and nobody wins. Mom mostly needs to weather this matter-of-factly. Please read my previous posts, above and here.

By the way, it's actually easier to deal with this preferential treatment when the other parent isn't home because the child eventually has to come around because there's no one else for her to turn to. (As I said last month, when the in-favor parent steps in because the child won't go to the out-of-favor parent, it amounts to a rescue, as if the in-favor parent is saying, "You're right, dad/mom can't take care of you as well as I can.")

And listen, Brendan -- stop piling on the guilt! Life happens. Children are resilient.

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2 comments so far...
  1. Let's look at the obvious. The letter writer gets the morning shift, when his daughter is well rested and ready to go. They get to have breakfast and play, and I'm sure this is done at a fairly leisurely pace. Mommy gets the after school/after work 5 PM bewitching hour that involves the dreaded bedtime when everyone is exhausted and mom probably just wants a few minutes to herself.

    Then there's child development. Its developmentally appropriate for a 3 year old girl choose daddy over mommy when it gets to crunch time.

    Shift work is very hard on families and marriages. There was an article in the Globe a few years back on how marriages where the partners work split shifts are something like 2x more likely to end in divorce, so I think its important for the letter writer and his wife to be on the same page and communicating really well.

    Posted by ash September 13, 11 08:45 AM
  1. Actually, it probably IS about the shift change - but not in the way that the LW thinks. When my husband changed jobs and again when he changed shifts, we had a very similar experience. The daughter may well be "blaming" her mother in that special way that only toddlers can for her father's absence/disruption of her routine.

    My 3 year-old who sounds very similar did almost exactly the same thing. I was blamed when Daddy went back to work in the first place!But it's normal. And it passes. And it stinks while it's passing - at least, for the parent who's on the outs at the moment - but Barbara's advice is pretty spot on.

    Continue the routine as best you can while incorporating the changes into it. After a while, it becomes normal and she'll get used to it, especially when she sees that she won't be getting anywhere by fighting it.

    Posted by Phe September 13, 11 08:56 AM
 
2 comments so far...
  1. Let's look at the obvious. The letter writer gets the morning shift, when his daughter is well rested and ready to go. They get to have breakfast and play, and I'm sure this is done at a fairly leisurely pace. Mommy gets the after school/after work 5 PM bewitching hour that involves the dreaded bedtime when everyone is exhausted and mom probably just wants a few minutes to herself.

    Then there's child development. Its developmentally appropriate for a 3 year old girl choose daddy over mommy when it gets to crunch time.

    Shift work is very hard on families and marriages. There was an article in the Globe a few years back on how marriages where the partners work split shifts are something like 2x more likely to end in divorce, so I think its important for the letter writer and his wife to be on the same page and communicating really well.

    Posted by ash September 13, 11 08:45 AM
  1. Actually, it probably IS about the shift change - but not in the way that the LW thinks. When my husband changed jobs and again when he changed shifts, we had a very similar experience. The daughter may well be "blaming" her mother in that special way that only toddlers can for her father's absence/disruption of her routine.

    My 3 year-old who sounds very similar did almost exactly the same thing. I was blamed when Daddy went back to work in the first place!But it's normal. And it passes. And it stinks while it's passing - at least, for the parent who's on the outs at the moment - but Barbara's advice is pretty spot on.

    Continue the routine as best you can while incorporating the changes into it. After a while, it becomes normal and she'll get used to it, especially when she sees that she won't be getting anywhere by fighting it.

    Posted by Phe September 13, 11 08:56 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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