Preschoolers often play favorites. They have a favorite pair of shoes or a favorite meal or a favorite stuffed friend they like to carry around with them. Sometimes it can be tough for parents, though, when a preschooler has a favorite parent.
Feeling rejected by a 3 or 4 year old consistently can be rough for a mom or dad. When a child only wants mom to strap him into the car seat, give him a bath, read his stories, cut his chicken, put him to bed, or kiss his boo boo dad can feel sorely left out. When mom gets literally pushed aside so Janey can sit next to dad on the couch or gets yelled at to go away to have dad catch her when she comes down the slide or will sob if mom drops her off at school instead of dad, it’s hard to feel like your child is well attached to you as a parent.
Some children go through phases of being more attached to one parent or another at different times; it ebbs and flows but when you are in the thick of it, it can be hard to see that the phase will end and instead worry that your child will forever be somewhat detached.
Sometimes parents (not suprisingly) get impatient for the phase to pass. The crying and discomfort when the preferred parent isn’t available is a lot to bear and in these situations I have a couple of strategies I offer families that can help. They are both variations on the same theme and which of these you choose depends on the logistics of your family life.
The first strategy is called Mom Day/Dad Day. If both parents work this may be a good choice. Look at the family calendar and work it out. It doesn’t necessarily have to alternate where Mom is Monday and then Dad is Tuesday, but the days should be roughly evenly split and then the calendar color coded for the child to see. Every night before bed, the bedtime parent identifies for the preschooler whose day it is tomorrow and then that parent gets to do the lion’s share of the fun stuff. The stuff that the parent gets to do is listed on the calendar, too, so there’s no confusion and remains consistent. So each day the parent of the day may get to do school drop off, bath and bedtime, pick out clothes for the next day, and have reading time.
The list needn’t be exhaustive and shouldn’t be. It should include a few things that are the hot-button items so that the non-preferred parent gets the chance to do a few things. You may only have 3 or 4 things on the list and that’s fine. The idea is to have both parents involved every day, mandated at first and then as things get easier again you won’t need to identify the parent of the day. By making it part of the plan there’s no negotiation or wavering, the child and the parents know who is doing what. At first there may be some balking when the less preferred parent is the parent of the day, but if you treat it matter-of-factly within a few days the new routine will be entrenched.
The other option is Mom Card/Dad Card. This is a good option when parent work schedules are variable so committing to Mom Day or Dad Day might be tough. In this case the child is given 4 cards each day, 2 each of 2 different colors: one for mom, one for dad. When the child wants a specific parent to assist with a task like bed or bath time, pick up or drop off at school, or to take him to the park for example, he can use one of his parent-specific cards if the preferred parent is physically present and available. Once the 2 cards for preferred parent have been used (the child will still have 2 for the less popular parent in his hand), then all negotiations cease and the available parent does the task at hand.
When the child balks, the parent can respond by gently saying, “I’m sorry you’re frustrated that mom can’t help you with your bath tonight but you used your mom cards earlier today already. Tomorrow you might want to save a mom card if it’s really important to have mom do your bath” and leave it at that. There will be tears but if you treat it matter of factly and reinforce the choices your child had, then this technique can really work.
Whether you ride it out with the tincture of time or use one of the techniques I’ve described, remember that parent preference is a phase that many preschoolers go through and isn’t a reflection of your ability as a parent or a death knell for your future relationship with your child. Hang in there as a loving, supportive parent and spouse and perhaps you can even find a little bit of enjoyment in the fact that you have a few extra moments of alone time!