The newborn stage is when your baby needs his mom the most. But at some point into toddlerhood, your little one might take to his father more often than you’d prefer. He suddenly wants Dad to dress him, hand him his milk, tuck him into bed, and do other things he used to want only Mom to do.
What happens at this stage is that your baby is playing favorites, which is completely normal. It’s a typical phase in child development, and it will pass. If you’re the rejected parent, it’s understandable to feel a bit insecure or threatened. Your feelings are valid. However, understanding what is behind your child’s actions could shed light on what he’s going through.
Why toddlers play parent favorites
Babies and very young kids depend on their parents to survive. “A child definitely needs to attach,” parenting educator and expert Michele Borba, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, told Fatherly. “They usually attach more and love more with the person who’s with them most, and they feel safest with,” she explained. Naturally, they’re closest to who gives them a bath, feeds them, and who they’re with every day.
As your child grows, however, he will need, and sometimes actually want, to learn to do things on his own. Playing favorites is a sign of your child’s emotional and cognitive growth. Here's why your toddler sometimes prefers one parent over the other.
Your child is testing boundaries and trying new things
Your little one starts playing favorites with his growing independence. At about age 2, your toddler realizes he’s a separate person from you. He may also get a whiff that spending alone time with one parent lets him get all the attention. He’s trying new things and is discovering his preferences. Maybe he wants to see how Dad tackles, say, bedtime stories, and perhaps he likes doing it with him.
He’s learning imagination and memory skills
Your toddler’s newfound independence widens his world, and not just physically. He’s discovering new people, and it’s only logical that it starts with Dad (the other parent whom he perhaps doesn’t get to spend as much time with). It’s similar to meeting new playmates, teachers, or even a new yaya. Spending time with another person is the first step to developing other relationships. Nonetheless, he’s going to need your help putting feelings into words, weighing options, and making better choices.
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He feels secure enough of your love
If you are not your toddler’s favorite parent at the moment, it’s not because he doesn’t feel secure with you or loved by you. It’s the opposite: “He’s secure enough in your love to know that he can jilt you and still get a warm welcome back,” child psychologist Krista L. Swanson Ph.D., told Parents.
Keep in mind that your toddler is not doing it deliberately to hurt your feelings, so stop dwelling on the negative. (Parents play favorites, too, even if they don’t mean to!) Snubbing your child can sow resentment. There is no room for jealousy; your child has so much love to give to both you and your partner.
At times, your toddler’s favor will shift from you to your partner, and vice versa, but it doesn’t mean you should always play into it. It’s okay to be firm and calmly explain to your child why, say, his preferred parent is not available to him at the moment. For example, if his dad is working late, and your child wants to wait for him to come home to eat, try not to make it sound like you’re imposing. Assure your little one that he can spend time with his favorite parent another time.
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Focus on more important things. Let your child know and feel that you love him no matter how many times he rejects you — and don’t get tired of trying to get him to bond with you as well. If you’re the parent favorite, don’t hoard your child’s attention. Try to make it a group thing, instead of alienating your partner more. Parenting is teamwork, and communication is vital.
Learn what works for your child and adapt. Why does your child prefer to do certain activities with his dad? Maybe he’s better at reading bedtime stories with feelings, so try to emulate how he does it. You and your partner should be on the same page, after all, especially when it comes to discipline. Set some boundaries, but aim for shared duties and play a balanced role in your child’s life.
When your toddler wants to spend more time with your partner, think of it as a welcome escape. Use your newfound alone time for other things that you need to attend to, such as yourself. Make the most out of it.