“I’VE BEEN DUMPED BY MY TODDLER”
Ever felt a bit smug to be your child’s favourite parent – only to suddenly get the cold shoulder? Louisa Pritchard reveals how to cope when you’re relegated to second place
Ever feel like you’re the second best parent?
There’s no single cause of favouritism; this shifting of affections is normal.
My son Huxley ran towards me with a huge smile on his face. But rather than falling into my arms, he veered past me… and straight to his dad. And since that moment, four weeks ago, I’ve been snubbed by my 19-month-old on a regular basis. Which, if I’m honest, does bring benefits (I’ll be over here having a Facebook catch-up then?), but there are times when being sidelined hurts. It’s a small consolation that I’m not the only one being ‘dumped’. A recent study found around one in four children under 10 prefer playing with their dads. Clinical psychologist Dr Claire Halsey says this shifting of allegiance can start when they are just nine months old. “This is around the time separation anxiety sets in and toddlers start to favour one parent over the other,” she says. “It can be upsetting for parents as their little one starts to swap between Mum and Dad and shows preference and favouritism. There’s no single cause; this shifting of affections is normal.”
And it’s just the start of something that will last throughout their early childhood. “It often settles down by the age of five when a child grows more rational and doesn’t like being ‘unfair’ so will appreciate time with each parent,” says parenting expert Tanith Carey. But from this age, there is also a developmental shift where boys, in particular, begin to separate from their mothers and identify more with their fathers. “Dads become their masculine role model, while little girls realise that they are the same gender as their mums,” says Tanith.
Who’s THE FUN ONE?
I’d assumed there would always be a special bond between mother and child. I took a year off on maternity leave, and now work part-time so I can spend as much time with my son as possible. But it turns out that could be the reason he sees Daddy as the ‘fun’ one. “The person to be cast aside is usually the one who has been the closest to the child,” adds Claire. “When your toddler is at the age where you need to start teaching right from wrong, that parent swaps from full-time nurturing to doing more of the disciplining. Babies and toddlers are very motivated to get their needs met. And if you are blocking them, they will swap to someone who will give them their way.”
This explains the switch of allegiance in my house, given I’m the one constantly saying ‘no’ while my husband lets our son do anything he wants (yes, climbing on top of the coffee table, then eating chocolate for a snack). That doesn’t mean you should loosen the rules – but Tanith does suggest you make a note of how many times you are saying ‘no’ and ‘don’t’ in a day (in my case, I lost count after 26...). “Keep in mind that the best way to improve a child’s behaviour is not telling them off for what they do wrong but by acknowledging when they do something right,” she says.
Split THE LOAD
Sometimes toddlers switch their affections overnight. Catia, 32, and mum to James, two, shares; “It started when we were on holiday at Easter. From the time we arrived at the airport – and for the next two weeks – all James wanted was Daddy. Since then, he’ll always choose his dad over me.”
So could it be that dads are just (whisper it) more fun? “A reason why Dad is often popular when he comes home is because he’s more likely to give a toddler the undivided attention he craves,” says Tanith. And if you’re at work, the reality is, even today, dads multi-task less than mums. “When a working mum comes home at the end of the day, she can’t wait to see her child, but by comparison she’s more likely to be worrying about what else she has to do – such as making dinner or repacking the daycare bag – as soon as she has set foot in the door,” says Tanith. In an ideal world, these tasks should be shared equally so you can both have playtime, too.
Enjoy YOUR FREEDOM
Not everyone minds too much when they are dumped. Jess, 33, and mum to Evie, 20 months, says, “She switches between my husband and I, and to be honest, I quite like it when Daddy is the favourite. He should have special time with her too, plus when she’s in a ‘daddy’s girl’ mood I can have a glass of wine, catch up with friends on the phone, go out shopping… it’s liberating!”
If you are the favourite, the trick is to resist the temptation to be flattered. “Going along with your toddler’s demands and adding to the exclusion by telling your partner, ‘Yes, she likes it better when I do it’, will only reduce the involvement of the less favoured parent. If your toddler constantly comes to you for drinks, cuddles and bedtime, tell them you know someone who would love to help: Daddy.”
For Betty, 28, her son Taylor, two, shifted his attentions to his dad when she got pregnant. “When you’re pregnant, your attention is slightly elsewhere,” Claire says. “It’s a clever strategy on the child’s part to recognise someone else might have more time than Mummy. But it’s important to remember it’s not a permanent thing.” Which is a relief to hear. So my plan for getting equal quality time with my son? Sharing the housework, persuading his dad to do more of the disciplining and getting down on the floor to play more. If all else fails, there’s always chocolate…
If you are the favourite, resist the temptation to be flattered