Does Your Child Have a Favorite?

All the caregivers in a child’s life work hard for the success of their children. However, children between the ages of one and three years sometimes show a preference for only one parent. This can be hard to handle when both parents love and want to be loved equally.

Take heart in the fact that this favoritism is a typical pattern of toddlerhood. During this turbulent time children often have a need for predictability and routine. For this reason, they will often show a preference for a parent who regularly completes a part of the routine to continue to play out that role. In this way, the routine does not change. For instance, toddlers often have a preference for one parent during bath time or bed time. If the same person does the same routine each night, the toddler will have a sense of predictability.  If another caregiver decides to take on the evening routine, the toddler senses that the routine will change and the predictability is lost. A toddler will not have the cognitive ability to really deeply understand or explain this sense of loss, so his natural reaction is crying, tantruming and demanding that the “favorite” continues to carry out the duties.

Another reason that a toddler may show preference for one caregiver over another is parenting style and availability. Some toddlers will show a clear preference for the adult who tends to be away during the day. In this instance, the toddler is showing a preference because there is less time with that parent. Often, when a parent arrives home from a long day away, there is a reunion filled with giggles and silliness and games. There is a true joy in the reunion. When there is more playfulness involved in an interaction, the toddler may gravitate towards that adult.

Siblings can also strongly influence favoritism in a toddler. If a new baby is getting lots of necessary attention from one parent, the toddler may swiftly move to the other parent in an attempt to get an equal amount of attention. The need for attention and love when a new sibling arrives is best handled by providing that attention and love–a toddler is a very vulnerable little person and needs quite a bit of reassurance!

There are steps you can take in your family to deal with and address this favoritism:

  • Remember the favoritism is not a personal attack. It is a developmentally typical behavior in toddlers. The favoritism is likely to shift from parent to parent throughout the years, so accept this current situation knowing that it could easily change soon.
  • In order to keep routines similar, complete caregiving tasks together to be sure both caregivers understand the “rules of the routine”. Do we sing a night-time song before or after our book? Do pajamas go on before or after brushing teeth? How many drinks of water do we offer after lights out? If the routine is not significantly different for the toddler, there may be more of a tolerance for either parent to complete the necessary tasks when the other parent is off-duty.
  • Throughout the course of your month, have each parent complete each of the tasks of caregiving. Allow your child to see that any adult in the household can get dinner on the table, or choose the toddler’s clothes for the day, or comb and braid hair. Children are beginning to get a sense of what it means to be a certain gender, and the modeling we offer them about what we are capable of doing will be the foundation for the decisions they are making about themselves and the world around them.
  • Having both caregivers involved in the routine in a sort of assembly-line style can also take the favoritism out of an activity. In the morning one parent could be in charge of waking the toddler and getting a diaper changed and clothes put on. The other parent is in charge of brushed teeth and breakfast. This sends the message that all the adults in the household are caregivers and everyone has a role in the routine.
  • Use your best judgement about how to react to your toddler’s favoritism. In some situations it does make sense to allow the child’s preference to influence who completes a task.  You are not giving in if you believe it is emotionally important to your toddler to allow this preference.  In other situations it makes sense to have a parent complete a task even when the child is feeling very sad about not spending time with his preferred parent. In this instance it is ok to acknowledge that you both miss the other parent right now.  Then be the parent who offers love and encouragement and kindness in the face of your child’s sadness. Take the time to hug and cuddle and sing until you both feel better.
  • Remember that each parent has a unique approach to parenting. It can be tempting to see another person’s approach as “wrong” because it isn’t what we would do. However, parenting is a partnership, not an example of cloning. Allow each caregiver to approach tasks and caregiving in a way that is natural for that person. The learning curve for doing new things with children is usually pretty steep, and the best way to learn (as any toddler will tell you) is to get yourself deep into the experience! If we continue to offer suggestions of better approaches, we tend to undermine the confidence of the other parent. Keep the routine similar, but allow each parent’s personality to shine through in the tasks.
  • Ensure that the media and books you enjoy with your child portray each member of a family involved in a wide variety of different roles and caregiving tasks.
  • If you are dealing with a toddler’s favoritism, find private times away from your child to talk about the issue and how you will approach caregiving. Children hear everything–they have a habit of learning from us even when we don’t intend to be teaching.

Enjoy the time that you are a preferred parent with your toddler. Also enjoy the time when you get to watch the special relationship develop between your partner and your child. Building connections in these early years will provide a nest of comfort for your family which your child will count on when he grows older and moves further out into the world.


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