Our three year old daughter has started showing a strong preference for Mommy, especially at bedtime. We are trying to be positive and respectful of her wishes, but I am expecting another child in May, and we need to set boundaries about my availability to her. Thus far, setting boundaries often leads to tears, shouting, and temper tantrums that include hitting Daddy. It does go better when we talk it out with her ahead of bedtime. However, “better” still entails screaming, and tantrums are directed at the air as opposed to Daddy or Mommy. Shouting at the air is a distinct improvement over hitting or shouting at us, but we probably need some more tools for this situation.
Wouldn’t parenting be so much easier if we could avoid ever displeasing our children? That certainly was (and still is) one of my biggest parenting fantasies. Especially when the inevitable blowback comes at an inconvenient time — when we’re tired, rushed, hungry, ill, or facing a challenging transition of some kind (like expecting a baby). Yet ironically, those often are the times our children make wishes we can’t grant. Kids seem to absorb our stress and then unconsciously attempt to express it through demanding, limit-pushing behavior.
Toddlers and preschoolers commonly go through phases when they play favorites with parents. They do this for a variety of reasons, which I’ll address later in this post. But first, here are my overall recommendations for each of the parents involved. As with all aspects of parenting, what matters most is our attitude.
Rejected Parents should embrace this opportunity (yes, really!), because it is the role of a lifetime with hero written all over it. Sure, “No, Mommy (or Daddy), I don’t want you!” does not feel nice, but remember:
- Our children’s adoration is a given, and hard as that may be to believe in the face of “go away, Mommy,” it isn’t at all personal.
- Young children live in the moment. So, “I don’t want you” (or even “I don’t like you”) means “I don’t want you in this moment,” or “I don’t want you to do this activity with me”, etc. These are temporary and superficial, rather than deep and permanent rejections.
- Our child only feels safe rejecting us because he or she is secure in our love. So, rejection is a back-handed compliment of sorts. We’re doing something right. Of course, it still feels crappy.
As the Rejected Parent, we are called to demonstrate our super-awesome ability to confidently rise above the fray, be the mature adult, not take the slightest offense, and ideally, keep our sense of humor (as true heroes do). To do so means acknowledging, “You really, really want Daddy to give you your bath today. He’s busy, so you are unfortunately stuck with me. It’s terribly disappointing. I know!” No sarcasm allowed.
If our child is screaming or melting down, it’s safest to remain silent and fully accepting while perhaps empathically nodding our head. Verbally acknowledging during a meltdown can be perceived by children as talking them out of their feelings, in which case it becomes invalidation and totally backfires. If there’s hitting or other violence, we stay calm and stop this from happening as best we can, which might mean setting our child down (if we’re carrying her) and giving her a moment to express herself safely while we contain her actions as competently as we can.
When we handle rejection heroically, we are models of emotional maturity, and our children receive many positive, invaluable messages like:
My parents are confident leaders and not afraid of me.
Anger and disappointment are safe feelings to have and to express.
My parents have personal boundaries and self-respect.
The Preferred Parent’s role also calls for bravery, the everyday kind of courage that parents of toddlers begin to find very familiar. We’re called to state our limits with complete confidence in our choices and, as importantly, confidence in our child to be able to accept them. We also exhibit our utter faith in our Rejected Partner as an able and loving parent. We must be direct and definitive.
Like the Rejected Parent, we accept the full force of our child’s disagreement and acknowledge, “You really want me. I hear you. I’m not going to be available. Daddy will be the one to bathe you tonight.”
We don’t waiver. Nor do we wait for or expect our child to give us permission, or try to plead our case. We don’t think “poor baby,” because the pity that feeling projects both underestimates our child and undermines (if not insults) our Rejected Partner.
General rule of parenting: It’s next to impossible for children to comfortably accept our limits if we are anything but sure ourselves.
Toddlers and preschoolers play favorites when:
They need to express fear, sadness, anger. Holding our limits while heroically encouraging our children to express their “disagreement” is the organic way we can help.
They sense it bothers the Rejected Parent. When it doesn’t bother us, children pass through this phase more readily.
Parents are unclear about boundaries. Clear, empathetic boundaries around preferences can help us turn this tide and give our children the leadership that they need.
They feel more intimacy with the parent with whom they spend the most time. Allowing our children to disagree with us and fully express their strong feelings is an intimate experience that is profoundly validating. There is no better way to promote bonding. I also recommend that Rejected Parents make every effort to participate with the child in intimate caregiving activities like diapering, bathing, and bedtime rituals.
They sense their parent pulling away. Again, children will tend to push our limits when they need to express feelings of fear or anxiety. Holding our limits around preferences offers them the safest possible channel. I also recommend bringing mysteries (like pregnancies) out into the open by briefly and honestly explaining them to our children.
While being the Preferred Parent is flattering, it is also exhausting. It can be very difficult to turn down our adoring, desperate child’s requests (or demands). But in the name of self-preservation, it’s important to distinguish “want” from “need”. Does your child really need you to put on her shoes while you’re trying to use the bathroom? Or would Rejected Daddy’s 30+ years of shoe-tying experience suffice? Hmm…
For more, I also have a podcast on this topic:
And I offer a complete guide to respectful boundaries in my book No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame
(Photo by Peter Lindberg on Flickr)