To the UNPreferred Parent

img courtesy mrclark321 on Photography-on-the-net

img courtesy mrclark321 on Photography-on-the-net

I am the mum of an 2.5-yr old who for most of her life (as soon as she was able to express preferences) has shown a strong (not slight) preference for me. Like all modern day parents I asked google how to stop this. The general opinion on the web and from parents we spoke to was to wait it out. My husband and I instead stubbornly tried a zillion things to change my daughter’s behaviour and I’m going to go against popular opinion out there and say to the UNpreferred parent – You can do something about this. You don’t have to wait for your kid to outgrow this behaviourBelow are things that worked for us.

For the sake of easy writing, I’m assuming the UNpreferred parent is the father here (not always the case) and am referring to the child in the masculine.

The DOs

1. Spend time as a family: Your child sees you as a daddy, but depending on how old he is, he may not get what that means. This will be even more true especially if your partner has been staying at home while you work outside of the home. You need to change that. Start with making sure you are creating family time when you are at home. If mum gives a bath make it parents give a bath. If mum reads a bedtime story, make sure you are there right next to him either doing some of the reading if he allows it or just listening. He sees mummy as his comfort blanket. This is the start of extending his definition of that blanket to include you. It won’t work if you get involved for a week and then stop the next week. Consistency, routines are important at this age.

“Everyone loves splashing in muddy puddles”

2. Carve out your special time: When you are both ready start carving out your special time with your child. Start small with something you know your child enjoys – splashing in muddy puddles, staring at a particular store window, singing loud nursery rhymes together. You can increase the time you spend together as the bond grows. The important thing here is that it’s your special time with your child – your partner, the preferred parent, cannot be a part of it. (Initially she may be in the room or same space, if the kid gets anxious when she is not around, but she should not participate in the activity.)

3. Create your special activities: When you’ve achieved #2 introduce your child to something you enjoy and make it your thing to do with him. Like reading? Go to the library, read and check out books together. Like dancing/a sport? Sign up for toddler & parent dance/sport classes. Again this is your time to bond with your baby alone. Watch out though – if you find your child is not enjoying the activity despite several attempts, abandon it and try another activity.

4. Be a Child: Kids are simple, they just want to laugh and have fun. Your child will seek you if you increase how happy he feels. The best way to do this is to be a child with him. My daughter and I, we splash in muddy puddles, giggle together when we destroy a sand castle, pump up the music and dance stupid, chase each other with bubble guns… you get the gist. Figure how you can be a child with your kid.

Comfort Blanket

Be their Comfort Blanket

5. Become their comfort blanket:  Kids have a very strong radar for safety. When they are sad, nervous, sleepy,  hungry they want the person who makes them feel good and safe. Doing this requires emotional intelligence as much as just being there for him. When your child is crying are you able to tell whether he is sleepy, hungry, in pain, or scared? If not, it’s not too difficult to pick this up. As you spend more time together you will read him better especially if it’s quality time. (See the do nots below.) Ask your partner to share the cues that help her figure out why your child was upset. If you are able to fix his problems just as well as she does your child will soon see you as a source of safety and comfort and will get more independent of her.

6. Comfort right: This is an extension of the above but I’ve read a lot on this and there is something particular I’d like to suggest. If he isn’t already, your toddler will soon start throwing fits – absolute nonsensical fits like when you move his teddy a few inches or help him into his pyjamas. During these fits kids feel an uncontrollable rage and no amount of logic works to stop it. I suggest you let him cry it out. Be close and offer to hold him, let him know you love him unconditionally, but don’t force him to stop crying or to come to you. It’s counter-intuitive but the tantrums are shorter and they come to you sooner for comfort when you don’t ask them to stop.

7. Ask for help: Ask your partner what your child prefers for any and everything. It’s possible that if she has spent more time with your kid she knows how he prefers his bananas cut, his ouchies taken care of, etc. Replicate it and he worries less about her not being around.

The DON’Ts

“When you’re with him be his completely.” image courtesy Michele McDonald for the Boston Globe

1. NO Screenstime: Watching TV/iPad together is not bonding time.  If you do this when your child is spending time with you, stop. It may be easy, and even fun but when your eyes and his eyes are glued to a screen you are not bonding. You are not creating memories for him to miss you for, want you for, when you are not around.

2. Quality not just quantity matters: This is an extension of the above. If you take your child to the playground and are browsing on your phone, you are not spending time with him. Instead sit down with him and show him how to make a sand castle, or put him in your lap and go down a slide together. When you are with him be his completely.

3. No yelling.: This is an absolute no-no. Imagine someone twice or thrice your height, towering over you and shouting at you. You wouldn’t feel safe with this person, neither will your child. If you need to correct a behaviour, get down to his eye level and then just be firm. I’m the stricter parent and the preferred parent. I say with confidence that we can discipline without yelling.

4. No sarcasm, no force:  Our kid’s love for us is as natural as our love for them. Your child loves you. Period. His rejections will often be hurtful, but don’t try to fight them with sarcasm or force. Infact I suggest you just ignore them. Carry on as if he’d never been mean to you. You’ll have to be the bigger person here because he really doesn’t understand his unkindness.

5. Don’t Compete, be a Team: As the preferred parent your partner probably gets the lion’s share of your child’s affection, but she must also end up doing a lot more of the work for your child. It’s exhausting. Trust me I know. It’s in her interest too to change your child’s behaviour. Tackle this as a team. So sit down together and brainstorm. Your partner sees you the most with your child and will have very useful insights on what else you could do differently.

Today my daughter’s nursery was closed. I went to work and my husband took a day off to take care of her. She gave me ten hugs before I left but she let me go without shedding a tear. This wouldn’t have been possible two months ago. I am still the preferred parent but the focus on building a father-daughter bond is helping. You can do it too.

Note: This post was originally written in response to a question on Quora – almost 9 months ago. It has been edited for better readability here, though I’ve kept the context the same. My daughter is 3+ now, I am still the preferred parent when she is tired or in pain. The rest of the times my husband and I are equally loved and needed.


Related:

1. Top 5 Tips for Stronger Relationship With Your Kid
2. The Preferred Parent
3. My Journey with Sleep Training


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