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What to Do When Child Prefers One Parent

02/02/2015 02:36 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015
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Reader "Preferred Parent" writes:

My fiance and I have been together since the birth of her child, who is almost three. The problem is that our daughter favors me over my fiance. I have read something you have posted before about a default parent -- in this case that is definitely me -- but I feel like this is taken farther than that. My daughter doesn't just choose me first to do things, she flat out refuses to let my fiance do things for her, simple tasks such as put on her shoes or coat, or brush her teeth or take her potty. She only asks for Mommy (me). It's to the point where sometimes I dread all three of us being together because it will cause us all to be unhappy. When my daughter acts this way it hurts my fiance's feelings, and then she gets mad, and then I get mad, and we all just are in a bad mood. However if my fiance is alone with our daughter everything is just peachy. I don't know what to do to make this better. Any ideas?

good moods all around Three-year-old, on left. Note positivity and joy.

Dear PP,

I have written about how difficult this age is here, and how to parent at this age here, and I've already had two girls this age, so I empathize with you. Besides that this age is tough, there are some ways you may not be helping this problem. (I think it's you because your fiance is fine when your daughter is alone with her; therefore it can't just be that she's a bad parent.) Take the following quiz:

1. Do you give way way way too much to your daughter?  Do you rarely take time for yourself, do you feed her before you, do you sometimes "not get to shower" because she is too demanding, and all that kind of thing?

2. Is your fiance, in contrast to you, someone who does assert their own needs and preferences above that of your child?  E.g., is your fiance someone who wants to shower alone, go to the bathroom alone, sometimes read on their phone rather than engaging?

3. Basically I am asking, are you setting a super high standard for responsiveness that no mere mortal, like your fiance, can hope or desire to match, thereby setting your daughter up to see you as infinitely patient, loving, and good, and your fiance as a lowly human who sometimes isn't 100 percent responsive and desire-granting? And therefore, when you are in the home and an option, your daughter will always pick you, but when you're not in the home, your daughter is cool with your fiance?

4. Do you understand this analogy? Your fiance: you = turkey sandwich: turkey dinner with all the trimmings?

I ask because I see this pattern a lot, where one parent bends over backwards all the time, and the kid obviously prefers that parent, since that parent is just always present, always on, always involved, hitting it on all cylinders (not even necessarily always in the "best parenting" way but in the "accommodates the kid and is always fun" way; thus the full turkey dinner parallel). Then the other parent, the very respectable turkey sandwich, who is just fine except in comparison to the full-out turkey dinner, gets shafted.  Also, the kid comes to expect that everyone ought to act like the turkey dinner parent, and ends up very disappointed in life.

Here is what you can do, in four easy steps:

1. Get back in touch with the part of yourself that prioritizes you over your kid at least some of the time.

2. Genuinely stop doing everything for your kid.

3. Tell your kid to go to your fiance for stuff.

4. Repeat.

Here's how that will go:

Your fiance, who I will call Mama: Okay, it's time to go to preschool! Let's put on your shoes!

Your child: NO NO NO! MOMMY! MOMMY NOT YOU! NO NO NO!!!

You: Sorry, I'm showering now.

Your child: NO NO NO NO NO MOMMYYYYY!!!!! MOMMY!!!!!

You: Listen, it's time for preschool. Mama will put on your shoes and take you. I love you, have a good day.  (You exit stage left.)

Your child will have a tantrum with a peak and a decrease (all emotions peak and decrease, like anxiety). Every subsequent time this will get easier and easier. Eventually your child will start to realize that she has two parents and that both of you sometimes need a break, and she will go between both of you. But if you give in and embrace the default parent role despite your fiance being ready and willing to chip in, you're doing everyone a disservice: yourself because you never get a break, your fiance because you're unintentionally ousting her, and your daughter, who is learning that when she acts out, her preferences become more important than your fiance being an equal part of your family.

More tips: Stick with this protocol. Be consistent. At least three times a day refuse to do what your daughter wants, kindly, and firmly. It should only take a couple of days before this sticks, IF you are consistent. Also, it should only be a few days before you start having some blessed "me" time, and before your fiance feels more essential and valued.

Till we meet again, I remain, the Turkey Sandwich Blogapist Whose Kids All Want Daddy To Do Everything For Them Because He Does Do Everything And I'm Like, Get Your Own Shoes On, Foo, You're 36 Months Old.

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