"I ONLY Want Mama!" The Straight Scoop on Parental Preference
Does your little guy demand Dad—and only Dad—during story time? Or does he order a command performance from Mom for his bath, while Papa is banished from the bathroom? Are you occasionally greeted with a shout—No Mama! Or No Dada!—and a chubby finger pointing you back from whence you came?
Don’t worry and try not to take it personally, says Celestte Dills, who works at KinderCare Education helping teachers, families, and children address all kinds of challenging behaviors.
Parental preference is a normal and healthy part of toddlerhood. It can pop up between the ages 1 to 3, as children become more independent and learn to express their opinions.
When a child has a strong preference for one parent—Dad’s taking me to swim lessons, Mama’s taking me to the park—she’s expressing her opinion, but she’s also starting to build her own special relationships with the people she loves (namely, you) and that’s a good thing. “It’s great that your child is making these choices—it’s a way for her to practice her growing independence” says Dills. “As a parent, it’s really good to honor those choices.”
Here’s how to honor his choices with kindness and grace—even if your little Sweet Pea isn’t expressing his preferences with much grace himself:
1. Find a routine the whole family can share.
Plan regular, special time for your little bean to spend with each parent, independently. It could be as simple as an evening routine where Dad does bath time and Mom does books and bed. Talk to your child about the routine, a lot, and explain what will happen at each step along the way: Remember Dad’s going to start your bath, and Mom will come up once you’ve brushed your teeth. Try: Involving your little guy in the evening by asking questions like: What happens next?
2. Model polite language.
If your child wakes up and says, No Mommy, in lieu of Good morning, keep your reaction even tempered. A big reaction of your own, like pouting or fake crying or getting angry, may only encourage your child to try the behavior again. Instead, focus on giving him more positive language to ask for what he wants—keeping in mind that learning this can be challenging for kids who are learning to speak. Try: It sounds like you were hoping to see Daddy this morning. Try asking for ‘Daddy, please’ and let’s see if he’ll come in and say good morning to us!
3. Empathize with her.
When you come to pick her up at daycare and she tearfully asks, Where’s Mom? Let her know that you understand how she feels. Even if you can’t change the situation—because Mom’s working late, say—acknowledging your child’s feelings helps her learn to recognize and label her own. Try: Are you missing your Mom today? I love her, too—and I understand it makes you sad when she’s not here to pick you up. Would you like a hug?
4. Lighten the mood.
You walk into his bedroom with the laundry basket and your tiny commander-in-chief bellows NO PAPA! Lighten his mood—and yours—with a playful response. This teaches him positive ways to ask for what he wants and models kindness in the face of others’ feelings. Try: Wow, it sounds like you and Mama must be having an amazing time together. Are you flying to the moon? Driving a bus? Going to the beach?
5. Give her something she can control
As she grows bigger and more capable, your little tot is starting to discover what she can—and cannot—control in her world. When your child says ‘No Mommy,’ she is communicating a desire to control, well, you.Try: Offering her a choice that she really can control. It sounds like you’re having a great time with Dada. Do you want to keep playing trains together? Or would you like to come into the kitchen and help Mommy make pancakes?
6. Find a good stand in.
Dad is out of town for a fishing weekend, and your little darling really wants him to read to her before bed. For the times when you can’t meet your child’s request—and there are plenty of those—clearly and simply explain the situation and help her find a creative solution. Try: Putting a photo of Dad on the bookshelf, so they can pick out a book together, or including the teddy bear that he brought back from his last trip when you read bedtime stories together.
Most importantly, don’t let the parental preference phase get you down! This phase passes as children gain more language skills and more control over other things in their world. In the meantime, you can feel great about the fact that every time you respond respectfully to her feelings, you are teaching her how to be respectful in return.