Parent Preference

A question from a mom in a newspaper column caught my eye.  The mother was bemoaning her four-year-old son’s seeming preference for his father.  She thought it unfair that she was the one who did the doctor visits, was the enforcer of routines like bedtime and rules about candy, yet dad gets all the affection.  She saw herself put in the role of “bad guy,” while dad effortlessly was the “good guy.”

These are feelings I have heard expressed from many mothers, both the sense of unfairness and the idea that having responsibility for things children often dislike and resist doing turns mom into the “bad guy.”  Fortunately, fathers increasingly are taking responsibility for some of the routines less loved by children and in fact, sometimes take on, or are assigned the role of enforcer.  Ideally, children would see parents as one in terms of their expectations of children’s behavior.

But there are other factors at work here aside from the parental division of labor.  The shift in children’s attachment to each parent is part of the developmental process through which they begin to discover their own identity.  As infants, the first step is differentiating mother – then father – from others.  The next task is differentiating oneself from parent or caregiver.  We see that expressed in a separation process that often shows itself in various challenging (for parents) behaviors.

In language, the emerging awareness of having a separate identity is revealed as children begin to use words like “me” or “mine,” and may show a proprietary attitude toward possessions.  It is also a time of strong preferences which can shift in a flash.  They may only want chicken nuggets for lunch and then reject them vociferously when they are presented.

As part of the growing awareness of self, children also become aware of gender body differences and of themselves as boys or girls.  Developing a sense of who they are as individuals is also a time when boys and girls begin to strengthen their identification with the parent of the same sex.  Boys try to be like dad, girls like mom.  They want to try to walk in their shoes – which can be seen played out as they often enjoy taking a parent’s shoes to pretend walking around in them.

For boys, it can also be a bit threatening at times to be like dad who is bigger, stronger and more powerful.  It could be dangerous to compete for mom’s love and attention – dad as a rival does not seem like a good idea.  A good way to avoid that is to make dad your best friend.  So often, the seeming shift in attachment and affection from mothers to fathers on the part of boys serves a number of purposes.  The identification with father strengthen one’s own gender identity, helps in the move away from being mother’s baby, and makes dad a friend rather than a possible enemy.

For mothers, this may feel like a loss.  But usually this sense of loss is created by more than a seeming shift of attachment to father.  Rather it is part of the whole move out of babyhood with its dependency needs and into evolving personhood, bringing with it self-assertion, growing independence, and a world away from parents.  My son once asked if I was sorry he and his brother were grown up.  I said I liked who they were as grown-ups but sometimes I missed the people they were. 

During the course of children’s developments, as parents we may tend to interpret some of the things they do as caused by us or directed at us.  It can help if we remember that children are becoming their own people with motivation and ideas of their own.  We can be most effective as parents if we try to understand what their behavior is saying about them – not about us.