Dear Faith, My daughter (2 1/4) has a strong preference for mama. I mean – really strong. My husband and I are both at home (he’s been taking time off work since she was born) and they get plenty of one-on-one, but the fact is that if I am in the room (or the house), she’ll come try to find me or want me to read the book, or whatever. My husband is really hurt by all this – she’s always been mama-centric but it seems more pronounced right now. I am still nursing but I don’t think this is necessarily connected (because she isn’t just avoiding him for comfort but for play, etc).
Give sympathy to poor old Dad and let him know that this too shall pass. And remember this later, when all she wants is Dad, and you’re not good enough anymore! I have literally had moms come to me in tears, saying, “I wanted them to want Dad more, but now they don’t seem to want me at all!” I believe all of this is part of her showing that she is her own person, with her own opinions and preferences. Do your best, and have Dad do his best, not to take it personally. Easier said than done, but there’s a good reason: stuff that ‘pushes our buttons’ becomes bigger and bigger for children, and they feel compelled to push it again and again. It’s like picking at a scab, or scratching at chicken pox: even if you don’t want to, it’s hard to stop.
While it’s fine for her to have her own opinions and preferences, it’s important to let her know that sometimes she gets to choose and sometimes she doesn’t. Be clear about which times are which, and give her love no matter what. When it’s not her turn to choose, be very matter-of-fact about whose “turn” it is to help her with stuff or do stuff with her. It can be helpful to assign specific tasks: Mom always brushes hair and Dad always serves breakfast, etc. Then there’s no discussion. With play as well, she sometimes gets to ‘call the shots,’ and sometimes not. If she wants you to read her a book, you can let her know you’re not available by saying, “I’m looking at the newspaper right now. You can look at the book by yourself, or you can ask Daddy to read to you.”
So what should Dad do if he tries to play with her and she rejects him? It actually DOES hurt his feelings; should he just pretend it doesn’t? No. He should let her know, but in a way that is not emotionally charged. One great way to do that is by “pretending” to be sad: “Boo-hoo-hoo,” he can say, rubbing his eyes. “You don’t want to play with me and that makes me sad. Boo-hoo-hoo.” Then he can peek at her to see how she’s reacting. Kids are usually fascinated by this. He makes sure she notices him looking up at her, then quickly looks down and ‘cries’ again. From there, there are a couple different directions to go. He might have a stuffed animal crawl up to her ear and whisper a hint: “Daddy’s sad! Go give him a hug.” Or he might say, “I know, maybe YOU could read a book for ME.” Or he might stop ‘crying’ and say, “But I’m the Daddy and I love you so much that I’m going to gobble you ups!” And he jumps on her and ‘gobbles’ her till she’s laughing. Two-and-a-quarter is a time when children often say “no” to try things out. She still loves Dad, of course, and she loves playing with him, so he can transform the “no” into “yes” through fun and imagination.
This ‘playing’ at feelings, by showing them in a way that’s not emotionally loaded, can be a wonderful way to help children start to develop empathy (definitely going on right around this age), to realize the effect that their actions have on others, and develop healthy responses.
(P.S. You can also do this for other emotions: if she does something that makes you angry, you can turn into a big bear, putting up your arms and saying in a growl-y voice, “I’m a big bear and that makes me ANGRY!” Make sure that your growl-y voice doesn’t have too much actual anger in it. Toddlers need to know that we are actually in control of ourselves; a loved adult becoming really angry, or really sad, is overwhelming for young children. We are there to take care of them, and they need to be able to rest assured that we are always in control. But ‘playing’ at feelings can be a good way to let them know what we’re feeling, in a way that’s age-appropriate.)