Why kids have a favorite parent
Is it normal for children to prefer one parent over the other?
Kids are big on favorites. From superheroes to YouTubers, they know who's top of their list. They might also have a favorite parent, which can sting a little more than their preference for Spider-Man over Batman.
"I definitely play second fiddle to my husband," says Annie, a mom of two from New Jersey. "In our daughters' eyes, he can do no wrong. I think it's because they have him wrapped around their little fingers, whereas I'm the parent who dishes out the discipline."
It's not uncommon for a child to favor one parent over the other, says board-certified child and adult psychiatrist Lea Lis, MD. Sometimes — as in Annie's case — it's because one parent is more of a disciplinarian, so the child favors the more lax parent. Of course cuddles and candy are going to generate more positive feedback from our littlest critics than rules and restrictions.
"Parent preference shows up differently for every family throughout various phases of the child's life," says psychotherapist Jaime Bronstein, LCSW. You may be the favorite right now, but that might not always be the case. For instance, a toddler might prefer the parent they spend more time with because they feel they can rely on them more. But when the child gets a little older, they might favor the other parent because they feel they have more in common with them — like a little girl who favors mom because dad is at home less often, but then wants to spend more time playing sports with dad when she's older.
If you're not the favorite parent, try not to take it personally. "Kids are human, and they have opinions and preferences," Bronstein says. "As long as you show your child that you love them unconditionally, you're doing a great job."
In some cases, though, a child's parental preferences can be attributed to parenting style. For instance, if a parent has an authoritarian approach to parenting — characterized by being very demanding and not responsive to a child's needs, with harsh punishments doled out for mistakes — it's not unusual for the other parent to be the favorite. "It would be obvious that the child would favor the parent who is more nurturing and sets appropriate, clear boundaries," Dr. Lis says.
Sometimes, a strong preference for one parent over the other stems from an insecure attachment style, which can manifest when one parent isn't around very often, leading their child to believe they're not reliable. "Kids with insecure attachment styles can develop negative behavior in their adult relationships," Bronstein warns. In cases such as these, the less-preferred parent should do everything they can to help their child feel more secure with them. Bronstein recommends spending more time with the child to work on creating a stronger bond.
On the flip side, kids sometimes prefer the parent they see less often. This can happen when parents are separated or divorced, or when one parent spends extended periods of time away from the home. "The child sometimes favors the non-custodial parent simply because they don't see them as much," Dr. Lis says. "They want that parent's love and attention, so they won't fight with them — but the custodial parent might get more pushback because the child feels safer with them."
Sometimes a child favors the parent who doesn't have custody because time with them is "fun" time. Dr. Lis suggests evening things out by getting that parent to do more homework and doctor's visits and provide more discipline (in other words, the boring stuff). If the non-residential parent can praise the parent who has custody, that will help too. "If you are able to say things like, 'It didn't work out between us but your mom is amazing and I'm so lucky to have her in my life,' your child will feel that they don't have to pick sides, and can express love for you both equally," Dr. Lis says.
This approach isn't always possible after acrimonious breakups. And sometimes parents use psychological manipulation to turn the child against the other parent by speaking badly about them, or withholding love if the child identifies with or bonds with them. This may "manifest itself as fear, disrespect, or hostility from the child toward the estranged parent," Dr. Lis explains. "It's considered a form of emotional abuse and is frowned upon by family courts." In this situation, seek legal advice and consider professional therapy to help you deal with these psychologically harmful issues.
So, what can favorite parents do to encourage their kids to share the love? Try to hype up the other parent and encourage your kids to spend more time with them. If your child insists on you reading the bedtime story every night, bow out gracefully once in a while. When your child hears from you how great their other parent is (at reading books, or drawing pictures, or playing video games, or whatever), they'll feel more inclined to spend time with them.
"If you're always around, your child might not get the opportunity to bond with the other parent," Bronstein says. "If it helps, designate separate times that you'll each have with your child."
Whatever your parenting setup is, don't forget that young kids sometimes behave in a certain way purely to get a reaction. "They might act like they don't care about you at times," Bronstein says, "but they still love you."
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.