Dear Dr. T.,
I used to think it was cute when my adorable little 3-year-old boy would say, ‘I want Tatty!’ Whether it was to dress him, feed him, play with him, or go with him- a real Tatty’s boy. We all laughed when he wouldn’t even take nosh from me when his Tatty was around.
Well, I think we are both sick of it by now. My husband has to sneak out of the house to go to shul, and I feel like a shmatte. Who do you think is doing most of the parenting? Why should he go crazy for my husband who is hardly ever around? I get that he is only a tot, but, some credit for all my hard work- is that too much to ask?
Though I have seen this in other families, I wonder if it will ever end. Is this normal? I also am curious if I am doing something wrong- or maybe I should be doing something different.
Parental preference is indeed very common and quite normal. We all – children and adults-have preferences. These preferences vary in our lifetime and are not generally based on any logic. We are all different and all like different things: you prefer white chocolate, she like dark. He likes his math teacher, his friend does not. Your child prefers the stroller, but your niece likes to walk. Understanding that we all have likes and dislikes is the first step in dealing with this process.
The next step is respecting our child’s preferences. Almost from birth, infants demonstrate their proclivities. Whether it is the pacifier, sleep position, or feeding schedule- babies differ in their choices. It is our job to honor these choices when reasonable. Though in previous times it was thought that training a baby to conform to our requirements [feeding and sleep schedules] was the way to go, our thinking has evolved since then.
It is widely acknowledged today that observing and accommodating our child’s schedule and desires allows for a healthier physical and emotional development. So, when realistic and possible, let your child choose – even though you may prefer a different outcome.
In addition to your child’s natural preference, there may be another factor at work. Small children [and unfortunately some big ones too] have precious little choice in their lives. Choosing which parent [or sibling, grandparent] gets to do the honors for him is one choice that the child can make. It is a step towards autonomy and independence and as such should not be squelched. When we allow for such choice, we strengthen the child’s decision-making muscle- and that’s a good thing.
It helps to understand that our child choosing our spouse and rejecting us is a positive sign: it bespeaks a healthy, secure attachment. If a child feels comfortable rejecting one parent, that means he is securely attached. When a child is unsure of his parent’s love, he cannot do this as he will cling to any scrap of attention. But, being able to reject us shows that he knows we love him, despite his shenanigans.
What gets many a parent in this situation is the feeling of being unappreciated: after all, we do most of the childcare, yet our spouse gets all the glory. But children are not here to give us nachas or to validate our efforts. Especially a mother who was not validated as a child might feel particularly pained by her child’s seeming indifference to all of her hard work. In such a case, the mother has to deal with her issues constructively – not through her child. She may choose to turn to friends, relatives -or even therapy. But it is not a child’s job to help us heal from our issues and pain.
The chosen parent should take the responsibility and make every effort to redirect the child to the other parent. Comments like, ’ask Mommy- she knows all about….’ reasserts Mom’s place in the family. Or, invite Mommy into the game or whatever activity is planned. Do things as a family- trips, exercising, puzzles. Rethink the childcare tasks and make sure that no one is the fun parent while the other does all the heavy lifting. And enjoy -if you can- the brief respite when your child insists on ‘only Tatty.’
Children go through many phases in their lives-some more pleasant then others. As involved observers, we need to separate their issues from our own. When it is our issue, we want to deal with it without involving our child. We also want to learn how to guide and encourage them to be the best they can be.