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Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband and I have two children, an almost 5-year-old son and a 3-month-old daughter. My question is about my son. Ever since he was little, he has demonstrated a preference for me over his dad. I breastfed him for 10 months, so my husband and I thought a mom-preference made sense for the first year. But this preference continued. Our son would cry if I left the house, take books out of his dad’s hands and put them in mine, pick me to put him to bed if given the choice, etc. We were told he would grow out of it, but he hasn’t. Just today, my son said, “Dad, I love you one heart but I love Mom two hearts.” Recently, when I’m talking with my son and my husband tries to join in, my son has begun saying angrily, “I’m talking to Mom.”
I’m a stay-at-home parent, so my son and I have spent a lot of time together, but my husband is a great father. He is caring, playful, and loving with our son, and his feelings are deeply hurt by this preference. I’ve told our son, “It hurts Dad’s feelings when you say you like me better,” but it makes no difference. Do we allow this to continue or should I be shutting my son down when he says he loves me more or otherwise makes his preference for me clear? I don’t want to invalidate my son’s feelings, but I don’t know what to do for my husband, who feels so hurt.
—Mama’s Boy’s Mama
Dear Mama’s Boy’s Mama,
I once devoted an entire column to questions along this line, but I want to respond to your letter because a year and a half has passed since I last tackled this, and I know it’s something a lot of families experience … and also because you ask about “shutting [your] son down,” which should never be one of the options on the table when we’re trying to solve a parenting problem. I know you know this deep down, because you also say you don’t want to invalidate your child’s feelings.
Let’s talk about your husband’s feelings, though, because I can see you are worried about them (and about him). I am going to quote, or at least paraphrase, myself: One of the hardest things about parenthood is that we parents are human beings with needs and insecurities of our own, and parenting tends to shine a harsh light on some, maybe all, of these. While I feel for your husband (I’d be hurt too, if I were he), he is going to have to find a way to rise above his hurt feelings. The fact is, a lot of kids prefer one parent, even when both are fine, loving parents, and nobody knows why. (In your case, it may or may not have to do with your being at home with your son—but you’ll never know and it doesn’t really matter, does it?) Often this preference passes; his father may just have to sit tight and wait this out. But I’ll be honest with you: Sometimes it doesn’t pass—sometimes it’s a lifelong preference. A child cannot be forced to distribute love equally. No one can. And I’m sure that neither you nor your husband want to teach your son to pretend to feel something he doesn’t.
But teaching him tact is something else entirely, and it is time to (at least begin to) introduce the idea that it’s possible to feel something and not wave a flag announcing it if that announcement is likely to cause pain to others. Although it is absolutely not your son’s responsibility to make his dad feel loved or worthy, learning to have empathy for others’ pain, and finding ways to avoid causing it, is an essential life skill. I want to be clear that teaching your child this skill is different from “shutting him down.” And given that this business of loving you more than Dad has already become a hotspot in your family, I would strongly suggest that any lessons around empathy, kindness, and tact take place out of the arena of parent-preference. Teach your son about the so-called golden rule using other examples (just look around: you’ll find plenty, in behavior toward other kids, pets, etc.). If you do this well, he will eventually make the connection himself between this principle and his behavior toward his dad.
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