Why Kids Have a “Favorite” Parent — And What to Do About It

Fundamentally, one parent is the favorite because the kids are getting something they need from that person, whether it’s comfort or an easy, extra cookie.

Families that have been on Covid-19 lock down for the last several months have experienced various shifts. School at home. Work at home. Everything at home. And with everyone on top of each other, there’s been another change that has come with no announcement but is clear: One parent has become the favorite.

When a child prefers one parent over the other, it creates an imbalance that makes life harder and one of you feel like an outsider. Should this exist, it mustn’t accepted and steps need to be taken to ensure the family unit is, in fact, a unit. But before you can fix anything, you have to answer an important question, says Carl Hindy, a clinical psychologist in New Market, New Hampshire: “Why is one parent the favorite?”

Why One Parent Becomes the “Favorite”

It could be because of time constraints, greater affinity, or more common interests. Gender could also be a factor; so could one parent being more reactive than the other. Fundamentally, however, one parent is likely the favorite because the kids are getting something they need from one of you, whether it’s comfort or an easy, extra cookie.

Parenting is teamwork. While you and your partner don’t have to be exact replicas, you might not be fully in sync about what’s allowed and what’s off-limits, and kids have no problem finding the soft spots.

“The pandemic is putting a magnifying glass on any and all relationships,” says Lesli Doares, licensed marriage and family therapist outside Raleigh, North Carolina and creator of the Hero Husband Project. “Kids will go to the parent that will tell them, ‘Yes’, because they’re not stupid.”

There’s another question, however, which actually might be the first to ask. “Is someone really the favorite?” All feelings are real, but it’s important to ask, “What’s valid?” says Doares. People are wired to look for problems. Parents are wired to do it multiplied by 50, but you want to examine if the favoritism is all-the-time or just in certain moments.

What to Do When One Parent is The “Favorite”

When this situation pops up — and it will — here are some steps to take.

  1. Examine Your Role

If it is, in fact, true that one parent is the favorite, the parent who is not in the position should think about what they’re contributing to the situation. Self-interrogation is important. Maybe you’re trying to overcompensate for past guilt. Maybe you’re burying yourself in work because it’s easier. Maybe you don’t have any interest in doing Legos. This isn’t about becoming the parent who lets kids have ice cream every night for dinner. And this isn’t a full-scale intake of your ability. It’s a chance to recalibrate or check-in to reconfirm your intentions.

  1. Explain Your “No’s”

An issue that often arises is that the non-favorite parent doesn’t explain their reasons for saying “no” to kids. One simple thing to do: Be clearer with your “whys.” Explain the thought behind your answer. This makes your reasons obvious and lowers the stress created from the coronavirus, where couples are crafting the playbook on the fly. Yes, it’s good to clearly explain the thought behind your answer to your kids, but it’s equally important for you to know your own rationale.

  1. Get on the Same Parenting Page

It’s important to keep in mind that the needs of children change, and, with them, so does the “favorite” status. Regardless, something that’s often in play is the division of responsibilities. It’s not uncommon for one parent to be doing all the fun stuff. For the parent doing the chores, Hindy says there’s a push-pull: happiness that play time is happening; resentment about being stuck with laundry and a vacuum. The easy answer is for the “fun” parent to, well, help more. That needs to happen. But buried underneath is that the “non-favored” parent’s strengths aren’t being showcased, and the kids can’t choose or gravitate to what isn’t on display. This means couples need to have regularly conversations to realign with each other, and prevent point-counterpoint fights.

  1. Highlight Your Partner’s Positive Traits

The thesis of the above-mentioned conversations should be, according to Corinna Tucker, professor of human development and family studies at University of New Hampshire, How can we help the kids have good relationships with each of us? This comes down to accentuating their positive attributes by being supportive and reminding your partner, “You’re really strong at …” People are good at giving critiques – another offshoot of always looking for problems – and people are bad at receiving them, since they make it sound like nothing is done correctly. It could be that if, for example, your partner isn’t quick to play with the kids like you do, and then leaving all the play to you, it could be about confidence; that there’s no way to measure up. The antidote is simple: Say nice things. Most people respond well to that, Tucker says.

  1. Let Your Partner Take the Lead

The next step is to do what your partner is good at as a family, and let them lead. You might not want to do Guess My Drawing or Dance, Dance Moves, but that’s the point. You’re modeling for the kids that “you’re enjoying something you didn’t chose,” Hindy says. You bring in more fun to the family, expand the options, and get to the other ultimate destination, which is the kids having alone time with each of you.

  1. Divide and Conquer

Group family activities will and still need to continue. They’re more efficient and, through them, the kids learn how to be patient and encouraging. But in a group, everyone gets compared – siblings to siblings and parents to parents – and younger kids can feel like they’re holding things back. When you have one-on-one time with your child, there’s no competition for attention and no one gets tag-teamed, Hindy says. The kids can define themselves apart from being a sibling. They see each parent as a solo act as well. This is crucial, says Hindy, because for kids, their identities “need to be ideally formed by the best of both parents,” he says.

  1. Make the Most out of Small Moments

Of course, time is hard to come by, especially now. But Tucker says, it’s not about length. It could be one hand of cards, telling a joke, or brushing teeth together. They’re all chances for small conversations, and done over and over, the connection builds and you become the other favorite. Whether it’s with your partner or your kids, the same principle is in play: Make more good interactions than bad – five to one if you want a target. Most people would want to keep being around that ratio. “Build on the positives,” Tucker says, “Build on the strengths.”