“I want my MOMMY!” screamed my 2-year-old daughter waking from her nap. My presence was neither desired nor appreciated. Efforts to calm her proved futile when she realized that mommy had left the building.
Putting it in Context
Do small children always prefer mom? That depends on what you mean by “prefer,” explains Tedra Walden, professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University and an expert on child psychology. “â€˜Prefer’ takes into account a lot of context and different situations,” Walden says. Each context might yield a different answer about what a toddler or young child prefers.
When considering play, you might conclude that young kids prefer their dads while you might find that kids prefer their moms when in search of comfort. According to Walden, “The reason is that the kind of time dads tend to spend with their young children is more heavily weighted toward play. Whereas the kind of time mothers tend to spend with their young children is more heavily weighted toward care-giving.â€
Nashville dad, Sam Johnson, agrees. Because Johnson’s wife Jill stays home with their four kids, he’s not surprised when they turn to mom first even when he’s home. “That’s natural,” he says, “because being a stay-at-home mom means she is with them the majority of the day. If they’re not sleeping, she’s with them and so, obviously, they have found a lot of comfort in her arms. It’s natural for them to continue in that mode even if I’m around,” he adds.
John Marshall, also of Nashville, has had a similar experience with sons Ian, 4, and Grant, 26 months. “When they’re sick, they just feel rotten. They have more of a tendency to go to Mom,” Marshall says.
The circumstances in another local household also influence 4-and-a-half-year-old Will Manier’s preferences. Will’s mom, Devora Manier, explains that her husband Randy has experienced health problems. “This has made it very difficult for him to do routine things like give baths and read bedtime stories. I think it has been his lack of participation in these activities, regardless of how much he wants to do them, that has caused our son to turn to me more often than father.
Age and History
A child’s age is another factor in parental preference. The age dynamic, however, is not directly related to developmental stages nor identical for all kids. As Walden explains, “It’s not so much that all children prefer their mothers at this particular time and that all children prefer their fathers at this particular time but that really, in a way, an individual child might even switch in how often they ask for or seek out one parent or another. So sometimes they might run to the mother for comfort every time. At other times they might start running to their dads for comfort.â€
Nashville dad Richard Iannelli has witnessed this dynamic with son, Garrott. When feeling more autonomous, Garrott may turn to dad more often but “When he is feeling more needy he tends to turn to his mom.” Iannelli explains that this behavior is not tied to age or development, “It’s not linear. This month he’s more needy. This month he’s less needy.â€
These shifts and the child’ s history with each parent will influence where he turns for comfort. “Children develop multiple preferences. It’s really based on their development and it’s based on their history of interaction with different people. If a person has been great at providing comfort in the past then you’re going to prefer that person when you need comfort.” In other words, “They’re really good at figuring out who’s going to meet their needs in different situations.â€
This history consists of each parent’s possibly different interaction with their children. For example, do mom and dad handle a minor injury in precisely the same manner or does dad tell the child she’s all right, and it’s time to resume play?
Sam Johnson sees this difference in his family, “Dads feel it very deeply when their kids get hurt but tend to be a shorter on the recuperation time. You’re OK now. Mom might sit there a little bit longer, rock them, sing them a song and just stroke their little egos than dad may have time to do or have the inclination to do maybe.â€
Does Preference Matter?
Should fathers worry when their kids seek comfort in mom rather than dad? “It doesn’t bother me,” says Iannelli, “there’s more than enough time to be emotional and sentimental with them. I can comfort them, too. It’s not like my kids are inconsolable, it’s just a preference,” he says.
Sam Johnson concurs, “I want my kids to find their mom to be a place of comfort and refuge. At that point when they are scared or hurt, they’re really not thinking â€˜I’m going to pick mom over dad.’ They’re thinking `Hey, I’m hurt, I want comfort, I want safety.’ I want this pain to go away. And in their little minds it’s not like they’re necessarily choosing one of the two of us. In my opinion they are just looking for a way out of the situation they’re in. Their natural inclination is to reach for the person who they know has comforted them in the past.â€
The Maniers agree that kids will often turn to mom. “I think for the most part, we’re comfortable with it,” says Devora of her son’s tendency to turn to her when he needs a band-aid or help with daily tasks and chores, but at the same time, Devora and husband Randy want their son to feel comfortable with both of them. “Our philosophy is that we want Will to be able to turn to each parent for anything. I want him to be able to see that when he grows up, household chores, parenting is not isolated to gender,” says Randy.
One way to accomplish this goal is for both parents to play the same role. For example, says Randy, “I love to cook. That’s my stress relief is to cook. He and I will get in there and cook a ten-course meal together. But he will also get in there and do the same thing with his mom.â€
Another tactic has been to associate specific items or projects with each parent. For example, while Devora reads to Will, certain books are reserved especially for dad so that both parents can to read to Will. In the same vein, while dad often fixes or builds, Devora says that “Will and I have come up with projects where we build things together.â€
In the end, these parents believe that each parent can provide comfort and caring in different situations. Marshal, for example, is a source of comfort for his older son in certain situations, “When Ian gets upset, like if something kind of goes wrong, doesn’t get hurt, but gets frustrated or angry I guess, he will ask for me.â€
Iannelli also sees opportunities to comfort the kids, “Sometimes I’ll hold them for awhile and give them to mom. Mom kisses the boo boo and we’re off playing again.â€
Perhaps the key is to avoid defining preference too narrowly. The fathers interviewed for this story emphasized that they felt able and willing to provide emotional and physical comfort as needed, while also acknowledging and accepting that kids would often turn to mom for situations requiring soothing. Indeed, these fathers reminded me to value the moments my daughter turns to me rather than lament the occasions when she does not.
Eric Olive is a father and writer.