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What To Do When Your Kid Prefers the Other Parent

Chopped liver. Second fiddle. Spare tire. That's how many moms and dads feel when it comes to their children's affection. Why does it happen? Is it OK? And what can you do?

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In my family, I must admit: I'm the favorite parent. Fights literally break out between my young son and daughter over who gets to sit on my side of restaurant booths, accompany me on errands or snuggle closest during story time. Since I'm the one who's always around to make the meals, help with homework and tuck them in, I tend to take my cachet for granted. In fact, I often feel nothing but irritated when I end up in the middle of one of their ever-escalating tug of wars.

I never considered how my husband might view his sometime silver-medal status. It turns out, not so great. "Yeah, I feel bad sometimes," he confessed. "It's like dad's offered up as a consolation prize."

Normal, within reason

According to Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, psychotherapist, lecturer and author of The Favorite Child, it's common for children to prefer one parent over the other.

"Having a favorite parent is totally normal," she says. "All people have preferences for those with whom they have an unspoken ease or simpatico. That doesn't mean that the child doesn't love both parents equally … it means that a given parent meets a given child's emotional needs in ways that are beyond words."

Libby, an expert in family dynamics, believes one's role in his or her family – as a parent or child or both – can have lifelong influence.

Yet she says the favorite parent can change over time and depend on the situation. Favoritism is usually harmless, Libby says, unless the other parent makes the child feel guilty about the preference – if one parent "buys" the favoritism, or the favored parent uses the preferred status manipulatively in her relationship with the unfavored spouse. It can also get ugly in the case of a contentious divorce.

"What is important is that neither parent, the favored or 'runner up,' treat the child differently from one another," Libby says. "The expectation that each parent has of the given child should be similar."

The sting of being singled out

Susan Jones of Northville often jokes that her husband is favored by their four children, ages 7-11. Most of the time Jones makes light of her perceived secondary status, but sometimes it stings.

"I can spend all day cooking a meal. Jamie will come home and plate the food and all of the kids say 'Thank you for dinner, Dad,'" she says. "It's sickening! I love the fact that they adore him and love him and thank him for everything, but I'm the one doing all the work here."

If the kids detect a sore spot, they tend to ramp up the teasing with dad on their side.

"The boys have an inside joke with Jamie that if they think something he says is cool or funny, they'll play on it. They'll kind of laugh and go on and on," she says. "It hurts my feelings a little bit."

Jones concedes, though, that favoritism has its phases – and sometimes she's the one on the A-list.

"Maggie's all about me right now. She will walk around Jamie to come to me and completely ignore him. Katherine did the same thing, but now she's totally his child, and goes to him with all her questions and concerns," Jones says. "I think it goes in waves."

Seeking the softy

In the Dailey household in South Lyon, mom Elaine says her children, Emma, 6, and Beth, 4, seek out their father because he's more permissive.

"I'll say 'no' and they'll go to Dan because they think he'll say 'yes'," the high school English teacher says. "He's a little more lenient and I'm more rigid. They look to him because he's a little more relaxed."

Dailey says her daughters also gravitate toward dad because he's more likely to splurge on treats.

"For me, every trip to the store doesn't mean a chance to get something new. Dan is much more generous opening the wallet," Dailey says.

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