Dear Mr. Dad: I work pretty long hours and love playing with my 2-year old daughter as much as I can. But whenever she gets hurt or upset, she screams for her mommy. I know she’s not deliberately trying to hurt my feelings, but it still stings. Is there some way I can comfort her without needing to get my wife involved?
A: You’re absolutely right to try not to take your daughter’s behavior personally. And it’s great that you’re not giving up. Since your daughter spends more time with mom, it’s perfectly normal for her to have designated mommy as “the one to go to when something’s not right.” She’s probably put you into a different role: “playmate.” That said, it’s still important that you learn to help her—and that she learn to accept your help.
The first step is to keep doing what you’re doing: be as involved in caring for your daughter as you can. The more you do with her, the better. Never pass up an opportunity to give her a bath, change a diaper, eat breakfast together, read a special bedtime book, or just sit on the floor and play with her dolls. The more time she spends with you—doing the most mundane things—the more comfortable she’ll be letting you console her.
Next, ask your wife to tell you how she comforts your daughter—does she hold, rock, sing, give a pacifier, say certain words or phrases? I’m not suggesting that you try to be another mommy. Not at all. But doing some of the things she does may make your daughter respond better to your efforts—at least until you’re able to develop your own ways of helping your toddler.
While you’re discussing things with your wife, ask her to be sure to give you and your daughter plenty of time and space. If your daughter can see or hear mommy, or knows she’s nearby, she’ll always ask for her. But if mommy isn’t around, your girl will gradually learn to be more flexible.
Keep in mind, though, that toddlers are creatures of habit. And it’s possible that your daughter is asking for your wife because you’re breaking her routine. In many cases, you may be able to resolve this kind of issue with an explanation: “You usually eat dinner with mommy, but daddy is home early tonight, so you get to eat dinner with me!”And of course, you’re going to make that sound like it’s going to be the most fun she’s ever had in her life.
Another thing to keep in mind about toddlers is that they’re kind of like cats. Sometimes the best approach to undesirable behavior is to give the cat (or your daughter, in this case) something else to do. So calmly explain, “It’s okay—daddy’s here. I think we can handle this without mommy.” Then offer a favorite toy, a dance, or do some completely wacky thing like barking or mooing or hopping around the room on one foot.
Finally, try to remember that as unpleasant and demoralizing as your daughter’s behavior is, children go through phases when they favor one parent over the other. It’s normal, healthy, and will eventually pass. While it’s difficult to hear your daughter insist that “mommy do” everything, you can console yourself (a little) with the knowledge that one day, in the not-too–distant future, she’ll demand that you do everything. So remind yourself now—and your wife later—that your daughter really loves you, and her requests aren’t a reflection on you or your parenting.