A psychologist says children's reasons for preferring one parent over the other could lead back to parents themselves. As such, parents need to introspect. / Jamie Grill/ JDI
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Malebo* shared with us how her marriage almost fell apart two years ago. It was not because of cheating or any abuse in the relationship, but because of these words: "I want daddy! I want daddy!"

These words were uttered by her five-year-old son while she was tucking him in one night while her husband, who is a security officer, was on the night shift.

Initially, Malebo says she dismissed it and reassured her son that daddy would be home in the morning when he wakes up, but she says that from that day onwards, she started noticing a pattern. "I'm a stay-at-home mom, so I usually spent most time with my son because my husband was either exhausted and sleeping from one of his shifts or at work.

"But when he would come home, my son would be ecstatic and over the moon the minute he walked through the door. This was normal, I told myself, because he had missed his dad, but things got more difficult from there.

"He would be all moody all day, not saying a word to me for most of the day and constantly looking out of the window for any sign of his dad."

Malebo says when her son started showing his preference for his father - even lying about her not giving him food all day to his dad - she had had enough and decided to speak to her husband about it.

"His response shocked me. He actually accused me of being jealous of my son and trying to compete with him for his affection. I was so hurt. All I was trying to do was informing my husband of a behavioural pattern [that was worrying]. I was hurt that he had brushed me off like that.

"I felt rejected by both my husband and my son." 

Get home early for kids' love

If you've ever needed an excuse to get home early without any detours, perhaps this will motivate you. A 2013 study found that children tend to be closer and more affectionate to the parent who arrives home first from work.

According to the study conducted by observing 30 families and their day to day interactions, the parent who gets home first usually has a more positive reception from their kids.

This, the researchers say, is because the parent who gets home first is more likely to be the one taking the children to extracurricular activities, while the parent who gets home last normally finds the kids already absorbed in homework, daily chores or even sleeping.

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Most parents who have experienced a child pitting two parents against each other may relate to this story, but educational psychologist Nombulelo Nzama, who specialises in early childhood development, says that it is completely normal.

"Kids tend to play favourites for various reasons. Sometimes they are just testing the boundaries and sometimes it can be their way of trying to forge different relationship dynamics.

"However, although it can be hard, parents need to learn to separate their emotions from the situation. At the end of the day, this is just a child."

Nzama says the child's reasons could lead back to the parents themselves.

"Parents need to remember that children are like sponges, and absorb everything around them. If a child shows preferences in specific activities like the reading of a bedtime story, for example, it could be harmless and just means they enjoy the experience more with the particular parent.

"If it is a pattern of preference, however, parents may need to look deeper into their relationship themselves and what they are projecting, often times inadvertently, that could be rubbing off on the child." 

* Not her real name

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