When your child plays one parent off against the other

"Mumma, you're my favourite".
"Mumma, you're my favourite". Photo: Shutterstock

My six-year-old daughter snuggled up to me and wrapped her arms around my neck. "You're my favourite," she whispered into my ear. I didn't argue, I felt a twinge of pity for my husband, how could he compete?

Of course I was her favourite, I spend more time with her, and well, that mother-child bond is made of strong stuff.

I'd like to say that the sudden favouritism my little one had bestowed on me didn't change the way I parented her. But from time to time, I found myself giving in to her big eyes and wobbly bottom lip. Her "please mama," won her sugary treats and extra screen time. I told myself it was harmless.

Then came a bombshell. I saw my daughter snuggled on my husbands lap and watched his face light up as she whispered into his ear. Turns out that he was also her favourite.

Both of us were guilty of letting our little darling twist us round her little finger. We had both succumbed to her flattery and she had successfully played us off against each other.

We're not the first parents to fall into this trap, although having discussed it with friends I've learned that there are a variety of methods that children have used to produce a similar effect.

"If I said no to my son he would accept my decision without any fuss. He's say, 'ok then,' and wander off. Turns out he was going straight to his father who would be busy doing something in a different room," says Sarah a mum of two.

Sarah and her partner cottoned on to their son's behaviour pretty quickly, but he was able to get a few quick results before it came to light.

Giuliett Moran, principal psychologist at Empowering Parents says that it's not uncommon for children to have a go at playing one parent off against the other.

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However, the behaviour can become problematic if the child is successful in getting what they want. "In the event that it is effective on an ongoing and regular basis, the concern is that the child is learning that 'no' means 'try another way or ask another person' rather than meaning 'no' which can be perceived to be manipulative," says Moran.

So what is the best way to nip this sort of behaviour in the bud? Moran says that communication is key.

"You need to communicate with the child around the behaviour and ensure good communication between parents as well. As with any behaviour with children, if it is effective in getting them their desired outcome, it will continue, and when it is no longer effective, it will stop," she says.

My husband and I talked through the fun and games and agreed on a strategy – we would show a united front and back each other up – if one said no, the other would say no too. Now when she tells me I'm her favourite I snuggle up and tell her she is my favourite too – my favourite cheeky six year old!

Want some more tips? Giuliett Moran recommends the following:

  • As soon as you identify that this behaviour has occurred, talk to your child about it and together set clear expectations and consequences.
  • Communicate with your partner (or other caregivers) to ensure that you work together to manage the behaviour to limit its effectiveness.
  • Ensure that you are as consistent as possible in the way that you approach the behaviour when it arises.