‘Daddy, you are the king, I’m the princess, and Mommy is the cat.’
Sound familiar? Those with three and four year olds have heard these sentiments before, and for parents with older children, they’re easy to recall. These assertive statements coming from a young child can be confusing, challenging, and sometimes even hurtful to parents. After spending all day, night, and week caring for her toddler, it can hurt a mother’s feelings when her daughter refuses her comfort and only ‘Daddy can fix it.’ And conversely, it can be quite demanding for the parent who seems to be the only one who can satisfy their child’s needs. But there is a reason why this is happening, like many of the behaviors we see in young children, this stage is normal and temporary.
Around preschool age, a child’s mind has grown and matured to a point where they are able to notice the nuances in the relationships of the adults in their lives - young children particularly begin to notice that their parents treat each other differently than the way the parents treats them. They notice that their parents have different activities with each other (like going on date nights), or respond and act differently towards each other - essentially parent’s romantic attention towards each other. Although young children become aware of these differences, their minds are still too young to understand what a romantic relationship is: they simply want to have the same close interactions they observe directed towards themselves. We call this developmental stage the ‘romantic phase’.
These requests or demands preferring one parent over the other can sound something like:
•'Mommy, you eat next to me, Daddy, you can sit over there!’
It is understandable that parents’ feelings might be hurt. After all, they want to participate in family activities too, but it is important to remember that your child is young and still maturing. Instead, it is best for the child when parents accept the rejection gracefully, while also expressing that they look forward to a time when they can ‘dance’ too. Confronting your child about their irrational statements “will only hurt their feelings. It will not advance the child’s development.”*
Some alternative responses could be:
•'I like watching you dance! I look forward to dancing with the family too!'
• 'Okay, Mommy will read the bedtime story. It’ll be great to read stories with you another time!'
Parents may also observe non-verbal expressions from this phase such as seeing their three or four year old mimicking their spouse’s behavior, like holding the door open or bringing the newspaper. Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., the creators of the Smart Love® approach, state that these actions “enhance a child’s sense of competence”* making them feel really good about themselves. Parents can nurture this self-esteem with responses like:
•'That is really helpful, thank you!'
•'Wow, that is so thoughtful, thank you!'
When the time comes when a parent does not manifest the romantic attention that their child is seeking, children may reason this is because their other parent is interfering somehow. Children can become angry towards that parent but, at the same time, be fearful and defensive that the other parent will retaliate against them.
As the Piepers noted, “On returning from an enjoyable time playing catch with his mother, a four-year-old said to his father, ‘Why do you look so mean?’ The father, who was familiar with the dynamics of the romantic phase, responded, ‘Maybe you are afraid I’m angry that you had so much fun with Mom, but I think it’s great she’s teaching you to play baseball. You know I love you, sweetheart!’ Upon hearing this, the little boy gave his father an enthusiastic and very relieved hug.”*
As more and more of these instances arise where children’s all-powerful-self is confronted with the realities that they cannot control their parent’s romantic attentions, they experience a disappointment that is crucial to their maturation.
“One three-year-old could not understand why, when she could easily get her father to play checkers, she could not convince him to take her instead of her mom to a party on Saturday night.”*
This new realization makes them question themselves and their belief that they can do, say, and have what they want when they want it. Oftentimes, we see that when this awareness occurs children’s outbursts and needs intensify. They may experience “seemingly irrational bouts of crying, anger, whining, or general unhappiness.”* They may require increased attention (especially when they see their parents interacting with each other) and parents may notice a level of competition for attention. Parents may hear:
•'I can lift that better than daddy.'
•'I play the piano better than mommy.'
For Smart Love, it’s important to avoid negativity when responding to comments like these. The Piepers explains that “Attempts to puncture the child’s illusion by laughing, teasing, explaining, disagreeing, or criticizing him will only make him defensively cling to his belief in his prowess and will retard, not hasten, the process by which he develops a more realistic self-image.”*
A simple ‘wow’ or ‘that’s great’ will satisfy your child. Once they realize that one of their parents is not competing with them and they can count on that parent’s unconditional love and care, they will have begun the process of maturing past the romantic phase.
When parents are able to stay calm and patient through the romantic phase, they will find that things will go much easier if they are “accepting of your child’s bossiness and irritability. Your child is experiencing intense feelings, and he needs your help with his dawning awareness.”* If a child refuses to play a game unless Daddy doesn’t play, one good response would be, ‘No, Daddy wants to play too, but you will have both of us to play with!’ “In this way you can encourage your child to see that three can be a party rather than a crowd.”*
It is important to understand the romantic phase as it sets a child’s subconscious expectations for their future friendships, romantic relationships, and parenting, or ‘relationship ideal’. This ideal “determines whether a child will grow up to have mutually enjoyable close relationships or conflictual, unrewarding relationships.”*
Children come to understand that they cannot control or have their parent’s romantic attentions. This process can take some time and requires patience and understanding. Helping them positively through this stage, however, establishes a healthy relationship ideal.
“The child whose relationship ideal is shaped by her parents’ abilities to regulate their own behavior effectively and with a healthy regard for their own needs grows up to possess a durable morality. This child’s relationship ideal reflects her parents’ abilities to offer genuine love and to nurture her even when she has made demands that could not be satisfied and then felt angry. She develops an abiding respect for the rights and needs of others as a result. This child’s relationship ideal is the blueprint that allows her to mature into an adult who can acknowledge others’ desires and respond appropriately. As she matures, she will lose interest in wishes for a competitive type of intimacy, and she will become permanently attracted to personal and caregiving relationships that are characterized by steady availability, involvement, and mutual respect.”*
*Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Press, 2011.