Dear Mr. Dad: My three-year-old son prefers his mom over me! I work full time and my wife is a stay-at-home mom. How can I get him to spend time with me without feeling that I’m competing with Mom?
A: Well, you’ve already taken the first two steps: Recognizing that there’s something you want to change and asking for help. Far too many parents (dads and moms) react to a child’s rejection by backing off, which is the wrong direction to go. So the fact that you’re still committed to developing a meaningful relationship with your child is very good news for both of you.
Hanging out with a three-year-old can definitely be challenging. It’s almost as if they’re moving out—heading off to preschool, spending a lot of time away from home. It can be an exciting time—and a pretty scary one too. Your son wants to be independent but he also wants the security of home. Given that your wife spends more time with your son, he sees her as the one who’s always there for him (literally and metaphorically). That gives him the confidence he needs to explore his world.
But back to you: Start by spending time doing things your child enjoys, such as watching a favorite video or playing a special game. Meeting him on his turf rather than insisting that he do something you want him to will let him know that you aren’t trying to take anything away from him. If you need some suggestions, ask your wife. If your son still won’t play with you, it’s okay—for now—to include Mom. It’s also very important that your wife support you in this. The more she can talk you up when you’re not there, the sooner your son will accept you as a playmate.
Gradually work up to new activities, like taking a hike in the park, shooting hoops in the driveway (he’ll need help at first), and walking the dog around the block. And don’t underestimate the value of helping with his daily care by giving him a bath or making his lunch. Nurturing activities show him you really care and help him understand you better.
If your son still balks at new activities like fishing or roller coasters, try doing some things he does with Mom, but add a twist to make them unique to your time together. For example, if Mom reads aloud books at bedtime, try listening to an audio book together. Or if your wife lets him help with the housework by sweeping the kitchen, invite him to your workshop while you build something and let him do help with a safe chore like sweeping wood shavings or handing you non-sharp tools. Pulling weeds and gardening are also very underrated dad-child bonding opportunities.
A three-year-old’s attention span is pretty limited—15-30 minutes is plenty—so avoid planning major activities, like a mile-long hike, where you’ll end up nagging your child to keep up when his little legs can’t possibly match your pace. And don’t try to schedule things too close together. Having to rush from one activity to the other can suck the joy out of both and could create distance in your relationship that may leave scars for years to come.
I also suggest that you pick up a book on child development—knowing what he’s capable of and what he’s not will allow the two of you to have a lot more fun together. My latest book, “Fathering Your School-Age Child,” is a good place to start. It also includes lots of age-appropriate activities.