My 2-year-old is misbehaving a lot less with me, than with his mom. He goes to bed without issues, stops watching TV when it's time for bed, no tantrums in the super market (mostly), no problems with brushing teeth, when he is with me. With his mom, it's a very different story.

When he is with her there is constant tension, which is partly her reaction to his behaviour, but he does act up more with her, he insists on what he wants more, he cries far longer, when he doesn't get it. For example, when I go for a long subway drive with him, he starts to complain and revolt at some point, but it's manageable, whereas with her it's a lot worse. I definitley don't let him do as much in public, I tend to insist holding his hand for example, while she is more willing, to let him run around the super market for example.

I have suspected, that this is due to him feeling more close to his mom, and maybe because I am less prone to give in to his "tactics" and more likely to ignore the tantrums and make less compromises etc.

I have read, that a child will let out stronger emotions, when with mom, because of the closer relationship with her. Especially when she comes back from work, he will instantly go to her and start acting up, which I read is good for the child, as a way to vent or let it all out.

I have noticed, that when I start making more compromises, that he starts to act up more with me too. At least, that's what I think I noticed, anecdotally.

So I thought, maybe him not acting up with me is actually a sign of a feeling of distance? Maybe I should optimize for more acting up with me not less? On the other hand he seems perfectly fine and happy, knowing that there is no point arguing with me about brushing teeth and watching TV, since it's a hopeless cause. He seems to be calm and happy, knowing exactly what is going to happen next, etc. I also often spend time with him and he doesn't complain, most of the time, when his mother leaves and he falls asleep with only me present without issue.

So basically I am not sure, what would be better for him: Feeling more intimate with me, but acting up more. Or maybe feeling more distance to me, but being calmer and acting up less?

Is there any data on the subject?

  • I think it is more of a dominance thing. You are the alpha in the house. He knows that. He will love his mother cause that is how kids are wired. I would say that a well behaved kids is the way to go. You are the parents not their best friends.
    – Elia
    Jan 13, 2019 at 4:28

3 Answers 3


You have a number of (maybe conflicting?) thoughts/theories about love and its relation to acting out. I think one of the reasons you didn't get any good answers (there were two which have been deleted) is because you asked for studies (or data), and that tends to inhibit users from answering.

What you're basically asking about is attachment theory. There is a lot of data regarding attachment theory, and, unfortunately, a lot of it only examines mother-infant attachment because women are often the primary caregivers, and feeding (e.g. breastfeeding) is one factor that influences attachment type. This leads to the misconception that given that all other things are equal, babies are more securely 'attached' (it's a bit more complicated than that) to their mothers and vs. versa.

I have read, that a child will let out stronger emotions, when with mom, because of the closer relationship with her.

That's a good example of that belief.

There is little reason to believe that your child loves and needs his mother more than he does you, especially if you both work, both treat him attentively with love, both take care of his needs, etc.

So basically I am not sure, what would be better for him: Feeling more intimate with me, but acting up more. Or maybe feeling more distance to me, but being calmer and acting up less?

I don't think this is the right interpretation of your toddler's differing behavior with the two of you.

Two year olds are whip-smart, and are masters at reading their parents. Your child is most likely reacting to differing parenting styles, not out of a differing degree of love (or fear) for the two of you.

A parent who is more consistent with their child will not have to put up with as much testing of 'boundaries' as will a more permissive parent. It sounds like your wife allows the child more leeway and therefore the child takes more chances/liberties, and is more frustrated when his explorations/boundary stretching is rejected, especially if it was accepted previously.

This is the likely reason for the situation you describe.

I'm not saying that one style of parenting is better than another. Both have their strong points and problems.

There is so much data about parenting styles that books - many books - have been written about it, many containing conflicting advice. They can't all be right, and an answer that would truly do justice to your question would be far too long (and boring) for this format. And, it would likely contain a number of errors to boot.

My advice to you is to relax and enjoy the fact that your relationship with your son (who loves you deeply) is a bit easier.

  • I think the bit about testing boundaries is spot on. My son knows I don't play the "pick it up" game and he also gets 1 warning for dangerous or bad behaviors before getting disciplined. Mom is a little more lenient so when he is doing something he knows is bad, he is side-eye watching mom and forgets that I watching. Conversely, he knows dad will sit on the floor and play all day and mom can't. So when he wants to play, he grabs my hand and asks me to sit on the floor. Feb 1, 2019 at 19:28

A less technical answer than anongoodnurse, but perhaps applicable.

One pattern I have noticed both through my own childhood with my friends and their parents and my own experiences as an adult is that when a child spends more time with one parent than the other, the child can become unbelievably adept at wearing down the will of the parent most frequented.

I've seen this over and over, even when the time with Mom vs Dad was 60/40 and much more often with greater skew in the ratio.

Some of it is just how you personally respond based on your own intrinsic psyche, but a lot of it seems to just be that kids don't have anything better to do than to wear you down. Especially if it works.

Maybe you and Mom split right down the middle, but if not consider that she may just be more battle-fatigued and the kid scents blood in the water.

  • haha that does make sense Jan 20, 2019 at 18:50

Parents often ask "why does my kid behave for grand-parents/teachers/ other people but not me" and an answer often given is trust.

The kids don't know what will happen with the other adults, will they still like them? will they be allowed to go back? will something terrible happen? The kids know what will happen with you, you will still love them, still be there for them, forgive them and move on.

Or it could of course be that you put up with it and their dad doesn't and they know that.

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