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Why Good Cop/Bad Cop Parenting Harms Kids

Why Good Cop/Bad Cop Parenting Harms Kids

Here's a familiar tale: A boy asks his mother if he can have some candy. Mom says "no," and the boy goes outside to ask Dad. Not knowing that his son has already gone through this with his mother, Dad says "yes."

Who won?

I'd argue that the answer is no-one: the child learned that he can manipulate the more permissive parent, the parents were both undermined, and the household rules, if there were any, flew out the window.

Good Cop/Bad Cop in Parenting

It's often not until we look at ourselves in relation to others that we understand what our discipline styles are. And that "other" is typically our spouse or partner. When two parents' natural tendencies are opposed, they can find themselves, inadvertently, in a "good cop/bad cop" dynamic. Behavioral therapist James Lehman describes this as one parent occupying the role of "best buddy" and the other taking on the role of "nag."


Circle of Moms member Heather B. always thought she'd be the "good cop"—more permissive than her husband. But in reality, it turns out that she is the much stricter parent. She attributes this to the fact that she is always with her son, while her husband comes and goes throughout the day. Her experience is echoed by many stay-at-home moms. And one of them, Regina F., points out that being the "bad cop" isn't all that bad. "It doesn't meant that you don't love your kid," she says. "You just want your child to grow up knowing right from wrong."

My son just turned two, so our family's ideas about discipline are just beginning to form and take root. What's working well for us so far is knowing what we each think about our son's common requests: Can I have a bottle in the middle of the day? Can I have a cookie? Can I watch Elmo? We also try to stay on top of—and enforce—the rules and values he's learning at pre-school. For example, his school has a rule that kids put away their toys when they're finished playing. We honor that rule at home as well, so my son never wonders if that's a step he can skip.

A Unified Front

If you and your spouse often find yourselves playing out the good cop/bad cop dynamic, getting on the same page will help your child develop a clear sense of boundaries. Look for opportunities to initiate the conversation about expectations and rules. For instance, when your child next comes up with a doozy of a request that you and your partner haven't discussed, instead of saying "Go ask your father" and setting your spouse up to be caught off guard, tell your child that you'll discuss it with his father or, depending on the question and the child's age, that the three of you can discuss it together.

This kind of communication seems to be the key. As Amy T. says, "Our kids know (that) Mom and Dad stand behind each other on everything, so they listen to us both quite well." 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, POPSUGAR.

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