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Good Cop Bad Cop parenting

Now, I don’t want to stereotype (other versions of Good Cop Bad Cop parenting are available!) but in my experience the ‘good cop’ in this particular parenting pattern is often the parent who spends the least time with the children.

Good Cop Bad Cop parentingIt’s not hard to see why. When we feel like time with our children is limited, it can create pressure for that time to be 100% enjoyable and conflict-free. After all, who wants to spend precious family time battling with children, especially after a long stressful day at work or a whole week waiting to see them….

As a division of parenting labour, Good Cop Bad Cop parenting might be understandable but it’s not very helpful. Giving in to avoid conflict (and leaving someone else to pick up the pieces) tends to cause more conflict in the long term.

Firstly, Good Cop Bad Cop parenting causes conflict with the child stuck in the middle. When they are confused by inconsistent boundaries, it’s hard for children to know what the rules are and what constitutes ‘being good’. One day one thing works, the next it doesn’t and children find themselves in a lose-lose position where they keep getting it wrong and everyone is miserable.

Or, accustomed to a ‘good cop’ who ignores the rules or moves boundaries at the first sign of protest, children can learn that struggling against a boundary will result in a good outcome and a pattern of undesirable behaviour escalates as children try out more and more extreme behaviour to get those boundaries shifted. The ‘bad cop’ parent can feel forced into more and more draconian measures to try to keep the balance.

Unsurprisingly, Good Cop Bad Cop parenting also tends to cause conflict between co-parents. Being cast as the ‘bad cop’ isn’t much fun, especially if you are the one who spends more time with the children and has to deal with the consequences of good cop’s forget-the-rules parenting. Nobody sets out to be the baddie – most ‘bad cops’ take on that role because they feel compelled to step into a discipline vacuum.

So, that’s the Good Cop Bad Cop parenting trap, what’s the solution? Here are a few ideas:

Talk it through

If you are the one who has been unwillingly cast as the ‘bad cop’ then the chances are that you have already tried talking it through with your co-parent. And you may well have discovered that telling someone they are parenting wrong doesn’t usually go down well! Try these tips for calm, child-focused discussions When parents disagree about parenting.

Catch the children being good

Try to focus together on encouraging the behaviour that you do want from your children (rather than on responding to the wrong behaviour). This will really help the parent who has been dealt the disciplinarian role as it emphasises the positive and builds a happier relationship with your child. And it’s a form of behaviour modification that plays to the good cop’s strengths too! Every time your child does something you like, use lots of descriptive praise to tell them exactly what they have done right and how much you like it. “Well done for doing exactly what I asked straight away, that was amazing! I love it when you do that!” Focus especially on those times when they do the opposite of the misbehaviour you would like to change – catch them being good (even if only fleetingly) and tell them all about it. Big smiles, lots of hugs, some spontaneous rewards and your child will want to be doing the right behaviour more of the time.

Try reward charts

Reward charts work by motivating children to do the right behaviour but also by setting out a clear expectation and building in a consequence (i.e. no reward!) for when the right behaviour doesn’t occur. Reward charts work best when they are very specific and define very clearly which circumstances qualify for a reward. Write up the rules so that there is no doubt (for either parents or children) on whether a reward has been earned. And if they don’t do the right thing, don’t give the reward (and ignore any protests).

Agree consequences in advance

Children aren’t perfect and they will sometimes get it wrong. Try to agree with your partner on what constitutes a fair consequence when children misbehave. Keeping the consequences short (e.g. no TV for 5 minutes) is best as it doesn’t demotivate children and the ‘good cop’ in the Good Cop Bad Cop parenting cycle is likely to find it easier to follow through with brief light-touch consequences. Plan ahead for high risk times (when the children are most likely to play up) by setting out expectations and agreeing specific rules, rewards and consequences for that activity.

Be forgiving

There is no such thing as a perfect parent. We all make mistakes and have to find our own individual path to being the parent we want to be. Despite differences in style, most parents do a great job. Everybody is different (thank goodness!) and that variety adds something special to our lives.

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The Work/Parent Switch.

By Anita Cleare

Not sure where to start?

Practical tips on how to be the parent your child needs and create happy family dynamics (but still do your job!)

14 responses to “Good Cop Bad Cop parenting”

  1. MMT says:

    Great points here Anita – As I was reading it reminded me of when we tried (badly) to wean our daughters dummy…I’d struggle all day to keep it from her and the hubby would give it to her at the first moan. You are right though – a healthy discussion (calmly, away from the kids) was all that was needed…Thanks for linking up to #coolmumclub – have a fab christmas

  2. Robyn says:

    Great post Anita, and I can definitely see this pattern emerging sometimes with our one-year old. As you say, it comes down to communication. When my husband can understand why I think a particular approach is important he gets on board, it’s the times when I expect him to be a mind reader that things get stressful. I like the point you made in your comment (above), it’s true that the ‘good cop’s’ more flexible approach is sometimes the right approach.

    • AnitaCleare says:

      The mind reading strategy doesn’t tend to work, for sure (I am frequently guilty of that one!). But sometimes it’s hard to articulate when you are still learning and making it up as you go along!

  3. Jordanne says:

    When it comes to co-parenting with my sons dad I find it very hard to keep a structure with discipline. Oh how I long for him to actually communicate with me and be on the same page because right now I’m always “bad cop” all these points are great! #coolmumclub

  4. lizzie ( firstooth ) says:

    We have this situation here only the roles quite often switch. I need to read this with my OH, we agree on how we discipline and what we discipline for but we rarely stand side by side because the one not doing the discipline feels sorry for the toddler. Great advice #bestandworst

    • AnitaCleare says:

      Children are experts at making parents feel guilty, aren’t they! Parenting will always involve being unpopular with your kids a lot of the time… Thanks for stopping by, and good luck with the OH!

  5. Rach says:

    This is interesting. I would say I’m the good cop and I spend the most time with my son, his dad is probably the bad cop. I’m the one that relents quite easily where as my OH is quite firm in his ways! Great post to read with some fab tips. #bestandworst

  6. helen gandy says:

    Very interesting points, I am really trying to focus on really praising the good behaviour and not bringing so much attention to the bad behaviour. Thanks for linking up and happy new year! #bestandworst

  7. Michelle says:

    I find myself being the good cop on the whole – we both work full-time so spend roughly the same amount of time in the house, but I spend more time with the children as my husband seems to think that when he gets home it’s ok to just sit down to watch tv to relax and shout at the kids to leave the room if they disturb him. So I find myself being the good cop with them, the parent they want to come to, because I find that my husband is, in my opinion, too strict all of the time – he won’t let kids be kids! He can also be inconsistent, so if he’s in a good mood he will let something go. An hour later when he’s changed his mood he will read them the riot act for identical behaviour. He of course blames me and says he is so tough because I am too soft. I will tell the children off and they know my boundaries. However, I find I am probably more lenient because I think he’s too much of the bad cop and it isn’t fair on them to find that every second of the time with us is being spent being told off.

    I personally think it stems from jealousy on his part to the good relationship I have always had with the 3 of them – I also noticed that he will let things go with them until around about the age of 3 years old, then it’s not so “cute” anymore and not acceptable.

    Parenting is really hard and I’d love to provide a united front – I would even love to be a little stricter at times! If you are in a place where you can really talk about it with your co-parent that is a great position to be in, because if the person isn’t willing to compromise at all you can never find a happy balance.

    • AnitaCleare says:

      You are absolutely right that parenting is hard! We never really know whether we are making the right decisions and we all have to learn through our mistakes. When one partner isn’t engaging in building a relationship with the children then I think that can lead to jealousy. Maybe leaving him to look after the kids by himself for short periods might help him to reconnect?! Good luck X

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