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.
It’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.
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.
©Anita Cleare 2015
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