There’s good news and bad news for families having vigorous rounds of Good Cop, Bad Cop with their children. A study in the journal Social Science and Medicine shows that playing with these extremes in your household can eventually lead to unhealthy levels of inconsistency for your child. That could indicate the whole Good Cop, Bad Cop routine simply doesn’t work and can be unhealthy for kids.
Meanwhile, another study finds that when one parent intervenes during an episode of Bad Cop, it can possibly be healthy. The idea is it shows your kids what type of behavior should not be tolerated. It sounds confusing, until you consider what it’s talking about in terms of harsh parenting. In the long term, the study sounds more like a warning that harsh and condescending parenting has a negative impact on kids’ self-esteem and self-worth well into adulthood.
So where’s the middle ground in all of these parenting studies? Should parents always be nurturing, patient listeners? In an ideal world, that is probably your best bet. However, this isn’t an ideal world by a long shot, and kids are relentless in their pursuit of getting their way at all costs. The answer lies in playing to your strengths and staying firm and consistent, all while keeping Good Cop, Bad Cop within the realm of healthy boundaries. Here’s how to do it.
Call in the Heavyweight
Not all parents can pull off the heavyweight role and rule with confidence and firmness. On a stress-free day, you can probably stay consistent and stick to the rules like a pro parent on a mission. You’ll probably feel smug about raising well-behaved and respectful children that other parents on the playground secretly envy. But on a day with chaos and no sleep, you’re likely to want to just give in and call this whole parenting thing a day when your toddler informs you they will be wearing their mermaid tail and bikini top to preschool. In the freezing cold. On a Saturday.
This is the ideal time for the Bad Cop parent to step in and reinforce whatever it is you’re trying to instill in your child. For example, it’s okay to ask for parental backup to get your toddler to stop climbing the furniture while you’re holding a screaming infant, or to give you some peace and quiet while you finish cooking dinner. Just don’t say something like, “Uh-oh, here comes Bad Cop! Now you’re in trouble!” Otherwise you’ll just create a divisive household where neither of you are playing to your strengths. The idea is to have each other’s back, not be the parent everyone dreads seeing walk through the door.
Focus on Empathy
Parents prone to falling into Bad Cop mode even on the sunniest of days should take a step back to focus on empathy as their first line of defense. Sensitive children in particular need more empathy and understanding when things go wrong and frustrations spiral out of control.
Focus on their feelings instead of barking orders to get past whatever is bothering them. Same goes for restraining yourself from barking a command for them to just move on. Try something like, “I can hear how frustrated you are, and I understand you’re upset we can’t destroy the entire house with a granola bar today. But the answer is still no.” Stay consistent without raging out of control. Letting your kids know you actually understand how they feel, while continuing to stay firm, is a positive step towards a healthy relationship with them.
Use Simple Statements
When your child comes running to you because Dad said they couldn’t go outside barefoot on the rocks with five suckers in each hand, the point isn’t to shrug and suggest that Dad is harsh and they better do what he says “or else.”
Instead, back up the Bad Cop role by playing the deputy. “I know you’re disappointed you can’t run through the house, but I agree with Dad. It’s the rule.” Focus on simple statements that reinforce the discipline of the Good or Bad Cop in question.
Get Your Child to Respect Both of You
Good Cops don’t have it all good. Kids may want to play with them and run to them for giggles, but aren’t necessarily going to respect them when the answer is “no.” They’re more likely to push this parent over, and keep questioning their discipline until they give in. Good Cops are also often the fun parent, but not the one the child wants approval and advice from.
Show your kids that even a laid-back, more lenient parent still deserves their respect. When you ask them to clean their room and they refuse, don’t automatically threaten to enlist the Bad Cop to step in and set things right. Stand your ground and focus on consistency when requesting that they do as asked. The sooner your child realizes you’re not going to be pushed over, the sooner they’ll stop questioning everything you say until you slowly but surely go insane.
Learn from Your Mistakes
Set aside the boxing gloves reserved for beating yourself up over every infraction and mess-up. No parent is perfect, no matter which role you’ve naturally fallen into. Take the Good Cop, Bad Cop situation to heart to see your share of the mistakes in the relationship. Are you too lenient with the kids? Is it creating tension with your spouse? Maybe you’ve inadvertently undermined their parenting by bending the rules after they’ve already said no. Or maybe you’re so harsh that you scrutinize and criticize your spouse for not doing more to discipline the pack of roaming toddlers in your home.
Take personal inventory of what you could do better in your parenting role, and create a more consistent and reliable environment for your child. You can still naturally gravitate towards the role you usually play, while focusing on correcting your own mistakes to empower your parenting style.
Blend Different Parenting Styles
It’s actually possible to blend Good Cop, Bad Cop together and come out with something more like Firm But Fun Cop. You can still refuse to take no for an answer when it comes to your child cleaning their room before playtime, but think about how your spouse would approach it and turn it all into something more fun. Tell them they must clean their room, but set a timer. If they get their cleaning chores done before the timer is up, then they earn an extra 10 minutes outdoors before dinner time. You can also build up to an extra-special incentive after a week, like extra screen time.
Meanwhile, the parent most prone to looking the other way can focus on firmness for a change and try out a new role altogether. Tell your child that if they don’t finish cleaning their room before the timer is up, they lose the privilege of spending time reading before bedtime. Pose it as a consequence that they are intentionally choosing for themselves. “If you choose not to clean your room, then you’re also choosing the consequence of no extra reading time.”
Appreciate Your Partner’s Strengths
Have you ever looked at what your partner brings to the table in the co-parenting role? Their ability to be strong and firm may fill you with awe and wonder over how they stay so consistent. Or their endless patience with the horrors of potty training could make you envious of their carefree nature.
Take the time to truly appreciate what your spouse has to offer, and let them know what inspires you in their parenting. They’re more likely to respond in kind, and show you more patience and respect for how you choose to parent. Hopefully that all leads to accepting your strengths as well as weaknesses as a parent, and asking for more help from your partner.
Unify as a Team
At some point in the parenting journey, your natural cop roles fall apart in the midst of stress and crisis. That’s the time to unify as a team and put down your badges as Good Cop, Bad Cop. Work together to squash the after-school meltdowns, the terrible twos defiance, and the teenage sass, and appear as a united front.
Carry that new unified front as parents on a mission with you whenever your child decides to divide and conquer. The next time they tell you that Dad knows best and they don’t have to listen to you, just share, “Dad and I are a team, and you can’t divide us.” They’ll eventually get the point and stop testing the waters so often. They might even appreciate that their little worlds are safe, predictable and delightfully secure. One day they may even thank you for it…when they become parents themselves.
How does your household play Good Cop, Bad Cop? Let us know by leaving a comment below: