Like many other things in life, when it comes to co-parenting poorly, there are many ways to get the job done. There are acts of commission and of omission; that is, what a co-parent does and what she or he fails to do in the co-parenting role. Let me take the latter first, particularly because I made a point of noting in my previous post entitled "Co-parenting WELL" (http://blogs.psychologytoday.com/blog/a-family-affair/200806/co-p...
) that one co-parenting act of commission--simply reiterating to a child a point made by one's partner in parenting--does not qualify as highly skilful co-parenting.
Even though reiterating to a child what one's parenting partner has already said does not represent the most skilled manner of co-parenting, there is most certainly a time and place for doing so. As a result, failing to do so--an act of omission--is one way to co-parent poorly. When a child fails to listen and heed one's partner and you just sit there and say nothing, that can be regarded by the child as a license to ignore the first parent. This is one reason why many a mother or father when faced with this situation turns to their parenting partner and says, typically in frustration, something like "Don't you have anything to say? Are you just going to sit there?"
The challenge, of course, is in selecting whether and when to re-state what one's partner has told the child already. Doing so all the time or when it is probably not necessary risks inadvertently undermining the first parent by, as I indicated in my previous blog, making it seem that the child only has to comply with the first parent's request because the second parent has now weighed in on the subject. But failing to repeat what one's partner has said when the child is not listening to, or ignoring or purposefully defying the first parent represents a co-parenting failure.
Even if failing to reiterate what one parent has said to a child can qualify as poor co-parenting, it is in acts of commission, rather than of omission, that serious co-parenting crimes get committed. It may help to recall the game of curling that I used in my previous blog as a metaphor for co-parenting, especially how the "sweeper" uses the broom to brush the ice in a way that speeds up or slows down the weight thrown by a teammate in order to increase its chances of hitting the target.
Essentially, behaviors that serve to slow down the weight when it needs speeding up or speed up the weight when it really needs slowing down is at the heart of co-parenting poorly.
Imagine the common parenting situation discussed in my previous blog in which say a mother is trying to get her child to get undressed and take a bath, but the child is not cooperating. What does a supposed partner in parenting do in this situation that actively serves to undermine the first parent? Besides doing nothing when, if you would, the cavalry is called for, the co-parent can act as if the first parent has not made any request at all, distracting the child's attention from the first parent. So if one parent is with the child and their partner is the one trying to get the child to the bath, the first simply goes on dealing with the child as if the partner did not even exist. This is a form of passive aggression.
Even worse, though, is behaving in ways that not so much passively undermine one's parenting partner--saying nothing when something is called for or continuing what one was doing with the child when the partner made a request of or gave a directive to the child--but actively working against the partner's wishes. Consider in this regard a scene that I have witnessed on more than one occasion during home observations of families: Dad is both watching television and reading the paper while the 3-year old is on the floor playing with some toy characters. Mom, after (wisely) alerting the child earlier that in a short time she would be taking him up to the bath, returns to do just that "Time to go", she says, "the bath is waiting for you." And how does Mr. Poor Co-parenter behave? He says to the child, "Hey, look at this picture here in the paper." And so the boy jumps up and into dad's lap so they can both look at the photo together.
Now anyone witnessing only the father-child exchange just described might consider this a nice, caring dad, one who understands his son's curiosities and is prepared to teach him things when opportune moments arrive. But that is not what is really going on here, is it? This is another small skirmish in a co-parenting war that perhaps goes on at a low--or even high--level all the time in many families. By choosing to invite the child to do something interesting and attractive to the child at just the moment when it is not called for, dad subtlety sends a most-corrupting message to his child about his partner in parenting: "You really don't have to pay attention to what mom says."
But please do not jump to the conclusion that this is just a dad thing; mothers behave this way, too. In neither case is it developmentally beneficial to the child, admirable, or even grown up! To repeat something I--and others--have said before, no child wants to find him or herself in the middle, being used by one parent as a tool against the other. Doing so is one way the poor co-parenting operates.