5 Steps Toward a Healthier Parenting Dynamic

Why good cop/bad cop doesn't work in families, and what to do instead.

Posted Oct 28, 2020

Kitty/Adobe Stock
Source: Kitty/Adobe Stock

“I can’t believe how much their father lets them get away with,” a mother remarked to me during a recent consultation, referring to the way her husband is with their two young daughters. “I wasn’t home during the day before,” she went on, “but now I see just how rarely he actually says ‘no.’ I’m clearly the bad guy around here, and I hate that.”

“I didn’t realize that my wife sits with our son while he naps,” another mother told me. “The mystery has been solved; I mean, no wonder he can’t fall asleep on his own at bedtime.”

“I try to enforce that they only get their iPads for an hour before dinner,” a father remarked. “But their mother can’t handle the whining, so there goes my attempt at setting limits.”

Since COVID-19 was declared to be a global pandemic nearly eight months ago, many more adults have been working from home. Which means many more parents in two-parent families are seeing exactly how the other one does business – and they don’t always like what they see. Whether the issue is napping, sugar intake, screen time, or the myriad other parenting issues that arise on a daily basis, parents are describing tension in their partnerships – and, therefore, families – due to a difference in style or philosophy. It’s not that these discrepancies didn’t exist before, but they were less visible and more easily overcome (or, at least, ignored). Now that, by necessity, families are spending so much more time together – in many ways, a bright side of this strange and difficult time – co-parenting has emerged as a striking challenge.

Often, as reflected In the real-life examples above, the dynamic that has developed reflects the well-known “Good cop, bad cop” scenario, in which one parent takes on the softer, more nurturing role while the other becomes the harder, less forgiving disciplinarian. Although this approach may be effective in the short term – e.g., “When my son won’t stop crying for me, I just threaten to get his father, and that always works” – there are long-term risks. The biggest is the problem of inconsistency. When the grown-ups perceive and/or handle children’s emotions and behavior differently, it can be confusing and destabilizing for a child.

Instead of feeling safe across the board and experiencing their world as steady and reliable (feelings linked to a range of positive outcomes), young children learn that the rules aren’t dependable, that it’s unclear who’s in charge, and that the emotional climate of their home is unpredictable. Children frequently internalize such feelings, which are stressful ones for developing brains, and which may result in later emotional or behavioral issues. Furthermore, good cop/bad cop approaches tend to divide families in unhealthy ways and cause resentment to fester between parents over time, even if not at first.

If you have fallen into this rhythm with your partner, you may well feel more tension in your relationship, and your child(ren) may be having more emotional and/or behavioral difficulties. There’s a good chance (but no guarantee) that these two phenomena are related, and so one way to break the cycle is to shift to a healthier parenting dynamic.

Here are five suggestions for doing just that:

  1. Start from a place of values. Rather than honing in on a particular, likely mundane parenting disagreement (“I can’t believe you gave him another cookie!”), have a conversation with your partner about your overarching parenting values (perhaps using a free Values Worksheet from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as a guide). What kind of parents do you want to be? How do you want your children to describe their relationships with you to friends when they’re older? Are there characteristics you’re highly invested in modeling for your children? What about the opposite – qualities you don’t want your children to see in or experience from you?
  2. Focus on where you and your partner’s experiences overlap, rather than where they diverge. For example, one parent may always give in to a child’s distress, whereas the other may prefer allowing the child to “tough it out.” In both cases, however, parents experience discomfort when their child has difficult feelings. Recognizing that root commonality, rather than how it may manifest differently, can foster mutual understanding and empathy that sets the stage for more effective co-parenting.
  3. Once you have landed on some common values, shift gears to speaking in more concrete, actionable terms. How can you both commit to achieving the values to which you aspire? What is the path toward getting there? How can you hold each other accountable in supportive ways? (Again, some free ACT worksheets may be helpful.)
  4. Recognize, consciously and explicitly, that your child’s relationship with your partner is going to look different from the one they have with you. Sharing parenting values, and agreeing on the steps needed to embody those values, does not mean the goal is to create two parents who are clones of each other. You are different people, with distinctive backgrounds, personalities, and ways of being in the world, and – hopefully and presumably – your child will be the richer for that. Just as important as sharing an overarching framework is accepting the places you differ within that. Trust your child to navigate their relationship with each of their parents as they grow. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s not your job to micromanage how the relationship between your child and your partner develops. It’s theirs.
  5. Try this exercise: Play around with dividing the two roles – taskmaster/disciplinarian and nurturer/”fun one” – more evenly. For example, if you’re the former, try spending an entire weekend morning focusing only on play and humor, refraining from making a single demand of your kids. If you’re the latter, take on the responsibility of getting the kids through a complete morning or evening routine one day next week. If you notice anxiety, or resistance, arising as you contemplate this exercise, notice that, as your reaction can likely be a source of rich information about deeper individual and/or familial issues.