Is It Better to Be the Good Cop or the Bad Cop? The Great Debate

“Ask your father.” “Ask your mother.”

If you’re a parent and you’ve never found yourself saying this to your kids, there’s still a chance your partner has said the reverse, leaving you to shoulder the decision making about something. Maybe it’s a sleepover your kids are begging to attend, and your partner is keen on the idea but you’re not, or perhaps it’s something more serious. Either way, all parents find themselves in disagreements over what’s best for their kids from time to time — and experts say that’s both normal and healthy. 

The problem is when it escalates into a good-cop-bad-cop scenario, prompting kids to pounce on the softer parent in an attempt to win over the one they view as the disciplinarian. There are perks to both positions, but in the end, is it better to be the good cop or the bad cop when you’re a parent?

One in five separated or divorced parents says he or she often disagrees with their child’s other parent, according to the Pew Research Center report, Parenting in America. However, about nine in 10 of all parents say it matters “a lot” that a spouse or partner sees them as a good parent, which implies that whether or not both parents are on the same page, each wants to feel supported by the other.

You don’t have to be divorced to disagree, obviously, so how do different parenting styles affect children in the long run? Research has shown that both the so-called authoritarian (“because I said so”) and authoritative parenting styles (“I say so, but let me hear you out and take what you say into consideration”) generally lead to more obedient children, but the latter results in kids who are happier, more successful, and have higher self-esteem. One study even found that authoritative parenting leads to higher academic achievement.

Why is it that authoritative parenting provides such advantages over other styles? “First, when children perceive their parents’ requests as fair and reasonable, they are more likely to comply with the requests,” say authors Sandra and Don Hockenbury in their book Psychology. “Second, the children are more likely to internalize (or accept as their own) the reasons for behaving in a certain way and thus to achieve greater self-control.”

“Ideally, parents should be on the same or at least a similar page,” parenting expert Abbie Schiller, founder and CEO of the Mother Company, tells Yahoo Parenting. “The good-cop-bad-cop routine is fine as long as the parents are in agreement about the ‘violation’ of the child. If one parent takes a softer approach and the other is more of the enforcer, it’s natural.”

But what if parents are on opposite ends of the spectrum over the right course of action, or one overrides the decision of the other from time to time? “That doesn’t work because no one benefits, including the child, and the marriage suffers too,” Schiller says. One partner can end up resenting the other, always feeling like his or her opinion doesn’t matter. Kids need a clear sense of boundaries, and the last thing a parent wants is to give children the impression that they can manipulate one parent to convince or “win over” the other. If this becomes a regular thing, it can cause confusion as kids begin to “feel guilty for choosing sides,” Tammi Van Hollander, a family and child therapist at Main Line Therapy in Ardmore, Pa., told P&G Everyday. “They can also feel anxiety about pitting one parent against the other.”

Here’s what parents should do if they find themselves in a good-cop-bad-cop scenario: Negotiate the nonnegotiables ahead of time, Amy McCready, the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time… told NBC’s Today Parents. Whether that means a strict bedtime for your kids or which days your teen can borrow the car, “discuss and agree on the expectations and resulting discipline for these nonnegotiables ahead of time, and clearly communicate the rules to everyone. Then follow through together each and every time. This will let your kids know that you are a united front.”

And for the impromptu situations no one can plan for, “It’s OK to disagree on some discipline issues — just don’t do it in front of your children. Instead, set up a signal ahead of time that indicates, ‘We clearly don’t agree on this one. Let’s discuss it away from the kids,’” says McCready. Once you come to a decision, present it to the kids as a unified front.

“I am the bad cop, and my husband is the good cop. That is just our personalities and how it seems to turn out most of the time. It’s funny, though: When my husband gets serious with them, they do listen to him better because he is not like that as much as I am. I definitely would prefer to be on the same page. It is something we are working on as parents. Raising kids is hard!” — Carly Kerby, Salt Lake City

“Both parents should be disciplinarians. Not only does it allow the children to see that mom and dad are a team, it also keeps them from trying to get over on the good cop.” — Neoshi Green-Kebreau, Loxahatchee, Fla.

“My husband and I switch between good cop and bad cop with our sons, ages 2 and 4. I’ve threatened to call Daddy, and he’s threatened to call Mommy. It’s good to have them follow the rules, but they also know that Mom and Dad aren’t always meanies.” — Tiffani Greenaway, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Mutual respect is key when parenting together. Whether you agree with your partner or not, it’s important that your children see you as a supportive unit. “Keep in mind that your goal is not to “win the battle” with your partner, but to find the most constructive plan to help your children make good choices,” McCready says. Consider discussing how you plan to deal with tough situations when and if they arise, and stick to your decisions, no matter what. Not only will this lead to less confused kids, it ensures that each parent feels validated.

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