Good Cop‑Bad Cop Parenting: Some Pros, More Pitfalls
Everyone knows the good cop-bad cop parenting routine: Mom says no, dad says yes, or vice versa. While we often refer it as a parenting strategy or technique, the truth is, good cop-bad cop parenting is seldom an active choice couples make together.
Personality affects parenting; no matter how many conversations you and your partner have before childbirth and after, how many good intentions you share, when in the moment of parenting, our personalities tend to dictate our responses to children. This means it’s common for one parent to be more permissive, or less comfortable with rule enforcement or discipline, than the other, or the reverse – stricter and more authoritarian. This can force the other parent into the opposite role, sometimes moving them further to the extreme in an unconscious attempt to provide a child with balance. And it can work, to a certain extent – according to experts, navigating parents’ different parenting styles may help children learn to navigate an inconsistent world and work with various types of people.
The problem with the good cop-bad cop strategy is that most often it is used as a justification or description of parents’ preferences and talents, rather than as a considered, shared response with a specific aim. And when that happens, the cons – for the whole family – typically outweigh the pros.
Effects of good cop-bad cop parenting on children
Good cop-bad cop parenting is a broad term, and means different things to different families. Here are two common scenarios.
Good cop-bad cop parenting dynamic 1: The warm, nurturer vs. the harsh disciplinarian
In this scenario, the good cop is a nurturer who affirms children’s emotions and opinions, even in discipline, while the bad cops cracks down harshly – not abusively, but one who, say, yells, belittles or speaks condescendingly to children in response to rule-breaking.
Though one study has suggested the influence of the good cop can mitigate the bad cop’s harshness by modelling more acceptable behaviour, other research has found the good cop’s efforts can’t make up for the effects of the bad cop parent – and that the dichotomy, in fact, is linked to poor health outcomes in adolescents. In part, said Thomas Schofield, assistant professor of family studies at Iowa State University, because an atmosphere of unpredictability is difficult for humans to thrive in. Schofield is the lead author of a study that examined this exact scenario. But also, in part, because the harshness of the bad cop parent makes children feel insecure – an act that the good cop parent allows, which means there is always a level of emotional withholding from the emotionally supportive parent, which heightens feelings of stress and insecurity.
Good cop-bad cop parenting dynamic 2: The rule breaker vs. the rule enforcer
More common, however, is the mom says yes, dad says no (or vice versa) scenario. Here, the good cop is the more permissive, laxer parent, while the bad cop is the one who enforces rules and strives for consistency.
While there’s no suggestion this dynamic affects children’s long-term health, as the one above, there are pitfalls. First, studies show that inconsistent discipline can encourage bad behaviour – possibly because kids are confused about the real rules, experts say. Second, children quickly learn how to manipulate parents to bypass rules and get what they want – which can shape their long-term attitudes to manipulation and dishonesty as adults.
Third, and perhaps most impactful, this dynamic often fosters scenarios in which one parent is undermined by the other. This has two effects on children: It frequently leads to a ‘favourite parent’ – typically the permissive good cop — which can damage the relationship children have with the other parent (particularly when the good cop embraces the message “I’m on your side” – implying the bad cop isn’t); it can also affect children into adulthood, hampering their ability to bond supportively in healthy relationships.
Effects of good cop-bad cop parenting on parents
This potential for undermining your partner’s different parenting style and efforts is where good cop bad cop parenting really takes a toll, creating an environment of resentment that can threaten the stability of a partnership.
The key is in reconciling your different parenting styles so that they complement each other, rather than conflict or undermine. Which means if you and your partner embrace a good cop-bad cop dynamic, you should do two things, according to experts in family psychology, to make it successful and supportive for the whole family:
- Present a united front. Even if you’re the permissive good cop and the burden of disciplining falls on your spouse, you have to back them up when they enforce rules and discipline when those rules are broken — no comments, no “I’m on your side, kid” looks. You may choose not to enforce certain rules, but you have to respect that your partner does. (And vice versa.) If you want to voice your disagreement, do it when the child isn’t around.
- Talk about your goals for your child with your partner. And also talk about how you each hope to achieve them. Look for compromises, and test each other’s hypotheses to see what kind of parental response actually works best for your child in a given scenario. One partner may still be more of a rule-enforcer and the other a rule-breaker, but ideally, you’ll move together toward a happier and more consistent medium, rather than living in extremes.
Ultimately, research points to the fact that a shared, consistent parenting style is linked to the most positive outcomes in adolescents. Get tips on how to do it in our article on reconciling different parenting styles!