Good Cop Bad Cop Parenting

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The following is an interesting letter received from a mom concerned about her oldest daughter’s attitude. Her husband replies and makes an interesting statement about good cop, bad copy parenting.

Dear Dr. Psych Mom,
Our oldest daughter, 8, recently began having an attitude something fierce. I am a stay at home mom, so I do the majority of punishing. I called my husband out on it saying how I feel so helpless and angry when I’m trying to correct our daughter and dole out punishment and he sits there not saying a word. And he said, “Yeah, because one parent has to be the good cop.” I totally disagree with the good cop, bad cop attitude. So, am I right, or is my husband?

Image source via Shutterstock

Image source via Shutterstock

Dear UBC,
Well, I don’t usually say this in couples counseling, but: YOU ARE RIGHT. This is something that goes on in my house too at times, and it annoys the crap out of me. First of all, “good cop, bad cop” is a method to get a criminal to confess to having committed a crime. Nothing about this should be analogous to parenting, unless your 8 year old is far worse than I am envisioning.

The Negative Effects of Good Cop, Bad Cop Parenting

Here are all the negative effects of the “good cop, bad cop” routine on your family dynamic:

1. You start to hate your husband. Nobody likes to be painted as a villain, with the possible exception of some of the Real Housewives. If your husband is sitting back and intentionally letting you play the bad guy, this is going to lead to feelings of resentment, bitterness, and loneliness. You’re not playing for the same team. You’re doing all the assists and he’s scoring all the goals. Or baskets. Whatever.

2. Your daughter starts to view you as a cruel harridan from the netherworld. And dad is a smiling benevolent deity. Cruella DeVille versus Buddha. Not only does this make your home life, not to put too fine a point on it, suck, but it sets up a toxic dynamic called triangulation where your husband and your daughter side together against you, rolling their eyes as you yell, and basically considering themselves to be a unit that stands in opposition to you.

3. It prevents your daughter from witnessing a healthy marital dynamic, where the parents act together as a team. She may therefore be less likely to be able to create a team dynamic in her own relationships later on. I am not saying that you and your husband have to agree about discipline at all times, but if you start to discipline your child, unless you are acting egregiously, it is the his role role to play backup. Later, privately, he can express his feelings about your discipline tactics and suggest other alternatives.

That last point is important in this situation, because I don’t buy that your husband truly thinks that “good cop, bad cop” is the epitome of good parenting. I have a suspicion that, on some level, he disagrees with your discipline strategies, or with your threshold for requiring that a given behavior be disciplined at all. Yet instead of saying this outright, and risking a huge fight with you (men frequently hate verbal confrontations with a passion), he is hiding behind this “good cop, bad cop” excuse.

Your husband is not assertively stating his point of view about your discipline tactics, but he passively manages to get the point across that you are somehow wrong. He may even be nonverbally conveying to your daughter that you’re being too uptight, by smiling, laughing, or eye rolling as you’re disciplining.

If your husband is just acting like the discipline is not occurring, this sends the message to your daughter that he’s not on board, which undermines you. And passive aggressive behavior by one partner leads to anger and frustration in the other, which is exactly what you’re feeling.

However, to be fair to your husband’s possible unspoken position here, we also have to examine your discipline style. You say your eight year old has an attitude, which is certainly frustrating and irritating (like how having a tonsillectomy without anesthesia is irritating), but does her behavior really improve when you discipline her?

Your daughter may apologize and act more respectful in the moments following the discipline, but is there a long term effect? Or are you just literally wasting your breath? If she just acts rude again 30 minutes later, perhaps you need to re-examine your disciplinary tactics. As do we all, friend, because I am guilty of the same pointless constant correcting.

A 3 Point Plan to Address Your Feelings

I suggest the following three point plan to see if you can address both of these problems at once: your feeling that your husband throws you under the bus, and your daughter’s heinous attitude.

  1. Implement a new rule
  2. Your husband does all the discipline when he’s home for a period of one week. And you back him up. This can allow you to see which of your daughter’s behaviors actually bother him enough to react. It may be eye opening how different your views are on what requires discipline.

    Implementing a new rule may also help you see that there are different ways to skin a cat. Your husband’s approach may or may not (whatever it is, even ignoring her) work with your child.

    If putting your husband in charge of all discipline goes well for the week, make it a long-term solution. If he just avoids any and all engagement with her rudeness and she consequently grows ruder, then you will have to implement plan B: you discipline and he backs you up come hell or high water (with the caveat of being able to express disagreement with your techniques later, and privately).

  3. Minimize the amount of times you discipline
  4. When he’s out of the house, try to only correct/discipline your child’s behavior two times per day maximum. For real.

  5. Respond to rudeness appropriately
  6. Every time she is rude after that, you can choose from the following: (a) ignore, (b) tell her how she is making you feel, or (c) empathize.

    What do I mean? Here are some examples:

    a) It is 7pm and your husband is home. You say, can you please finish up watching video games? It’s time for homework. Your daughter says, “Oh my god, why are you always bothering me?” You DO NOTHING. You turn to your husband sweetly, and say, “Darling, Madison needs to do her homework. Please deal with this. I will be making lunches for tomorrow. Call me if you need backup. Kiss kiss.” Then you smile angelically at your husband and Madison and float out of the room, unconcerned.

    b) You pick up your daughter from school and she asks why your clothes are so embarrassing. You either (a) ignore, (b) say, “it really hurts my feelings when you say stuff like that, or (c) say, “it must be hard to be embarrassed by your mom. I remember feeling like that too.” Empathy, both eliciting hers for you in (b) or expressing it directly in (c) is a wonderful magic ninja technique that often has effects far beyond what we can predict. It may even work on Little Miss Sunshine and could limit your need to engage in more punitive measures. And ignoring will work if what she’s really going for is to get a rise out of you.

Let me briefly address your obvious rebuttal to “My husband could care less if she does her homework and he won’t make her do it and she will fail out of third grade.” I answer: this is called natural consequences.

Your daughter will figure out how to do her homework on her own if the teacher is disappointed in her tomorrow. Her doing homework in third grade is less important than having a happy mother and a calm home environment.

I sincerely doubt your husband could care less. I actually think your abdication may allow him to develop a new appreciation for what you deal with all the time. He will either have to step up to the Attitudinous One himself, or he will chicken out and ask for your help. Either way you’ll be back on the same team. Or else, weirdly, you may see that his default tactic of ignoring the attitude works and Madison ends up doing her own homework. Either way, it’s positive.

Thanks for writing in, and good luck. Until we meet again, I remain, The Bad Cop Blogapist Who Tries to Take Her Own Advice About 80% Of The Time Until That Really High Pitched Whining Becomes Involved And Then It’s Anyone’s Guess What Will Go Down.