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5 Reasons Good Cop/Bad Cop Parenting Doesn’t Work

Judy Koutsky

In your house, is one parent the disciplinarian while the other is the cheerleader? It’s important for parents to look at their own recurring habits in how they are making joint decisions, dealing with conflict, and relaying all that to their kids; are they presenting a united front? It benefits the whole family for both parents to be on the same team — that means being in agreement on topics ranging from chores to homework to fun activities. Why? Because good cop vs. bad cop parenting just plain doesn’t work. Plus, having those distinct roles is unhealthy for kids and parents alike.

We spoke to experts for their takes on why and how good cop vs. bad cop parenting does damage, and what parents can do instead.

It divides the family.

Good cop/bad cop parenting illustrates that the two parents are not on the same page, and this is confusing to kids. “Children need to know that their parents are working together as a team and want to support their best interest,” says Tammi Van Hollander, LCSW, RPT, a family and child therapist at Main Line Therapy. If kids are getting conflicting messages from their parents, it affects the whole family. Who is in charge? What are the rules? Kids won’t know their place or the role of their parents.

 It creates instability.  

Stability, comfort and predictability help foster positive parent-child relationships, which is critical for a child, says to Dr. Jeffrey J. Froh, an associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University and author of Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character. If the rules are always changing, depending on which parent is in charge, kids won’t have a sense of security, which should be the cornerstone of every household. 

It makes kids choose sides.

Kids often will ask one parent for something and when they say no, will go to the other. If Parent No. 2 gives in, they become the “good cop” and No. 1 becomes the “bad” one. Kids then start to follow a pattern of asking the “easier” parent for things they want, which ultimately ends up with kids choosing sides or picking a “favorite.”  “This is confusing for the child as they often feel guilty for choosing sides, and they can also feel anxiety about pitting one parent against the other,” says Van Hollander.

It can create unhealthy gender labels.

It’s important for kids to grow up with an open mind when it comes to gender and stereotypes, even in different-sex-parent households. If one parent in a different-sex couple is always being the “nice” one, it encourages gender bias and assumptions at a young age. For example, if Mom is always pushing for homework to get done, she can be viewed as the nag. The child can then come to view women in general (including teachers, babysitters and other women in charge) as pushy. On the other hand, if Dad is the disciplinarian, it can lead to kids wrongfully believing that all men are authority figures or aggressive. Instead, parents should discuss situations away from the child and then agree to enforce their joint decision no matter who is home or in charge at that time. That way, it becomes a “family rule” versus “Mom’s way” or “Dad’s way.” It’s important for kids to have a healthy, open relationship with both parents and to other role models — regardless of gender.

It pits one parent against the other.

Having to always be the enforcer — for homework, chores, and other tasks — can make one parent feel resentful toward the other. Everyone wants to be loved and appreciated by their children, but being the disciplinarian and making sure rules are followed is important for kids’ growth and development — and it’s something both parents should be doing.

“Parents need to support one another in the decisions that are made. Parenting is challenging and everybody has their own parenting styles,” says Van Hollander. So conflicting messages can come across unless both parents set aside the time to discuss and create a unified parenting plan. 

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