I see the good cop/bad cop parenting dynamic a lot. The other day, I was at the park having a picnic, and a couple with a young toddler was picnicking next to me. Their kid saw a very young puppy she wanted to go pet. The dad almost instantly said, “Yes, you can pet the puppy!” and the mom said, “That puppy is very young—we should ask if he’s had his vaccines yet.” The dad said, “Ah. It’s just a dog. Dogs are good for kids!” They had this back and forth until, eventually, the person with the puppy was long gone. The toddler didn’t get to pet the puppy. And the dad sat back, angry, giving the silent treatment. Their picnic was clearly ruined. They both had excellent points, if you ask me, but neither was willing to look at things from the other’s perspective. It was a bad cop/good cop situation and you can see how it ruined their mood and dynamic that day—and perhaps for life. It’s no surprise that having kids is one of the life changes that causes divorce, even. Here is why the good cop/bad cop parenting dynamic can ruin marriages.
The bad cop’s efforts are overlooked
The bad cop can put in tons of work—running the kids to their doctor’s appointments all day, building the baby-proof den, and other not-so-fun acts—and all the good cop focuses on in is the fact that the kids won’t be allowed to eat candy that night. Because it’s a “school night.” Meanwhile, the bad cop is left sitting there thinking, everything I do gets overlooked because I only handle the mundane stuff.
And she just feels like the buzz kill
The bad cop is always made to feel like a buzz kill rather than a responsible parent. The good cop suggests pizza for dinner/a late bedtime/a trip to Disneyland. The bad cop says they should eat healthier/they have early mornings/they can’t afford Disneyland. And rather than say, “I understand,” the good cop says, “Aaaw. You’re no fun.” Which is never nice to hear from your spouse.
The bad cop gets robbed of the fun moments
The good cop always swoops in and takes over the fun moments, before consulting the bad cop. He gives the kids dessert on the night they’re allowed to do it, without consulting the bad cop and asking if she’d like to hand out the brownies. The bad cop winds up feeling like she just gets the dirty work—like facilitating bath time—and the good cop gets to drop in when it’s time to do the easy stuff.
The good cop gets to relax at events
This is very common: the good cop thinks the bad cop is a helicopter parent. He says, “Relax. The kids will be fine,” and he grabs a drink, kicks up his feet, and mostly behaves as if he doesn’t have children to look after there.
When the bad cop stresses the whole time
Meanwhile, the good cop doesn’t realize the reason he gets to relax is that the bad cop has been following the kids, stopping them from picking up sharp objects, taking poisonous items of their mouths, and preventing them from falling several times. She has no fun at events, and enables the good cop’s good time.
The good cop thinks the bad cop is negative
The good cop believes that the bad cop is negative. Rather than viewing her concerns as intelligent, responsible, and caring, he sees them as cynical. The bad cop wants the good cop to keep a closer eye on the kids at the playground in case of kidnappers. The good cop thinks the bad cop has a negative view of humanity.
Kids favor the good cop
Kids wind up favoring the good cop. That’s who they snuggle up with on the couch for movie night. That’s who they want to tuck them in. That’s who they want teaching them to draw or catch. The bad cop feels pushed to the side, while she’s mostly the reason these kids have even been kept alive to see another day of snuggling or drawing.
And they keep things from the bad cop
The kids eventually start keeping secrets from the bad cop. If they break something, get a bad grade, or do something for which they could get in trouble, they go to the good cop—he won’t be as harsh. What’s worse is they say, “Please don’t tell the other parent.” And the good cop keeps that promise, because he wants his kids to trust him.
So parents can’t discipline kids together
Now you have a situation in which the parents can’t discipline the kids together. The bad cop has been left out of the situation entirely—she’s in the dark about that bad grade or that broken iPad. The good cop is making disciplinary decisions on his own, which isn’t fair.
And secrets start to form
Overall, secrets start to form in the house. There isn’t an open dialogue between the parents about what the kids are up to. This gets worse in the teenage years. Things can get extreme. Maybe the good cop is letting the teenagers drink alcohol or drive with just a permit—no license yet. Keeping small secrets turns into keeping big secrets—the kinds that break up marriages.
The bad cop feels she has no support
The bad cop generally feels that she has no support. When she needs to take disciplinary action, rather than back her up, the good cop says, “Sorry kids. What mommy says, goes.” He doesn’t say, “This was our decision.”
Kids lose respect for the bad cop
The more the kids see the good cop failing to back up the bad cop, the less they respect the bad cop. They see her as the enemy to the household. She needs the good cop to back her up if the kids are going to respect the rules.
The good cop feels like a “bad parent”
Meanwhile, this whole time, the good cop feels like a bad parent. He feels like his ideas are always shut down. He feels like he’s being fed the message, “You don’t know how to take care of children. All of your ideas are dangerous and irresponsible.”
There’s an air of manipulation not collaboration
Throughout the home, there is a lot of manipulation going on rather than collaboration. Conversations around child-rearing become calculated—much like a debate between politicians. And not at all like a discussion between equals.
It’s hard to get back to equilibrium
Once you slide down this slippery slope, it’s hard to get back to a neutral place. Children see you in one way—the bad cop and the good cop—and it’s hard for them to unlearn that.