Playing Good Cop/Bad Cop Can Be GREAT Parenting (If You Do It Right...)

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good cop bad cop parenting

We’ve seen the shows. We know the drill. One parent is the mean one, the dealer of discipline, the one who insists on manners, homework, respect, and rules.

The other parent is the one who caves, who avoids confrontation, needs to be liked, and would prefer to appease.

Who wouldn’t prefer to be idolized by the kids, to never have to discipline?

But human nature is such that kids need boundaries.

They need to learn right from wrong. They need to learn respect. They need to be put to bed.

And none of those are easy tasks. A grown up has to take charge.

By design or circumstance, many parents find themselves resentful in a ‘good cop’ or a ‘bad cop’ scenario.

These parenting roles often become exaggerated as time goes on.

The longer we parent, the easier it is for us to just ‘do it ourselves’ — or conversely ‘let her do it if she knows what to do all the time’. Our roles become less fluid in time, more like cement.

Power trips reign. Jabs like, ‘You always’ and ‘You never’ get thrown around relationships like harpoons.

Stewing quietly to yourself, you realize the best way to ‘get back’ at your spouse is to use the kids either as weapons or shields.

No one wins: not you, not the kids, not your spouse.

Parenting roles have less to do with parenting and more to do with our own issues.

Want to parent on a united front? Want to maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse? Want to get out of child rearing with a relationship intact?

Step back and take a good, long look at yourself. Yep. Yourself.

I know you want to blame your spouse or your kids when things get tough. It feels really good to let off steam, but if you are after a long-term fix, you’ve got to take some time to reflect on your own childhood.

Take some time to consider why certain things are so important to you:

  • Why must things be done a certain way or why do you prefer chaos?
  • Why is your tolerance so low or so high?
  • Who told you this way of parenting was right?
  • Why do certain behaviors trigger emotional responses in you while others do not?
  • Why is controlling your kids’ behavior so important?
  • Why do you avoid confrontation?
  • What are you deeply afraid of?
  • What are you overcompensating for?
  • What are you trying to re-create?
  • What kind of family life did you dream of?
  • How much of that is fantasy?
  • What ideals do you need to let go of?

Have your spouse do the same.

If you’re really honest, you’ll realize much of how we parent is because of our own childhood issues.

We were all brought up with our own truths and tolerances. It is unlikely that these truths overlap our partner’s truths at all, let alone entirely.

The perfect family doesn’t exist.

There isn’t a family in the world where parents read each other’s minds and instinctively understand not only their partner’s their past but their present, a family where each child is guided through life on a rubber raft of love, complete acceptance, and self-confidence.

Life doesn’t work that way.

We are human. We have ideas and wounds and bad days. We get triggered. We have pain points.

It comes down to choice.

The most effective parents choose to present a united front to their kids.

The best parents accept their partner’s wants, needs, strengths, and weaknesses. They do their best to dovetail their own wants, needs, strengths, and weaknesses into their partner’s.

They are willing to surrender to one another occasionally. They are willing to give up being ‘right’ occasionally to keep the peace.

They are willing to ask for precisely what they need from their partner. Their partner is willing to listen working toward an end goal.

Turns out, parenting is less about the kids than it is about the parents.

Mature parenting means sucking it up, supporting a spouse you think is wrong and talking rationally about the situation later. Obviously, if a child is in danger, a parent has every right to act out against a spouse.

But most of us don’t fall into life-or-death parenting decisions. We live and die by bedtime rituals, candy consumption, or curfews.  

There are countless ways to raise kids. Countless ways to get them to bed. Countless ways to get them to talk respectfully. It is possible to be a disciplinarian AND have fun. It is possible to bend some of the rules AND expect your kids to respect you.

There are endless ways you can give up controlling your spouse and your kids. There are endless ways you can get out of your comfort zone and, like a muscle that needs exercise, you can learn to discipline effectively, even if it doesn’t come naturally. And the good cop/bad cop modeling of parenting isn't necessarily a bad thing.

The crucial piece to making the good cop/bad cop thing work is supporting each other.

All the time. As furious as it makes you when your spouse lets the kids stay up too late or gives them junk food, back her up. As much as she thinks it is controlling to discipline a child for talking back, she must learn to support you.

No excuses.

You back each other up. If you must talk about it later, do so out of the kids’ earshot. Remember, this has less to do with the kids and more to do with your own fears, your own need for control, your own need to feel heard and supported.

A couple who parent with resentment and double standards nurture the very real possibility the kids will take advantage of the situation by turning one parent against the other. No one wins.

The truth is, kids need both sides of parenting. They need love, they need fun. They need boundaries, they need freedom. They need silly, they need an evil eye every once in a while.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to parenting. Believe it or not, the good cop/bad cop roles can have some real benefits. Kids will learn tolerance. You will be modeling strong relationship skills. They will understand the unity of the parents comes first.

How can you make the good cop/bad cop work for you?

First of all, play your strengths. If one of you is better at discipline, go for it, but be open to the other partner’s strengths and weaknesses, too. Are you the parent who only wants the fun? Then take up more slack around the house to make sure there is less for your spouse to have to focus on.

Bottom line? Good parenting isn’t for wimps. Sometimes you’ve got to suck it up and do stuff you hate doing, stuff you’re not good at, stuff you’d rather leave to someone else. Too bad. Grow up.

You didn’t get this far in life only to let a small human being call the shots. Do your share. Do more than your share.

Too controlling? Hate confrontation? Get help. Not wanting to do something in parenting is not an excuse to check out. There are plenty of books, therapists, and life coaches out there who can help you over the hump. This is too important. Your kids need you.

Support each other, provide a united front, even if it feels uncomfortable. Discomfort is fine. It doesn’t have to be perfect or done how you’d like it. This is parenting. It isn’t a Picasso. It is meant to be messy.

Put your energy into yourself and your marriage and you’d be surprised how the good cop/bad cop thing works out in the end — with kids who know love and know boundaries, kids who love freedom and know respect, kids who have manners who can stand up for themselves when they need to.

Like each kid needs to be celebrated, so does each parenting partnership. There is no perfect way to do it — but unified parenting always wins.

T-Ann Pierce is a transformational life coach who works with people who are ready to stop living excuses and start living strong. Among other things, she helps parents learn parenting skills so life is a joy, not a struggle. Connect with her at or call her at 847.730.7531.