Is ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ Any Good for Kids?

Here's the skinny on this controversial parenting approach

The classic “good cop, bad cop” method of psychology has worked in law enforcement for years. Some parents would like to think this method can work across the dinner table as well — but the tactic may be bad for a growing family.

Today, there is an emphasis on being friends with our children — so when discipline is needed, one parent may play the disciplinarian, while one remains “the ally.” It would seem to make sense: If one parent keeps the child in line, the other can be free to explain the logic in each decision.

While being a “good cop” seems a more modern and easygoing route of parenting, it’s not necessarily the healthiest in the long run.

While one plays the constant friend, the other assumes the role of the sometimes-foe.

“‘Good cop, bad cop’ is best left up to CSI,” Julie and Ryan Hakes of Shelby Township, Michigan, told LifeZette. Even at a young age, the couple said, their twin boys are learning the ropes — getting one parent to side with them in order to get what they want.

“They do this all the time,” said Ryan Hakes. “We call it ‘split the parents’ — it’s when one child asks the ‘easy parent’ for something he knows the other parent won’t agree to. Our kids are only six years old, but they have a sixth sense for making requests from the parent they think is most likely to give them what they want.”

Do you support individual military members being able to opt out of getting the COVID vaccine?

By completing the poll, you agree to receive emails from LifeZette, occasional offers from our partners and that you've read and agree to our privacy policy and legal statement.

More often than not, “good cop, bad cop” roles naturally evolve according to the parents’ personalities. Sometimes it comes down letting things happen organically — and sometimes, purposefully going against this character trait, when needed.

“When families come for counseling, they don’t understand that ‘good cop, bad cop’ can cause disruption in their household,” said Patricia A. Young, a family therapist at A New Heart Counseling in Lakeland, Florida. “This situation occurs when one parent is more permissive, nurturing, and communicative, not placing many demands on the children — and wants to have the status of friend rather than parent.”

“The kids will wait to make their request when it’s absolutely the most annoying moment.”

The children will begin to use manipulation consistently, said Young. “In this confusing situation, children do not learn appropriate problem-solving techniques for real-life events. They seldom learn to self-regulate, have problems with authority, do poorly in school, and are not usually happy even though they seem to be getting what they want.”

While being a “good cop” may seem a more modern and easygoing route of parenting, it’s not necessarily the healthiest for anyone in the long run. Scripture confirms the need for assertive and shared values in the household, as in Mark 3:25: “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”

Here are three clear steps that will both solidify the role of parent and strengthen family relationships — when “good cop” is tempting:

1.) Know the plan and see it through.
Holding your own as a parent can be difficult at times if you are alone with the kids — particularly during the holidays.

“It’s not just who they ask. They know when and how to ask!” said Julie Hakes. “They’ll wait to make their request when it’s absolutely the most annoying moment. They bide their time like scavenger hyenas, waiting and then pouncing just when you least expect them to. Loading laundry, mowing the lawn, going over the bills … they know exactly when you’re most likely to give in to their demands.”

Related: Disciplining Kids With a Tech Timeout

For the Hakes, understanding their ground rules and being on the same page is essential for parenting — before their boys begin to instigate.

“While parents naturally do play a different role, they should be supportive of each other and the end goal,” said Julie Hakes. “We’ve created special effective warning phrases. For instance, every kid has heard mom say, ‘Just wait ’til your father comes home.’ The trick behind making warning phrases work is to follow through. If you’re always threatening and warning and counting, ‘One… two… two-and-a-half … three’ and never correcting, they’ll eventually call your bluff. And they’ll usually call your bluff right in the middle of shopping at  Target.”

2.) Learn how best to communicate with all parties.
While learning to take on roles that either advocate for the child or discipline the child, it’s easy for confusion to arise in communicating with spouse and children.

“We actually communicate directly in front of our kids,” said Ryan Hakes. “They listen to family issues, requests, schedules, or anything that needs to be communicated. This way, even if they’re just observing, they feel a part of the process and develop insight in knowing that everything doesn’t revolve around them.”

3.) Be for your spouse first.
Remember — you two are a team. Before being so concerned with your child’s wants and wishes, it is most important to prioritize your spouse. Being overly concerned with your child’s feelings can get in the way of the marriage itself.

“The relationships ebb and flow,” said Ryan Hakes. “Sometimes one kid is more connected to Mom, while the other is really close to Dad. Then it switches. The only way to keep kids from feeling the balance of power can be manipulated is to constantly remind them that parents are an inseparable team.”

If one parent sides with the child first, “the other parent is then put in a position of being the punitive parent,” said therapist Young, “leading the children to think of them as being ‘mean’ and ‘against them.’ This causes distance between the disciplining parent and the children, not to mention distance between parent to parent. If this dynamic continues for any length of time, there will be anger, resentment, and divisiveness between the parents, causing chaos in their marriage and household.”

“In this chaotic situation,” Young continued, “the children will learn early how to keep things stirred up, and use manipulation to get what they want.”

Related: Are You Really Listening to Your Kid?

Though some parents may prefer the role of the “chill” parent, or may think, “But I really do want my children to express themselves fully,” they may be missing something important — considering the outcome of constantly giving into children’s wishes throughout the formative years.

“Parents want well-adjusted, successful, caring children who know how to behave and problem solve,” Young said. “To achieve this, parents should be working together to keep their household running smoothly. When they are working against each other, their household will surely stay in continual turmoil, and their children will not learn the skills necessary to be successful in life.”

Whichever role you as a parent lean toward — good cop or bad cop — it may be time to put the hats aside. Assume one role as parents, loving and disciplining, together and undivided.

Join the Discussion

Comments are currently closed.