“How many times have I told you to not play with my lipsticks?” Mommy screams at sevenyear- old Shivani. “You think money grows on trees?”
“It‛s only a lipstick, my darling,” coos Daddy, entering the battle zone from the other room. “I‛ll get you some more, na.”
If looks could kill, Daddy would be the star attraction in a CSI crime scene.
“And why are you getting all worked about something silly like lipstick?” Daddy continues, clueless. Stab.
“You shouldn‛t have left your precious lipsticks out for baby to reach them.” Stab. Stab. Punch.
And even before little Shivani can open her mouth to fake a protest, she‛s witness to an age-old clash
that unfolds in many homes on a daily basis.
Bad Cop. Good Cop.
The thought-provoking point here is that most of us parents, in some form, are guilty of this disciplinary parenting style. And yet, if unchecked and left to fester, the consequences can be devastating. Its impact can last a lifetime.
Why does it happen?
Personalities and circumstances seem to be the two biggest culprits. Let’s look at a few more illustrations to see how this plays out in the real world. (Please excuse the gender biases. You can swap the genders and yet preserve the key points).
Daddy comes back from a long day at work, walks in through the door and is enthusiastically greeted by hugs and kisses. (No, not from Mommy, but from their four-year-old son.) Daddy smiles, closes his eyes and hugs the son tightly. And for those few precious moments he forgets the stresses of the day. That is until his eyes fall upon Mommy’s stern face. You see, Mommy has spent the last ten hours with junior, dealing with his constant need for attention and disciplining him all day. “Fun Daddy is home”, yells Junior, and proceeds to give Daddy the blow-by-blow account of all the moments Mommy had been unreasonable, irritable and annoyed. Mommy storms out, totally misunderstood and unappreciated.
And so circumstances created our Bad Cop, Mommy. And Good Cop, Fun Daddy. Personalities of Mommy and Daddy can also be contributing factors. For example, Mommy just might be more permissive and softer in her demeanour, while Sergeant Dad is a strict disciplinarian. Mommy is a
push-over for those puppy-dog eyes that naturally follow a “please Mommy”, tight hugs and wet kisses. Whereas, Daddy insists on the “right things, done the right way”. His way, that is. Sergeant Dad, Bad Cop. Sweet Mommy, Good Cop.
So, when parents’ tendencies oppose each other, you have the makings of a perfect ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ storm. Depending on the situation, one parent becomes the ‘best friend’ and the other, the unreasonable disciplinarian’. Let’s see how this personality contrast between parents can have serious impact on the disciplinary, and consequently, the emotional climate in a family.
Mommy just might be more permissive and softer in her demeanour,while Sergeant Dad is a strict disciplinarian.
What is the impact?
Some of you may think that with different personalities in a marriage, it is normal – and even healthy – for parents to have disagreements. Understood and agree. But when these disagreements become public, frequent and divisive – the stress on the relationship between Mommy and Daddy can be damaging. But the strain on the children is especially harmful.
From a very young age – some experts say, and it can be as young as four months of age – children learn to read parental reactions to their own, and hence begin to learn the art of emotional manipulation. It’s a normal, self-preserving instinct that each of us are born with. You see this in action every time a child cries, a parent magically appears. This consistency and predictability in parental responses to attention-seeking stimuli – either manufactured or real – is a stabilising force during the child’s formative years. And inconsistency can be harmful.
When parents fall into their ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ dance, a child feels unsure of what reactions to expect from a parent, or what behaviour is appropriate. Their self-preservation instinct kicks in and they are forced’ to pick the good cop. Hey, when your world feels threatened with a bombardment of negative emotions (Bad Cop), wouldn’t you pick the person (Good Cop) who makes you feel more safe and secure? A child’s behaviour in these circumstances becomes even easier to understand when you think about how, as grown-ups, one of our biggest stressors in our lives is uncertainty! So forcing a child to favour one parent over another can damage the holistic stability and emotional consistency they crave.
As children grow up in such an environment, they quickly learn which parent to go to, to get what they want. Or they put into action the more devious tactic of using that parental disciplinary disconnect to pit parent against parent, while they sit back and enjoy the fireworks!
For example, Arnab runs up to Mommy and says, “Daddy is making me finish up my homework before we go out for dinner!” Or he says to Daddy, “Why do I have to finish all my vegetables? Mommy doesn’t make me do it”. You can see how this may increase the emotional tension between parents.
Children do this to wiggle out of their responsibilities or circumvent rules of the house, and our parental discord goes a long way to make that happen. The more serious issue is that children learn the art of manipulation to get their own way. If unchecked, they can grow up to internalise this destructive behaviour by developing a controlling personality. They learn to either avoid doing what they are responsible for, or they manipulate others to do it for them.
Another oft-overlooked and yet frequent casualty of a ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ parenting strategy is the relationship between the parents. Compounding the contrasting personalities and backgrounds at play in any relationship, parents who end up being the Bad Cop, often feel a sense of unfairness as well as guilt. In our first illustration above, Mommy feels it’s unfair that Daddy gets to be Good Cop, just because she is taking care of their son, dishing out the discipline all day. We believe no parent likes to be the Bad Cop because we know, in our hearts, that the harsh disciplining that often accompanies the Bad Cop role, actually damages our relationship with our child. And so, being the Bad Cop is often followed by guilt, which we might suppress and explain away. But the hurt remains.
So, in the absence of any understanding, appreciation and support from the other spouse, the relationship between Mommy and Daddy is subjected to a lot of stress due to unresolved emotions and
expectations. In worst case scenarios, the parents argue and fight in an unhealthy display of frayed emotions that their child witnesses – feeling shame and guilt, and believing they are the cause of the conflict.
But, behind this cloud, there is a silver lining. With a bit of determined practice, there is hope for peace and joy beyond this dysfunctional family dynamic that hurts parents as well as children.
What can be done about it?
The core issue with this parenting disciplinary dynamic lies in the disconnect between the parents, and conversely the solution lies in unifying them. Here are some practical ideas that have worked:
Agree on a unified front Daddy works at the office. Mommy works at home. Daddy buys the groceries. Mommy does the cooking. Daddy fixes broken stuff. Mommy bakes awesome stuff. Division of labour usually works great in a family, but not for Parenting. Research over the years has shown us that a child’s emotional and physical health optimally requires a home environment that is consistently safe, stable and secure. Regardless of your personalities and backgrounds that impact your parenting approach, when it comes to disciplining your child, nothing is more important or critical than the child knowing and seeing that Mommy and Daddy are on the same page. The first step is to commit to a unified front. It’s going to take some work.
Find common disciplinary ground
OK…so how do you get on the same disciplinary page? Once both the parents commit to being united for all the right reasons, the next step is to identify common ground. Here is where you list out the discipline rules for your child that you both already agree on. This could include rules for things like bath time, eating vegetables, being polite and respectful, screen time, study time, play time and so on. Discussing and agreeing on the rules and expectations on how your child is disciplined at these times provides a
positive platform to support discussions on the areas where you do disagree.
Keep disagreements private
Let’s face it. As parents we don’t agree on everything, so you won’t be surprised to know that disconnect can apply to disciplining your child, as well. It’s OK and expected that you will disagree, just don’t signal your disagreement – verbal or non-verbal – in front of your child. When little Rahul comes to you (Daddy) just before bed time and says “Mommy told me I could have chocolate before I go to bed!”, don’t roll your eyes, grunt in disgust and loudly express your disagreement (unless it is an immediate safety issue). Your children will pick up on these cracks in your unified front and will use them to their advantage (those cheeky devils!). Instead, you could smile and say something like “You lucky boy…what did you do to deserve that treat?” while you make a mental note to clarify the rules and talk through your differences of opinion with Mommy later.
In the scenario where Arnab is trying to wiggle out of eating his vegetables: if you do have a problem with a rule or request that your spouse has made of your child, and the child come running to you, don’t sigh or make a face, or argue with your spouse. Just tell the child he has to do what’s been asked of him. Then connect with your spouse later and revisit the unified front rules. Sometimes it even helps to have a signal that indicates to your spouse “we clearly don’t agree on this, let’s discuss it after the kids have gone to bed”.
Frequently check the integrity of your unified front rules
Circumstances change ¬¬¬- Multiple kids, different personalities, and children grow up. There may be many reasons your rules of discipline will need to be upgraded. The secret to making this happen and staying in front of the ‘cheeky devil’ curve is consistent communication. We recommend that parents set aside one night every week (or 10 days) to talk about what’s working and what’s not when it comes to disciplining their child. It’s a great time to talk about situations that made one feel like a ‘Bad Cop’, or when we felt the rules just did not work. So, make it a priority in your family to check the integrity of your parental united front, and adapt, when necessary.
Slipping quite naturally into the ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ routine damages the promise and potential in a united parental front. It may help to remember that, as parents, the natural inertia created by our dissimilar personalities, upbringing, values and egos, contrive to drive us apart. And so, we need to proactively make the effort to be united in disciplining our children. If we don’t make the time to connect; sync up and adapt rules, we all lose, and we often end up battling on opposites sides of the issue at hand. But, with committed hearts, patience and proactive effort, parents can safely put the big discipline-debate behind them, and make it a thing of the past.