There are many differing parenting styles but in most families, one parent ends up playing ‘good cop’, while the other plays ‘bad cop’. The ‘good cop’ parent is typically more lenient in their attitude to child-rearing and tends to focus on using unconditional love and nurture as a means of establishing and maintaining a strong, loving connection with their children. The ‘bad cop’ loves their children just as much, but recognises that children also need boundaries and discipline in order to thrive, and therefore takes a ‘harder line’ and is stricter and more authoritarian in their approach to parenting.
The problem is that when a couple is polarised in such a way, this inevitably leads to disagreements and conflict, so that even the simplest of parenting issues can become a source of contention. It’s very difficult to give children the consistency they need when a couple can’t agree on how best to modify behaviour, nor decide on which values are most important to instil in their children.
This can put quite a strain on even the strongest of relationships, as when parents take up opposing positions in this way, this inevitably leads to one parent feeling consistently undermined by the other. One parent is left feeling frustrated by their partner’s refusal to ‘see things their way’ and feels that they must overcompensate for what they perceive their partners’ parenting ability to be lacking in.
So how can we become a more effective ‘parenting team’ and have the confidence of knowing that we are doing things ‘right’, and that we are speaking a common language with our partner? How can we present a united front to our children and raise them in a consistent and mutually supportive way?
The way that we can achieve this is by equipping ourselves with simple and effective tools, which allow us to be more ‘balanced’ in our approach to parenting.
Here are a few tips extracted from our book Kids Don’t Come With a Manual that will help parents to become more aligned:
- Agree with your partner (or decide if you are a single parent) what your ‘core values’ are (e.g. manners, tidiness, etc.). Then iron out what you each consider to be acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. This will enable you to set rules that are clear and accepted by everyone in your household.
- Agree that so long as you are both maintaining these shared values and respecting your child, you will both allow each other room for expressing your different parenting styles.
- Try not to ‘compensate’ for your spouse’s parenting style. For example, if you have a tendency to be a ‘Strict’ parent (the ‘bad cop’) and you feel your spouse is being too lenient with your children (being the ‘good cop’), do not become more strict to compensate for this and vice versa.
- Resist the impulse to intervene when you don’t agree with the way your partner is reacting to a situation, even if you’re just trying to be supportive. When you interfere, you are sending the following messages to your child: “Your mother/father is not doing a good job of handling you, so I’ll have to do it. While the message to your partner can be interpreted as: “Honey, since you don’t have the necessary parenting skills, I’ll take care of this.”
- Divide tasks: if you tend to have tensions when you are with the kids together at certain times (e.g. in the morning or at bath-time, etc.), reduce friction by ‘dividing territories’ and agreeing on the tasks that you will each do and stick to the plan.
- Try to be consistent in the application of whatever strategy you and your partner have agreed on. Consistency is difficult because it’s only human to have moments where we just want to relax and not think too much about what we’re doing. However, it is very important to send a ‘clear’ message to your kids, so that they know where the boundaries are and don’t get confused by mixed messages.
- Do not take sides with your kids or sabotage your partner’s actions; don’t allow your kids to ‘manipulate you’ into conflict with your partner. If for example your child says: “But Dad lets me do that!” you can answer “He may do, but I’m the one responsible for looking after you right now.”
- When you disagree with your partner’s reaction to your children misbehaving, stop yourself from saying so in front of the children. Remind yourself that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect parent’ and be realistic about your expectations. If you feel that you partner is starting to get ‘triggered’ (i.e. losing his or her temper) and you feel that there is a better way to handle the situation, you could ask your spouse: “Can I help?” – but if the answer is “No”, you need to respect this and let it go.
If you are interested in equipping yourself with such tools, you can discover this and a whole lot more in our book, Kids Don’t Come With a Manual – The Essential Guide to a Happy Family Life.