Are you playing bad cop?
Have you fallen into the good cop/bad cop rut with your partner? When Naomi Reilly did, she realised things had to change
The day I caught my husband Ben appeasing our two-year-old daughter Florence with a lollipop – while also whispering in her ear, ‘Don’t tell your mother,’ was the day I realised something had to give. I was working upstairs while Ben was getting Florence ready for a trip to the park, but she was refusing to put on her shoes – or any clothes, for that matter.
We’d been here before, and agreed that bribing her was not the way to go – something my husband had conveniently ‘forgotten’ – and as usual, it was down to me to play bad cop, taking the lolly away from her and pinning Florence down to dress her. Frustrating? You bet.
As a parent, I understand that it’s natural to have a different style of discipline to your partner, but it doesn’t take a genius to work out that for the one left playing bad cop, it can be a raw deal. Dr Claire Halsey, a chartered clinical psychologist who specialises in parenting, says this can lead to all kinds of problems. ‘It’s difficult as one of you tends to fall into doing most of the discipline and can become resentful, while the other tends to experience more positive interactions with the children and therefore can be seen as the favourite,’ she says.
As for who gets to be which, more often than not it’s mums who are the bad cops. Around 70 per cent of the 2,000 mothers studied for a recent survey commissioned
by baby swimming school Water Babies said they felt that they’re often forced into this role, while dads get to be the good cop. And almost three-quarters said they tell their children off ‘far more’ than their partner ever does, with a quarter confessing that this leads to them becoming upset.
Dr Halsey isn’t surprised. ‘The bad cop is usually the parent who spends most time with the children, managing more situations where the child may not want to co-operate, such as meals, getting ready in the mornings, and bedtimes.’ she says. ‘This is often the mother because mums are still most likely to be the primary caregivers, initially because of their maternity leave and later due to a higher proportion of mums working part-time.’
Many of my mum friends can relate to this. Sarah, mum to two boys with another on the way, says it’s a running joke in her household that her husband is the nice guy and she’s the baddie. ‘My husband is softer by nature, so being strict or following through on threats of punishment doesn’t come as naturally to him,’ she says. ‘At dinner time, with me they know they have to finish it or there’ll be nothing after, whereas my husband will always let them off. This would be fine, but then they’re hungry half an hour later!’
Fortunately Sarah doesn’t think that her situation is too much of a problem – for now. ‘At two and three years old, the kids don’t play us off against each other, but I suspect as they get older they will.’
Another friend, Sasha, has all but given up on ever getting her husband to play bad cop. ‘My daughter noticeably favours my husband as he never tells her off and gives in to most of her demands,’ she says. ‘There has to be some structure, but I’m the only one implementing it. The scary thing is, I can’t see it ever changing, so I just make the best of it.’
Ironically, I didn’t actually mind being the bad cop at first. Before I was even pregnant I’d always suspected that Ben would be a big softie as a dad – much like my own father – and I figured I’d rather this than have him be a strict disciplinarian.
Once we had our two daughters, Iris and Florence, I felt proud of the close relationship he developed with them, and as he worked long hours I felt it was understandable that he didn’t want to spend the precious time he had with them in the week either nagging or being cross. Ben might have struggled with discipline – the line, ‘Wait till your father gets home!’ was lost on our kids – but I was alright with this. Then things changed...
Shortly after the birth of our third baby, when the others were aged two and four, I snapped. ‘Lollipopgate’ was just one incident in a sea of good cop/bad cop scenarios, and I was fed up with all the discipline falling to me. The children saw Ben as the epitome of fun, whereas I was synonymous with all the unpleasant parts of the weekly routine.
As immature as it sounds, I was feeling jealous. Why should my husband get to be the popular one all the time? Even babies have a radar sense of who is the more lenient one and can show a preference to that parent. Baby Arthur would come to me for mundane things such as food and nappy changes, but always to Ben for fun and entertainment. He could be screaming the house down before bedtime, and all it would take was for Ben to come home from work and he’d be smiling again. Meanwhile, my daughters had learned how to play us off like pros – when I said ‘no’ to something they went straight to daddy for the answer they wanted.
But Ben did have his reasons for being the good-time guy. ‘It’s hard being the one at work full-time – you don’t see how things are managed,’ he explains. ‘I wasn’t always up to speed on the rules of the house, so we needed to communicate more. And no, I didn’t want to spend the small amount of time I had with the children after work having a fight about something, so it was easier to give in to them.’
Still, I knew the disparity in our parenting styles wasn’t good for the kids. As Dr Halsey says, ‘Children thrive when they know the rules and boundaries, so it can be unsettling and confusing when this varies so much, when there is inconsistency in what’s expected of them, such as being allowed to pester, misbehave or take risks with one parent and yet being told off or warned of consequences if they behave in the same way with the other.’
I was also becoming concerned about the gender stereotypes my kids might be picking up on. We want them to grow up with an open mind when it comes to gender roles, and I’m adamant that I don’t want to be seen as some haranguing harridan. What if they grow up to view women in general as being pushy or as nagging? Something had to change.
In the end, having a good chat helped us get to grips with the traits that had become ingrained. And while Ben now understands he needs to step up in certain situations, the main discovery is that we need to address our parenting differences and try to meet in the middle. Ultimately, Ben can’t help it if he doesn’t care as much as I do about whether the kids have brushed their hair in the morning. Equally, I see that I can do with lightening up at times. But we decided the most important thing was for us to be united.
Divide and rule
As for how we handle discipline, we know we both need to be the enforcers now. As a consequence, the children don’t spend so much time trying to play us off against each other, because they know that whatever one of us says, the other will back up the decision. And if we do have a difference of opinion over a parenting issue, we’ll discuss what to do about it when the children have gone to bed.
The best thing Ben and I have done is to make it a priority for me to have more free fun time with the children, away from the weekly routine. Finding activities that allow me
to be with them without the daily pressures have really helped to redress the balance. So I take my daughters to the theatre, and go swimming with my son. Slowly, they’ve started to see more of my carefree side, and daddy is no longer the only ‘fun’ one.
However, despite Ben and I deciding our style of discipline should match, it’s obvious that our personalities will always come into play. I’ve come to the conclusion he’ll always be a softie at heart, but the fact that he’s trying to be firmer is helping. Even small things have made a difference. Ben used to say to the kids, ‘I’m sorry but mummy doesn’t want you to do that,’ or ‘Mum has said no,’ which I felt sent a message to them that we weren’t on the same page. Now he’ll make a point of saying, ‘We would like you to do this,’ showing that we work as a team.
Ben seems to agree with this. ‘I still love having fun with the kids, but I know there have to be some boundaries – and set by both of us, not just by Naomi,’ he says. ‘I’m now almost as good at dishing up time outs and saying no to the kids as she is. And I’ve stopped carrying around an emergency supply of lollies for potential bribery.’
I’m not saying we’ve nailed it. Who really has this parenting thing nailed, anyway? But whereas I was once definitely the bad cop and Ben the good cop, the lines are now blurring. As Dr Halsey puts it, ‘It’s natural that parents are not identical in their approach, but it’s important that they try to work together on being consistent and reach agreement in areas where one of them might be softer and the other tougher.’ I couldn’t agree more.