Ditching Good Cop, Bad Cop: How to Put Up a United Parenting Front

At a glance

  • “Good cop, bad cop” parenting can send mixed messages to kids.

  • Part of putting up a united front is presenting the same overall message to your child about important issues.

  • Finding the key points you and your partner agree on can help you work out what message you want to present to your child—together.

Do you feel like you and your partner are always playing “good cop, bad cop” with your child? When you don’t agree on how to deal with challenges or have different parenting styles, it’s easy to fall into those roles.

“Good cop, bad cop” parenting is hard on both parents and kids. Either you or your partner always ends up being the “tough” parent, and that can hurt your relationship. It can also send your child conflicting signals about important issues.

If your child has learning and thinking differences, she’s already facing challenges many kids don’t have. Not knowing what her parents expect can make things harder. Even if you and your partner are at different stages in the process of accepting your child’s issues, there are simple things you can do to make sure you’re clear and united in your daily expectations.

Know the triggers.

First, it helps to have a sense of when you and your partner tend to disagree. Some common areas for parents of kids with learning and thinking differences include:

  • School. Parents can have different views on everything from working with teachers to handling academic concerns and social problems.

  • Behavior. Parents may not see eye-to-eye on how to handle impulsive actions, anxiety, frustration or anger.

  • Treatment options. Parents often disagree about treatments, like medications to treat ADHD.

  • Talking about a child’s issues. Parents can have different comfort levels about discussing a child’s issues with friends, relatives and even the child herself.

Agree to disagree—in private.

Putting up a united front doesn’t mean you and your partner always have to agree about how to raise your child. But it does mean trying not to disagree about it—in front of her.

For instance, your partner may think your child should do her homework right after school. You may think she needs downtime first. If your child is hearing both points of view, she may get confused about what to do, whether homework is a priority and whose opinion matters most.

Try to resolve how you want to handle difficult issues privately with your partner—ideally before either of you tells your child what to do.

Agree on what you agree on.

The good news here is that you and your partner do have a clear point of agreement. You both feel it’s important that your child does her homework.

Figuring out what you agree on gives you a starting place as you discuss approaches. And when you’re talking to your child, keeping that point of agreement in mind helps you and your partner stay on-message.

It’s not all or nothing.

Once you’ve figured out what you agree on, you can begin to make a plan. Remember that your discussion isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about finding the best way to reach your shared goal. That may mean compromise for you both. Or it may mean agreeing to try out different approaches until one works.

Once you’ve developed a plan, present it to your child together. You might say something like, “We both think that it’s really important for you to get your homework done—well. We’d like to try giving you an hour of free time before you start your homework. And we’ll have dinner a half hour later. If you can get your work done before dinner, we’ll stay with that system. If not, after two weeks we’ll go back to homework right after school, with breaks every half hour.”

Then stick to the plan. If it needs to be revised, come up with another approach together with your partner.

Maintaining a united front isn’t always easy, especially when it comes to thorny issues like school, treatment options or your expectations for your child. But it’s the best way to get past “good cop, bad cop” and give your child the guidance she needs.

Key takeaways

  • You and your partner may agree on key issues even if you don’t agree on the details of how to handle them.

  • School, behavior and treatment options are often issues that bring out “good cop, bad cop” parenting.

  • It takes practice, but working through your disagreements in private can help you and your partner present a united front to your child.


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