It’s a hard and fast rule in your house. Bedtime is at eight o’clock. That doesn’t mean you start getting ready for bed at eight. That means hands and faces washed, teeth brushed, stories read, and prayers said before 8:01 hits. But just then, that’s when one parent decides that it’s tickle time. Now the kids are riled up, red-faced, sweaty, and bouncing off the walls. The other parent now has to play the bad guy and force everyone to go to bed or suffer the consequences. And that’s when it comes out: “[Parent X] is so much more fun than you.” This leads to anger because, of course, one parent doesn’t want to be the bad cop, but is always forced to take on the role of the adult. Later, one parent mentions this incident and an argument, the same argument you have about the subject of discipline and why you need to be on the same team, begins again.
How do you reconcile being the heavy in the relationship? The bad cop to the riotously entertaining good cop? It’s an argument that many married couples have, where one parent always gets to be the playmate while the other is forever consigned to being the disciplinarian. Not only does this undermine the parent who’s trying to uphold the rules, but it also sends a divisive message to the kids: One parent is fun, the other is not (How can they expect to follow either parents’ rules when it’s clear that they can even agree on them themselves?) In the confines of a marriage, it also puts a lot of burden on the bad cop. No one wants to be the heavy.
Why The “I’m Always The Bad Cop!” Fight Happens
To unravel the division of discipline that can sometimes exist in a marriage, it’s important to get to the root of why it exists in the first place. Even if one parent is more naturally predisposed to being fun or playful, that still doesn’t mean they don’t know what’s right and what’s not when it comes to establishing rules.
According to Amelia Bowler, a Toronto-based behavior analyst, one reason such problems can arise when, despite being on the same page with his or her partner about the rules, one parent has a lower tolerance for conflict.
“They get overwhelmed and stressed very easily,” she says. “So they’re just going for the escape hatch by saying, ‘Just let them do it!’ They just want out of the situation, and now one parent is left trying to hold the line while the other one is headed for the door. What that can lead to is judgment, saying, ‘You’re too soft on them,’ or ‘You’re too hard on them.’ And that’s one thing that can be really destructive in a relationship.”
Another reason: Although there is no set precedent that mothers are always the rule makers and dads the rule breakers, that tends to be the more common scenario. Part of that, says Bowler, stems from the fact that, traditionally speaking, dads aren’t home as often as moms and therefore, don’t want to spend the limited time that they do have with the kids laying down rules.
“They’re more relaxed and not as stressed out from being home with the kids all day,” she says. “So they’re like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it sweetie, just give them the ice cream!’ They want to enjoy the time they spend with the kids if they’ve been at work all day. They won’t want to have a big fight.”
The Short-Term Solution to the “Bad Cop” Fight
So whether it’s a fear of conflict, a lax approach to the rules due to not being home as often, the fact remains that, when this argument flairs up, neither parent is going to be in the right mindset to identify the problem as such. So, in the moment how can you put a pin in the conversation in a way that also leaves the door open for future discussion?
First and foremost, you don’t ever diminish the other parent in front of the kids. “You don’t want to say something like, ‘Daddy’s wrong,’ or ‘Mommy’s too harsh,’” says Bowler. “The last thing you want to do is undermine your partner.”
From there, you can diffuse the argument (and almost any marital dispute, for that matter) by simply acknowledging that your partner is upset and that you get the reason why. So, rather than playing in to the children’s narrative of “Mom isn’t any fun,” saying something like, “Mom is right. Bedtime is at eight and she works hard taking care of you all day. We don’t need to be making things harder for her,” can not only stop the disagreement, but also show your partner that you’re aware of his or her feelings.
“Everybody wants to feel heard and recognized,” says Bowler. “So many marital arguments are just like, ‘I want credit for this thing that I did. I want you to recognize that I’ve been at work all day or that I’ve been with the kids all day. By just acknowledging each other and giving each other credit, you can skip hours of arguments.”
The Long-Term Solution to the “Bad Cop” Fight
While disaster might have been averted for that one night, the fact remains that the eight p.m. bedtime will come again the next night — or one of countless other scenarios will take place. And, when it does, the question will arise about who’s going to play the role of good cop. Per Bowler, there can be some wiggle room where the rules are concerned, as long as the bigger picture is always kept clearly in focus.
“There’s always going to be a difference, like, ‘If I really want that extra scoop of ice cream, do I ask Mom or Dad?’ Every kid knows the answer to that question, and it’s not such a big deal,” she says. “The big deal is when one parent feels abandoned or undermined by the other, and they can’t come to an agreement on their values.”
So when it comes time to form an equal partnership in the handling of discipline, what is the best approach? Just like the old Boy Scout motto says, be prepared. “People get into trouble sometimes when they don’t really know how to react to a situation, so they just let it go,” Bowler says. “They say, ‘Oh, I told him he couldn’t have any cookies, but there he was on the counter eating cookies and I didn’t know what to do!’ And that’s one of those situations that you have to really plan for. If someone breaks the rules, what do you do?”
One way to get the ball rolling is to draft a set of house rules. Have them written out and put on display in a prominent place. Have the kids work with you and your spouse on putting the rules together. If they’re artistically inclined, let them color or draw on the page itself. Having them involved when the two parents are establishing the rules is key, says Bowler, as it helps the crystalize the rules and make them tangible. “So now it’s not just, “Mom says,” Bowler explains. “It’s, ‘Look, these are the house rules. And the house rules say no snacks before dinner.’”
And, another thing to keep in mind, is that it’s okay for one person to be more of a disciplinarian than the other, as long as everyone feels as though their voice is being heard. “You always need a balance,” says Bowler. “You don’t want two Type As. Having an attitude of appreciation for the partner’s strengths rather than noticing how they’re not like you and judging them for that will keep everyone happier.”