If you’ve ever watched a family sitcom, chances are you’re familiar with the good cop/bad cop parenting style.
It’s a classic among TV parents. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that most times, moms are the ones getting the reputation for being too strict.
It’s not that moms have a tough time toeing the line of fun and discipline. Actually, we all find ways to do it that we’re comfortable with. The bigger problem seems to be that moms being the so-called disciplinarian are judged way more harshly than dads are.
Peoples’ reactions to my parenting have led me to question if I’m the “bad cop.” I never raise a hand and hardly raise my voice, yet somehow I’m viewed as super strict.
I’m not inflexible, but I am a “call it as I see it” kind of person, and that can rub people the wrong way.
The idea that people see me as strict briefly made me very uncomfortable. It was to the point I caught myself questioning my moves. Then I realized that I was questioning myself on the wrong side’s behalf. It doesn’t matter if my parenting upsets other people, but it does matter if it’s upsetting the balance of my family. I find that most of the time, my inaction will upset that balance more than anything else.
I’ve come to accept I’m the perceived bad cop, but there is a whole other side to that. Sometimes, occasions rear their head that allow me to realize being bad makes way for a lot of warmth and understanding when I get to be good.
Growing up, you learn what parenting is like from what you experience in your own life, what you see other people do, and what media you consume. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the good cop/bad cop dynamic. I watched TV shows that showed lovable dads who cut their kids endless slack in contrast with strict moms who made the days run smoothly but weren’t winning popularity contests.
I lived in a single-parent household with grandparents as my other caretakers. Everyone had their moments of taking it easy on me or being tough. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if one parent was always the mean one.
I didn’t encounter much good cop/bad cop parenting in my friends’ families, either. There was always a favored parent to go to for certain matters, but it was never a totally stark difference. Since most of my peers grew up in households that were already more lenient than my own, I kind of wrote this off as an exaggerated TV trope.
Fast-forward to my own experience as a parent, and I was stunned to find out that most of my boyfriend’s family saw me as the bad cop in our parenting dynamic. While celebrating Christmas, I heard loud and pointed whisperings about how I wasn’t letting the kids have any fun. For context, the kids were running laps around the entire house.
While I was serving the food, I asked the kids to cut the dining room out of their race track. Apparently, everyone thought this was an unfair or unrealistic expectation despite the kids having ample space to play elsewhere in the house. In my defense, I wasn’t in the mood to drop piping hot mac and cheese on a couple of 7-year-olds after I had spent the entire day cooking.
I think the family expected me to let the kids have the run of the house and work around them. But why? I love the kids enough to not want to scald them. They should, at the very least, respect that I worked hard on something all day and don’t want it to get messed up. These aren’t concepts that, to me, are beyond child understanding.
I’m a pretty straightforward person. If something doesn’t make sense to me, I’ll ask for an explanation. If the explanation doesn’t make sense, I’ll say so. Kids ask “Why?” all the time. It’s OK to ask it right back.
I wouldn’t say my parenting style is authoritarian or harsh, by any means. Ask anyone in my home, and they’ll tell you I rarely raise my voice. I do believe that if you’re going to reason with a kid, you need to poke holes in their reasoning. That gives you a read on if they know what they’re doing or if they’re misinformed or otherwise not clear on what’s going on. In my experience, it’s much easier to proceed once that’s clear.
My boyfriend and I are on a pretty equal footing about how strict we want to be as parents. I grew up in a stricter household than he did. In comparing our childhoods, I recognized that running a tight ship or being more relaxed didn’t change the way we felt happiness or pain. It didn’t make us love any harder or less. Different families function different ways to get through their own lives, and that’s just how that goes.
Once in a while, something unexpected happens in our home. I’ll watch my boyfriend and my stepson completely at odds. The two are just repeating themselves and escalating the same argument. I hear each of them, but neither of the two is hearing the other.
I don’t fault either of them for it. They have different personalities and ways of communicating, and it’s all a work in progress like anything else. And honestly, these things happen between parents and kids all the time. Sometimes you rehash the same argument so many times that you’ve lost track of what you’re actually arguing about. Something becomes your hill to die on without you even realizing it’s something you don’t care about.
In those moments, I have an opportunity to step in and clear the air. I can get both of them to a place where they can hear each other again. I can decode the things that they can’t understand and wipe the slate clean. Most importantly, I can remind them that we don’t want to be the kind of family who yell and are constantly at each other’s throats. I can show them that as long as we all stay connected to that feeling, there’s no reason why we have to be.
I won’t lie to you and tell you I don’t get rolled eyes and sucked teeth for all the moments where I interject myself to be the strict person in the room. I won’t say that the annoyed sighs don’t bug me. But I will say that the times where I can play peacemaker are some of the most rewarding moments in my parenting experience. It’s in those moments when I slip on my good cop badge that I feel like I’m really nurturing something.
Being a stepmom, I’m always told that the experience I have with my stepchild won’t be the same as the one I have with a biological child. I can’t say if that’s true or not, but I hope it isn’t. What I want for my stepson, and for any future children I may be lucky enough to have, is to grow up in the kind of household that prepares you for life outside of it. If I get there by being the bad cop, by doing what other people think is too much, so be it. I want to raise people who enter the world being respectful, considerate, and thoughtful in their words and actions.