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My wife and I have descended into the toddler years with our first. Along with that, she is getting that classic toddler attitude. We understand it's a growing phase and tantrums and outbursts are normal, but they still need to be addressed so she can get a beginning understanding about what is appropriate when expressing her frustration. We have always been on the same page with each other whenever we correct bad behavior or instruct her on why a type of outburst is inappropriate.

So this begs the question, will she feel like we are always ganging up on her? If we are both constantly correcting and instructing in tandem, is that bad? Should one parent act as an advocate while the other is tough on the rules? Should there be a good cop and a bad cop?

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OT: My wife and I have descended into the toddler years with our first. Along with that, she is getting that classic toddler attitude. LOL, on a first read I thought your wife was getting the toddler attitude and I thought "WTF?!?". –  Lohoris May 14 at 12:11
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Great answers below - one simple test I'd toss in is this: Would you be proud if your child chose to emulate your behavior as their primary way of handling similar situations? If the answer is no, you probably want to look for other approaches when possible - the most important outcome here isn't how they respond to this situation; it's how they learn situations should be handled for the rest of their lives. –  Jaydles May 14 at 18:54
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Agreed with @Jaydles ...it will work just as any "nurturing" method will work given enough time and consistent application, but it might not necessarily be a good thing; if your rendition of bad cop is simply the parent that has to mete out punishment, that might not be so bad, but know that whatever mask you put on as bad cop, your child will remember and emulate. And when your child grows up and seeks a mate/partner, they'll innately seek (and value) ones that display the same kinds of characteristics shown by you and your spouse. –  TylerH May 15 at 13:11

5 Answers 5

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Classic good-cop-bad-cop is definitely wrong with a toddler because it involves a lot of lying. The bad cop threatens to beat the suspect up or otherwise do something cops are not allowed to do. The bad cop steps out and the good cop says "I'm on your side dude, but that guy is out of control and I don't know what he'll do next. Listen, if you just [....] I think I can get you out of this questioning session and maybe save your skin." Everything about this is a lie. The good cop isn't on the suspect's side, isn't trying to help the suspect, and knows full well the bad cop isn't ever going to hit, torture, or whatever the threat is. None of this is appropriate with your child.

So let's take a milder version of it. Toddler has made a mess. Last time this mess was made, Daddy yelled a little. Should Mommy say "hurry, let's tidy this up before Daddy comes home and sees it?" No way.

OK forgot trying to change their behaviors. How about Mommy puts toddler in timeout and afterwards, Daddy lets toddler out with lots of cuddles and fun things to do? Or Daddy puts toddler in timeout and Mommy is the cuddles and fun one? This really isn't any better, is it?

What I would urge you to do is to give away any thoughts of an adversarial stance. You want your child to learn to be in control and not to tantrum. You want your child to comply with reasonable requests, whether that's putting on an item of clothing, helping to clean up, not hitting, or anything else. When your child can do those things, not only will you be happier but your child will too. You don't need to break their spirit, make them give up their resistance, force them to do what you want. You need to show them how to do the things everyone wants them to learn to do. Nobody is a bad cop in that. Nobody is a good cop. You can love your child while you're putting something out of their reach. You can smile and cuddle someone as part of letting them know they are not allowed to do a particular activity. You can be happy and cheerful while carrying a shoeless coatless child to the car (with their shoes and coat in your hands for later) and explaining there isn't time to play on the way now.

Whatever these rules are, they should be the rules FOR everybody and BY everybody. If the toddler can't eat before dinner, nor can Daddy. If feet aren't allowed on the couch then that's the rule, not just "if Mommy's looking." This kind of consistency isn't cruel or ganging up. You are showing your child the "laws of physics" of your home. This is how things go. Trying to understand mommy rules, daddy rules, sitter rules, grandparent rules - that's complicated! Remember, abiding by these rules isn't something mean or unfair, it's how life works in your house. And the toddler is trying to learn that. Make it as smooth as you can, and that includes being consistent, and not seeing the rules as mean.

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"Whatever these rules are, they should be the rules FOR everybody and BY everybody. If the toddler can't eat before dinner, nor can Daddy." Sorry. I agreed with everything up to this, but this is simply wrong. Children are children, not adults. They don't have the same rights and responsibilities as adults. If an adult tells a child they can't eat before dinner that doesn't mean the adult can't eat before dinner. Children are not equals. Consistency of discipline is good. Trying to impose the same rules on children and adults is absurd. –  Miles Rout May 14 at 9:12
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@MilesRout: It's neither wrong nor absurd. Sure, the rules can be different, but there must be an understandable, explainable reason for that (e.g. Daddy skipped lunch because of work). If the only reason you can give is "because I say so and I can make you do what I want" then you're basically teaching the child that might makes right and whoever has the power sets the rules. That's not something you want them to internalize. Obviously, this is probably beyond a toddler's understanding, but it's good to get into the habit early. –  Michael Borgwardt May 14 at 10:19
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I agree with Michael on this one. Some things are for children and some are not - we adults can drink alcohol while our children can't. But behavior is a different issue. If we don't let our children, say, leave dishes unwashed, we should not do it ourselves. It's part of the all-important consistency. –  Dariusz May 14 at 11:38
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@Miles Route: That is a horrible, appallingly authoritarian approach to childreading, and the exact opposite of reasonable. –  Michael Borgwardt May 14 at 12:01
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@Michael Borgwardt I completely agree with your description of Miles' approach. Rules eventually should be more complex: "Daddy can eat on the couch because you spilled your drink yesterday and he didn't" is perfectly acceptable, but young kids lack the intellectual capacity to grasp those subtleties. Part of teaching is simplifying for beginners, and sometimes this requires a little sacrifice in the way that the parents apply the rules to themselves as well. It's not necessarily fair, or 'right', but is optimally efficient in terms of the child's learning. And that's what is important. –  Nicholas May 14 at 13:03

Research indicates (see below for some links) that kids actually thrive when the parents present a united front on discipline. She'll try to test you, to see if she can play one against the other, but knowing that the rules are the rules and what one parent says the other will back up, will give her a sense of security in knowing what to expect.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology has a pretty good summary here on Discipline. For some other reading material, check out this article on PsychCentral, When Parents Disagree on Discipline. There's also an article on Today that directly addresses your question: Moms vs. Dads.

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Agree. Good Cop Bad Cop is a game designed to manipulate, and once your child figures this out, he will both play you and mistrust you. You need a united front, and you should deliver discipline without anger. But you don't need to both be talking at the same time. One can talk and the other offer silent agreement. And you can swap that role back and forth. –  MJ6 May 13 at 14:33
    
She's good at playing the games too. I can definitely see a future of "but daddy said" or "but mama said". My parents always mirrored each other on issues and from the responses here, I'm glad we are doing the same thing. –  ChristopherW May 14 at 12:24
    
Agreed, much better and more succinct than the accepted answer (that one does the mistake of overreaching grossly). –  TylerH May 15 at 13:41

The good cop and bad cop don't necessarily have to be simultaneous. My church teaches parents that after they reprove their children they should show an increase of love, and I've found that to work well. Both parents can be the disciplinarian and present a stable, united front, then afterward both can be nice and show the child that just because he did a bad thing doesn't mean he is a bad person, or is unloved.

Of course, parents are humans too, and taking care of children is trying. It's nearly impossible never to lose one's temper, but one nice benefit I've discovered about having two parents is that we rarely both lose our temper at the same time. In those cases, I've found it useful for the calmer parent to intervene when they can see the angrier parent is about to overreact.

The trick is in the timing, though. If you wait too long, it looks like you're "rescuing" the child from the other parent, which undermines their effectiveness. It works best to either say "I'll handle this," or "Can you handle this?" before you confront the child.

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You are right, the tricky part is timing. Sometimes it feels a little bit awkward to give her a hug after she's been put in timeout by mama so we always try to ensure that both of us love on her a little bit after being punished. She apologizes to us both individually and then we bring her in for a nice long hug and a little heart-to-heart discussion on appropriate behavior. –  ChristopherW May 14 at 12:22

Good cop/Bad cop is wrong and will backfire. A united front is critical. That doesn't mean that you have to "gang-up". I don't agree that rules are (or even should be) the same for adults and children. It's best a child understands early on that there are limits posed that are defined by your age and/or level of responsibility.

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I'm going to go against the grain here and advocate FOR a good-cop/bad-cop approach. Not always, and not in a cover up/lying scenario like @Chrys illustrates in his answer. It's my opinion that conflict resolution and negotiation are important skills we have an opportunity to teach our children. Parents can model these skills with good-cop/bad-cop. While the roles shouldn't be absolute (switch it up), one parent can act as the disciplinarian, and the other an ally.

This by no means should be taken to mean that the parents are any less than a "unified front on discipline". It is the parents coming together to negotiate a stance on "dessert policy" that teaches negotiation and compromise. Sympathizing with a child who has done something wrong can lead them to open up and apologize.

Feelings of anger and isolation can be pretty awful to deal with, and children need to be taught at a young age what behaviors can help in those situations. Good-cop/bad-cop can give the parents an opportunity to lend an understanding/non-judgmental ear, while still maintaining the standards that are set in the household.

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