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Parents face a tricky balancing act. If they’re too soft on their children, they risk losing control. But taking a tough line can make them feel like a villain.

To explore the ‘good cop, bad cop’ parenting dilemma, we asked over 1,200 parents how they approach discipline and reward in their households.

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In classic police interrogations, a suspect is confronted by an overbearing, uncompromising detective (the ‘bad cop’). If they don’t spill the beans, a more compassionate, understanding ‘good cop’ takes over. After some back and forth, the suspect is expected to buckle under pressure from the bad cop and confess to his gentler colleague.

Many parents identify with the good cop, bad cop metaphor because it mirrors the carrot and stick approach they’ve adopted in their households. One parent is more often the disciplinarian, while the other is the nurturer.

To see how these roles are shared between parents, we asked mums and dads of 3-16 year olds if they think their child sees them more as the good or bad cop.

Mums more likely than dads to feel unhappy with being the ‘bad cop’

 

73% of parents said they believed their child sees them as either the good cop or bad cop. Only 27% didn’t feel they were perceived as either.

Mums were more likely to feel like good cops (43% vs. 34% of dads), while dads were slightly more likely to feel like bad cops or neither. Only 1 in 20 parents said they shared the same role as the other parent, which suggests that most parents use either the carrot or the stick, or forgo the notion of good cops and bad cops entirely.

8 in 10 parents feel content with the role they’ve chosen or unwittingly fallen into, but discontent is considerably higher among bad cop parents, who bear the responsibility of laying down the law. 45% of mums who feel they’re bad cops said they’re unhappy with the role, compared to 31% of dads. In contrast, very few parents (6.7%) said that being the good cop makes them unhappy.

Our findings suggest that a parent’s ‘cop’ status may be influenced by their parents’ roles when they were growing up. Mums who identified as good cops were twice as likely as to say their own mums were good cops (whereas having a good cop father made no difference). Likewise, dads were one-third more likely to be good cops if their fathers were good cops, and slightly more likely to be a bad cop if their dads were bad cops.

With these patterns in mind, we compared how specific disciplinary tactics were used by parents of young people in recent years to those they experienced while growing up.

No screen time and naughty steps are in, smacking and chores are out

 

Whenever a child misbehaves, be it a sibling squabble, temper tantrum, or homework hassle, parents must decide the most appropriate form of discipline. No two households have exactly the same rules. Some parents opt for ‘passive’ punishments, such as withholding treats and giving time-outs, while others choose physical reprimands, including smacking and forced exercise.

To explore how attitudes towards discipline have changed in recent decades, we asked parents of 16-19-year-olds which methods they used more than once while raising them, and whether their parents used the same methods on them when they were growing up.

Our findings suggest a significant difference in the forms of discipline chosen by parents today compared to a generation ago.

Denying screen time is 2.3 times more common now than in the previous generation of parents. This makes sense given that parents today have many more opportunities to use screen time as a punishment or reward compared to a generation ago, when the main screen in the home was the family TV. A survey by Ofcom found that 7 in 10 children aged 12-15 are allowed to take their mobile phone to bed and 6 in 10 can take their tablet.

The use of a naughty step or time-out is twice as common today as a generation ago, which could be a result of other tactics falling out of favour with parents. Smacking children, which multiple studies have suggested can negatively affect a child’s development, is 2.6 times less common today, while the prevalence of pinching is 16 times lower.

Alongside traditional tactics, many of today’s parents said they’d found their own creative ways to teach their children valuable lessons.

‘I made my son watch a documentary at family movie time instead of the Marvel film we had originally promised.’ — Mother of a 9-year-old boy

‘I changed the WiFi password so that my daughter couldn’t use her phone or Netflix.’Mother of a 15-year-old boy

‘We use a marble jar to incentivise good behaviour. They gain a marble for particularly good behaviour, and have a marble taken away for particularly bad behaviour. When the jar is full, they get a prize that was decided at the start of the jar.’Father of a 4-year-old girl

Parents more likely to use a punishment if their parents used it on them

 

It’s possible that some parents choose how to discipline their children based on societal expectations and laws – smacking children is illegal in around 50 countries, including Scotland and Wales. But many appear to be influenced by what they experienced when they were young.

For every form of discipline we asked parents about, they were more likely to use it if their own parents had used it on them. For instance, mums and dads whose parents gave them chores as punishments were twice as likely to do the same thing with their children. The same applies to withholding pocket money – 14.3% of mums and dads whose parents never withheld their pocket money said they’d done it, compared to 27.8% of mums and dads whose parents had.

Many parents could think of ways they’d approach discipline differently if they could go back in time.

‘I wouldn’t have shouted the few times I did. We don't expect to be shouted at as adults, so why should we speak to our children like that?’Mother of an 8-year-old girl

‘I wouldn't have smacked their bum after they hurt their sibling, as it just shows that it’s acceptable when it really isn't.’Father of a 7-year-old boy  

‘I probably would have given myself a time-out every once in a while instead of them, so that anger (and probably tiredness!) didn’t overcome me.’Father of a 14-year-old boy

‘I think I'd force myself to be more affectionate. My parents weren't very affectionate to me or my brother and it's something I have to force myself to do.’Mother of an 8-year-old girl

Children most likely to have screen time restricted at 9 years old

 

By looking at the prevalence of various forms of discipline across lots of families, we’re able to see how their use varies according to a child’s age.

The use of a naughty step is most common among 3-year-olds and least common among 15-year-olds, whereas withholding pocket money and grounding show the opposite pattern.

Parents are most likely to restrict screen time when their child is 9 years old. Increasingly, this means limiting children’s access to social media as well as TV shows and games, as 12% of 9-year-olds (rising to 34% by age 11) have social media profiles, despite the fact that 13 is the minimum age for most social media sites.

One parent said they found a happy medium between screen time and ensuring her child tackled her responsibilities:

‘I told my child that I would spend time playing video games with her if she did all her homework first, which always worked for me.’Father of a 9-year-old girl

Another parent felt that the whole concept of punishments could do with a rethink:

‘I would get rid of all punishments and instead have more connection. I would have more confidence in my ability as a parent to guide him. I came to realise that punishments are desperate attempts to restore our power in a relationship when we feel helpless, and this isn’t the message I want to give my child.’ — Mother of a 7-year-old boy

Dads too strict, mums too lenient

 

9 in 10 parents have argued in the past year because they had different opinions on the best way to discipline or reward their child. One parent feeling that the other has set a bad example is the most common cause of disagreement, with mums being 42.5% more likely to feel dads put a foot wrong than vice versa.  

Mums were more likely to feel their partners were too strict with their children, while fathers were more likely to take issue with mums’ leniency.

We asked mums and dads to look back and say how, if at all, they would have preferred their partner to approach discipline or reward differently.

‘I’d have liked him to have been more understanding of why those behaviours happened. He sees the bad behaviour without contemplating its causes, such as acting out due to anxiety (our child is autistic).’Mother of a 7-year-old boy

‘I’d have liked it if She hadn’t said “I’ll tell daddy!”’Father of a 12-year-old boy

‘My wife bears the brunt of the daily repeated frictions with the kids and can get stressed. She sometimes loses her calm more quickly than I think is warranted. I imagine I would be the same if we switched places but from an outside perspective I would want a little more patience for my child in that moment.’Father of a 7-year-old boy

‘Follow up timings more methodically. For example, if he says they have to have their light out in 10 minutes, actually going up and checking, rather than forgetting, or leaving it 30 minutes.’Mother of a 14-year-old girl

Many parents said they’d sometimes prefer their partners to have used language differently when talking to their child. For example, saying ‘be quiet’ instead of ‘shut up’.

But choosing empathetic and explanatory phrasing isn’t always easy. 73% of parents said they recalled saying ‘because I said so’ to their child in the last year to justify why they should follow their instructions.

Around 1 in 3 (32%) parents remember calling their child a ‘bad boy/girl’, while 9 in 10 (89%) said they were a ‘good boy/girl’. There’s been some debate about whether labelling a child as bad or naughty is a good idea. Labelling the child as good or bad could make it harder for them to understand why what they’ve done is positive or negative – referring to their actions as good or bad and explaining the reasons could be a better approach.

The more hours we work, the more likely we feel like the ‘bad cop’

 

One factor that could play a role in whether parents are perceived by their children as good or bad cops is how much time they spend with them in a typical week.

One possibility is that the parent who spends the most time with the child would be more likely to be the bad cop, because it’s their daily duty to keep them in line. Whereas the parent who sees the child less might feel more inclined to be the ‘good guy’ during the precious time they have together. However, our data paints a different picture.

The more time a parent spends working away from their child, the higher the chance they’ll feel they’re the bad cop. A parent who doesn’t do any work away from their child has a 28.9% chance of being the bad cop, compared to a 37.5% chance if they work a 40-hour week. Parents working especially long hours (60 hours per week) have a 42.2% chance of being the bad cop (20% higher than a typical parent).

This might contribute to why dads are more likely to feel like bad cops, as in 2018, 9 in 10 fathers worked 30 or more hours per week, compared with 5 in 10 mothers.

As well as more often feeling like the bad cop, dads were 2.6 times more likely to say they thought their child’s favourite parent was their mother (44%) than mums were to say their child’s favourite parent was their father (17%).

Single parents face a different challenge: how to balance both roles. 7 in 10 single parents told us they find balancing being the good cop and bad cop challenging.

One single parent told us:

‘Looking back, I would have been stricter. My daughter’s dad died and I always felt sorry for her and tried to make it up with gifts and love, but they never fill the void. They just made her take advantage and ungrateful at times. It’s also made her lazy, as I do most, if not all, of the chores.’Mother of a 14-year-old girl

Summary

A common thread that runs through the opinions and responses of the parents we surveyed is that communication and empathy are key to raising happy, well-behaved children.

One approach is ‘gentle parenting’, meaning a relationship between parent and child that is based on a mindful partnership, instead of an authoritarian dynamic. Gentle parenting does away with punishments and rewards, instead focusing on empathetic communication – discussing how the parent and child feel.

Only half of parents were aware of the concept of ‘gentle parenting’, and only 35% said they thought totally replacing punishments and rewards with empathy-led conversation sounded like a good idea (39% weren’t sure, and 26% said it was). However, lots of parents had their own creative, empathy-based means of encouraging their kids and helping them grow up to be confident, kind young people.

‘I tried to dance more embarrassingly in front of her and ignore her when she dances weirdly because she feels self-conscious about dancing. It’s started to pay off as she is now more comfortable dancing.’Mother of a 7-year-old girl

‘My daughter wasn't keen on reading, so we read different books together then discussed what we had read and what happened in the stories. This encouraged her to do more self-reading.’Father of an 8-year-old girl

‘I’ve allowed him to be more independent in certain situations so he realises he can do things on his own and doesn't need us around all the time. This became most obvious when he started school in September. He wanted one of us to always walk him to his classroom but his teacher wanted him to try it himself because he would get upset seeing us leave. So I told him that from a particular day, he was going to walk in by himself and I would watch from the gate. He was nervous to start with but when he realised that I stayed until he reached the classroom his confidence grew each day.’Father of a 5-year-old boy

‘I wrote a letter to my daughter to remind her that she needs to finish her dinner. I signed it "from your body" as if the letter was written from the perspective of her body telling her she needs to eat so "body" can be stronger and healthier.’Mother of a 7-year-old girl

‘My son has learning difficulties so lots of things are a challenge for him. The most encouraging thing I can do is just listen to him and his problems with homework etc., and tell him to just try his best. If he tries his best then he knows he did everything he possibly could in that particular situation and that's what matters most.’Mother of a 13-year-old boy

‘Remembering that not coming first means someone else gets the joy of winning.’Mother of a 13-year-old boy

Methodology

We surveyed a total of 1,288 British parents in October of 2019. 1,038 were parents of children aged 3 to 16. 250 were parents of children aged 16 to 19, whose answers were used to compare parents’ approach to discipline now to their parents a generation ago.

Our analysis for ‘Age-Appropriate Punishments’ consisted of a series of Generalised Additive Models (GAMs) for each type of punishment as a function of age. This type of model allowed us to capture the general trend of a punishment’s use based on age even when the age-punishment relationship is not linear. The age each punishment is used most and least was then based on the output of the predicted probability at each age based on these models.

Our analysis for ‘The Balancing Act’ used a Binomial Generalised Linear Model (GLM) to firstly establish a statistically significant relationship between the number of hours worked away from home and the likelihood of being the ‘bad cop’. We used this model to illustrate the increasing likelihood of being a bad cop as a function of hours worked away from home.

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