The good cop, bad cop approach may work well when eliciting criminal confessions, but it was never intended for the home. You might notice it when one parent says, “Don’t tell your father [or mother]” and then modifies or subverts what the other parent said. These parents may have any number of reasons for their actions, but they are rarely asking, “Is what I am saying wise and helpful for this family?”

This theme has its variations. Perhaps one parent is known more for grace, and the other law. The basic idea here is that some parents are more permissive; others want to enforce boundaries. The good cop makes exceptions when rules are broken. The bad cop assumes that broken rules have consequences. These differences are common, and they are also a sign that important and hard work is ahead for that marriage.

After my first child was born, I felt the weight of being a parent, though in a good way. I wanted to learn and grow into being a truly good father to my daughter. To that end, I asked an older woman who had a good marriage and a fine, unified family for her secret. Her advice was simple: “I tell my children that their father is a very wise man.”

I immediately called my wife and passed on this fine advice. We laughed because we understood, of course, that the principle goes both ways. The book of Proverbs picks it up. “Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her” (Prov 31:28). A wise parent publicly blesses the other spouse. With the exception of surprise parties or Christmas gifts, a secret between a parent and child that excludes the other parent violates the oneness of marriage prescribed by Scripture and demeans the other spouse.

This marital disunity has consequences. I am watching children, now twenty and thirty years old, express continuing contempt for the more restrictive, bad cop parent. I am also watching the “don’t tell your father [mother]” parents confess their sins in both parenting and marriage to these children. But even with such repentance, I have seen adult children remain hardened against the more restrictive parent.

There is some good cop, bad cop dynamic in most marriages. Parents will disagree on how much time children should be able to spend online, what children do with their friends, and the consequences for disrespect and disobedience. Wise parents prize unity in their marriages, and when they are at odds over how to parent, they are determined to pray and work through those differences rather than simply resign themselves to impasse and look for other ways to implement their ideas.

Permissive parents, please beware. You can justify this as simply counterbalancing the more “rigid” spouse. That wink to a child, which says, “Talk to me later and we will work it out,” is another way of saying, “We both know that Dad [Mom] doesn’t get it, but we do.” You might have very good intentions, but you are being divisive. Even if you are trying to compensate for a parent who uses power in harmful ways, living in fear and sidestepping the problem will not benefit your family in the long run. Be courageous. Seek help.

Bad cops, please beware. Yes, you might feel tired and outnumbered. You might be working hard to keep the household from descending into chaos. But you, too, can excuse your actions. You can be prone to anger and attribute your demeaning words to the stresses of the day and children who don’t listen to a normal tone of voice. All true, but these excuses keep you from seeking help to grow in gentleness and wisdom.

Don’t be blinded by your good intentions. If you lean toward anger or being reactive, know that a wise person listens and follows a measured, careful course. You might default to power, yet your King gave up power and pursued a path of gentleness and patience with you. Perhaps you do use the law in a way that misses a child’s heart. Your laws might be worthy ones, but if they miss Christ, they push both you and your children into performance rather than dependence and prayer. You seem to be doing all the heavy lifting in the home, but anger is often the easy way out because it gets the results you want without caring for a child’s heart. Your child needs more of Jesus. You do too.

Now for the good work of humble listening to each other, seeking the Spirit’s help, discovering the path of unity, and speaking public blessings.