Tough Love?

Following last week’s “Teachers Also Matter”, I posted an afterthought on Facebook about a nine year old girl who reported that her third grade teacher was sometimes “tough”, but that she learned a lot.  A reader commented, “Apparently tough love works in the class room as well.  Focused discipline can enlighten young minds.”  This comment bears further examination and thought.

What is “tough love”?  It is a concept that seems to cover a lot of ground in its application.  The basic idea is that you treat someone in a harsh manner ostensibly for their own good.  Where does the love come in?  Well, apparently what may look like harsh treatment is really being carried out because you care about someone.  Whatever you are doing is for their benefit.  Of course, the assumption is that you do care, and that it really is for their benefit. 

Unfortunately, as happens at times, the practice does not always reflect the theory.  Applied in camps for teenagers as a form of therapy for drug or delinquent behavior, the practice has been found to border on child abuse and not only doesn’t help the problem but often makes it worse.  This brings to mind the story of “time-out”, which also can reach the child abuse level, as reported in a recent story about a child who was put in a closet at school as a time-out.

It is interesting that in both instances an approach intended for the most extreme behavior, or out of control children, becomes generalized as an acceptable form of discipline.  This does not mean that parents who use time-out, or try to carry out tough love are engaging in child abuse.  But it is a slippery slope, because most often children’s behavior – or misbehavior – provokes understandable anger in parents and other adults.  The result can too easily be a response that is not so much loving as it is a wish to mete out punishment.  Discipline and punishment have become interchangeable ideas in discussions about dealing with problem behavior.

This brings us back to the reader’s comment quoted above, in which tough love is amplified as “focused discipline.”  It is not clear what is meant by “focused discipline”, but I suspect that the phrase “tough love” is being used in the more general way in which it is often used.  Let’s examine this more closely.  “Tough” sounds strong or forceful, not gentle.  Despite the word love that follows, the image is not that of caring about another, but rather about imposing one’s will in an unyielding manner.

“Tough love” stands in contrast to the image of a softer, nurturing caregiver who is more yielding in manner.  The contrast that is evoked suggests that the only two possible alternatives are standing firm, or giving in.  This is the feeling that parents often have when dealing with the demands, or unacceptable behavior of their children.  And it is standing firm that too often feels like “tough love”.  Children may protest, tell us that we are mean, even that they hate us, and we don’t like the way that makes us feel – we may even feel guilty.  So the purpose of calling for “tough love” is to get us to stiffen our spines.

In the case of the teacher and child that provoked this discussion, the teacher was considered tough by the child because if she didn’t finish her work during the class time allotted, she had to stay in during recess to finish.  I’m not sure if this is what was meant by “focused discipline”.  From what I was able to learn, the teacher’s attitude was that if a child was attending to her work as she should, there was ample time to complete the assignment during the class period.

On one hand this seems pretty straightforward:  you have to finish your work before  moving on to the next thing – not a punishment, but reality.  Just like you have to finish your homework before watching television.   On the other hand, many times not attending to the work assigned is a learning problem, not a discipline problem.  I have often been asked to observe in a classroom where it was clear that a child’s inability to attend was an expression of the difficulty he was having with the work itself.  In such situations it is another kind of help that is needed rather than discipline experienced by the child as punishment.

This actually was the case in the girl and teacher example, and fortunately the child received the extra help she needed.  My guess is that it was not the completing-work-during-recess strategy, but other things about this teacher that enabled the child to “learn a lot”.  Most of all her expectations were always clear, as was the structure she provided in the classroom.

Perhaps the message we can take from this as parents is that being clear in our expectations and consistent in following through is what helps promote children’s progress.  Because carrying this out is often hard to do, we may feel as though we have to get “tough” in order to do it.

2 thoughts on “Tough Love?”

  1. Thank you for your insights Elaine.  Since I was the reader that made the comment you referenced, I might as well elaborate. 🙂  To me, “tough love’ means the ability to provide helpful guidance in the face of adversity.  The adversity in question can change based on the circumstance.  In the case of the student, the assumption was that she was unfocused in class and needed remedial help to get her back up to speed.  It was never clear though if the student’s difficulty completing the work resulted in her engaging in other activities instead of her required task.  The student’s description of her teacher being “tough” but a valuable resource for learning makes me think that the student realized she needed focus and discipline to succeed.  Her teacher, by imparting values to her students such as hard work, discipline, and focus, helped this particular girl embark on a better approach to a successful education.  I’d note though, that much like parenting, one approach towards education does not fit all.  

    Vincent |


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