More About “Tough Love”

“Tough Love” is a tough topic and last week’s post brought some interesting responses.  The reader whose comment inspired that topic initially, responded by expanding and clarifying his meaning.  He writes, “To me, ‘tough love’ means the ability to provide helpful guidance in the face of adversity.”  That seems like an important idea – one really worth thinking about.

For a parent, one possible interpretation might be to stand by a child who is facing a hard time dealing with something.  “Guidance” might mean offering support, or helping a child work out his own solution to a problem.  It might also suggest not trying to fix the problem for someone, or protecting him in some way from facing up to a difficult situation, or perhaps even a mess of his own making.

It is interesting though, to try to understand why the concept of “tough love” would be used to describe an approach that is really an essential part of a parent’s role and is so clearly of benefit to children as they learn to deal with life’s challenges.  I continue to believe that what makes it “tough” is that parents often find such an approach tough to carry out.  To be resolute in the face of a child’s upset or unhappiness may go against all our protective feelings as parents.

There has been so much written of late about the need for children to be able to deal with adversity.  The general criticism is that children today are over indulged, are unable to tolerate frustration, or to apply themselves when something requires hard work.  The criticism has been that parents have become over-protective, inappropriately coming to the rescue of their children at the very times when children need to confront certain difficulties themselves.  The recurring question parents face is when to offer our help and when to expect our children to work something out for themselves.  Perhaps here is where we need a fuller understanding of “helpful guidance”.

In the comment referred to, a question is raised as to whether in the example I gave, the student’s difficulty completing the work resulted in her engaging in other activities instead of her required task.  The answer to that is yes, which is what led to the teacher’s strategy of having her stay in during recess to complete her work.  The problem is that a seeming lack of focus or attention is many times a sign of a real difficulty with the work, rather than simply fooling around.

I have often observed children described as a discipline problem who clearly cannot do the assigned work and find all sorts of distractions to avoid confronting what is being required.  Pencils fall down and have to be retrieved, visits to the restroom become essential, and even annoying a neighbor with comments or requests can fill the time allowed.  That was the situation in the example given.  And this is when one questions whether getting “tough” is the right approach. 

On the other hand, the comment I refer to is most insightful in pointing out that although the student did not like the teacher’s “tough” approach, it made her realize that she needed focus and discipline in order to succeed.  The teacher did, in fact, set clear expectations, and motivated this child when given the extra help she needed to work hard to master what was difficult for her.  I think the other part of the useful message that was delivered was that mastery is not effortless and requires hard work.  This is an important message for many young people these days who too often think that if they don’t know it, they can’t learn it.

Although “helpful guidance” is a welcome way of understanding “tough love”, other comments by readers pointed up another aspect of its meaning.  The use of the word “tough” is not always useful, especially combined with “love”, because often the impulse to get tough is related to feelings that are not at that moment loving.  We know we  love our children, yet the anger they provoke at times does not feel loving.  This is part of being human.  Children feel they hate us at times – and tell us that.  If we accept those dual emotions in ourselves we are better able to accept such feelings in our children. 

One mother wrote that those are the moments when she is most likely to lose patience, and needs to put herself in “time-out” in order to regain her perspective before dealing with her children.  Another mother wrote that those are the moments when she needs to get away, not to get tough.  These are important insights as well, because children’s behavior can invite the feeling that we need to get tough, when in fact we need to take a break.

“Tough love” has been interpreted in a variety of ways.  Perhaps the word tough projects the wrong image.  The underlying idea seems to be not to confuse either our own anger or our wish to protect our children with what will help them most in times of difficulty.

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