The Tough Love Model

Pop culture has many gems of wisdom to impart about parenting, how to be the best parent, and how to wow people with your parenting skills — really, it’s astounding that people can’t learn everything they need to know about parenting from television, books, and magazines. Of course, whether that’s good advice is a different matter altogether, and it troubles me to see the ‘tough love’ form of parenting advanced as some sort of archetype, as though we should find it an inspirational model and a good mode of raising children.

As someone who is not a parent, I am often reluctant to weigh in on these issues. I only have the experience of parenting from the other side, as a child who had a parent. And our relationship was very unique; talking with other parents, I’ve come to the understand that it only works with certain kinds of parents and certain kinds of kids. I was allowed a lot of freedom and respect as a kid, and I took a lot of it for granted, but I also behaved like a reasonable person, because I knew that my father was counting on me to not make an ass of myself.

I’ve also known people with the classic stereotypical helicopter parents, who can’t seem to escape the yoke of their loving parents no matter how hard they try, and in my eye, they sometimes seem ill-served by that, unable to navigate the world as whole human beings because a part of them is always deeply tied to their parents. Not in the sense that they have an ongoing relationship with them, as I do with my father, but that their parents are integral to their identity. If they’re happy living that way, it’s not my place to judge, but many seem to fret, sometimes unclear on why they are so restless because they’ve never known freedom.

I’ve known people who have grown up in loving and also hateful foster homes, I’ve known people who have grown in up well-adjusted, happy families where kids are encouraged to branch out but still supported, and I’ve known people who have grown up in tough love environments. And, frankly, I see little to admire in that approach to childraising. I don’t think that children need to be insulted, talked down to, or treated like they’re incapable of understanding complex concepts, but I also don’t think that they need to be treated as though they are ready for all things at all times, and just need to suck it up and deal with it if something’s wrong.

Being a human being at any age is hard. This is a culture where ‘independence’ is greatly valued, as are traits like individualism and roughing it and getting things done yourself, and people are framed as failures if they can’t rise to these social heights. The thing is, though, that people of all ages could benefit from solidarity and support at times, and there’s no shame in that, but thereĀ isĀ shame in creating a society where people are made to feel inadequate for not being perfect and unassailable.

Kids are learning things. Some of those lessons have high costs and I don’t think children should be protected from everything, but I also don’t believe it benefits children to throw everything at them and see what sticks. Parents bring kids into the world and they have an obligation to make sure they are safe, and healthy, and happy, and tough love doesn’t really seem to encompass that, especially in the pop culture framings I see. Sure, it’s important to help kids see where, when, and how they’ve gone wrong, and to encourage them to solve their own problems — but part of solving problems sometimes includes reaching out for help.

Encouraging kids to bang their heads against the wall in frustration while you stand and watch just creates antisocial behaviours, and makes children isolated and distrustful. They assume that adults aren’t around to help out, and that when they’re in trouble, they’re on their own. This has real consequences for children, who don’t deserve to be brought up this way — to be brought up to think that they can never rely on anyone else, and that any admission of weakness is actually an admission of failure.

I see it on the job, where people are afraid to ask questions and ask for help because they don’t want supervisors to think they’re incompetent. I see it in relationships, where people are afraid to communicate because they think that they’re responsible for resolving all problems on their own. I see it in so many aspects of human interaction, and it makes me furious that bad parenting can so thoroughly ruin human beings and their capacity for leading a balanced lifestyle where they get to make active choices about how they communicate, who they ask for help, and where that help comes from.

Sometimes you have to let kids make mistakes so they’ll learn from them, and sometimes you have to watch it happen, but when it’s over, you still need to be there to help them digest the experience. And sometimes, you have to be the one who steps up to protect your children, instead of throwing her to the wolves and expecting her to sort it out, because parenting is hard, and children are hard, and people are hard, and none of us can go this alone.

Image: Tough Love, Vicki & Chuck Rogers, Flickr.