Tough Love


James N Kraut, Psy.D.

“Tough love” is a common phrase and it generally refers to the act of allowing those close to us – usually, and for our purposes here, our children – to experience something difficult for what we see as “their own good.” Tough love requires parents to have a strong enough sense of their own self-esteem to allow their children to become angry at them for blocking what they want. I’d like to talk about character development both with and without tough love, hopefully showing you that the pain of being the victim of your child’s anger is far preferable to the alternative.

Kids want what they want. Period! They want to eat, sleep, study, go out and come home according to their own desires. Actually, we want what we want, too, but have hopefully learned to deal with our desires in the light of morality and judgment. Sadly, what is best for children is often not what feels best to them. With younger kids, this type of potential conflict will typically arise over food, bedtime and study habits. Virtually every parent knows the feelings associated with fighting around those issues. We have experienced what happens when we give our children what they want as well as the effects of refusing to do so. Our kids can get nasty and often have sharp intuition that results in our being very hurt by their words. Divorced parents are often unfavorably compared to their children’s other parent when they fail to provide on demand. “Dad lets us do it!” And of course, that not only causes us to fight with our own feelings of guilt and insecurity with respect to our parenting, but also evokes unpleasant feelings, often bordering on paranoia, about the ex, as well as guilt related to the divorce. “He’s deliberately making me look bad,” we may ultimately find ourselves thinking.

There are two things that happen when we are strong enough to do the right thing in our parenting, despite the responses we get. The first is about our relationships with them. We help them develop a sense of respect for us as parents, which, although often unpleasant in the short term, gives kids a feeling of safety, knowing that we’re there, operating as their reliable ceiling. The come to trust that we generally know what’s right and we’re not afraid to stand up to them.

Children who know they can always have the final word lose in two ways. First, they don’t benefit from our experience and often make immature, albeit developmentally appropriate decisions for themselves that may lead to other problems, making it hard for us to resist saying “I told you so” when things go wrong as we expect they will. Second, kids who have inadequate limits set on them feel less cared for, although they will often not be aware of it. My own father was strict with me when I was a child and I hated it, but in conversations with him later, adult-to-adult, he confessed to me how insecure it made him feel that his own parents seemed to take no interest in guiding him in his life as a child.

Perhaps of even more importance is the fact that children who do not learn to accept “no” from their parents grow up with egos that expect the world will always gratify them. Parents who play defense for their kids at school and get them out of trouble make this even worse, setting up what turns out to be a complete false sense of security.

Natural environmental consequences will inevitably go against what we as adults want. If we haven’t learned “No,” we have a great deal of difficulty taking things in stride. People who learned to accept their parents’ decisions develop more flexible and accepting characters. They are readier to face the difficulties, indignities and rampant unfairness that life inevitably imposes on them. The more we get our own way as a child, the more likely it is that we will interpret situations in which our own needs are not adequately met as “unfair.” Think about that last one:

“That’s not fair!”

We have heard those words so many times. But there is no fairness contract to life. It presents itself to us without regard to how we want things to happen and the more accepting we are of its idiosyncratic ways, the healthier and less stressed we are. Kids who win all the arguments with their parents grow up to find the world a cold, unfeeling and heartless place.

In light of all the above, I ask you to do one thing: Please risk the pain of your children’s temporary protests and be strong enough to say no! They will be much better for it.

Dr. James Kraut

My passion is to help guide you if you have chosen to look profoundly into the questions of your life. My goal is to help you get to the point where your existence on this wonderful planet has become a richer, deeper, and more meaningful process. Every story is unique and I would love to learn about yours.

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