To Tough Love or not to Tough Love?

As I sit here, I’m not sure what this post will become.  I know that I would like to address a FB story that I can no longer find on my timeline, which is irritating to me.  But I will try to fill you in, and continue from there.

The missing story, best as I can remember, was about a parent’s goal to always try to be kind and loving, optimistic to and supportive of her children.  I shared the story, finding it beautiful.  A good friend began some excellent dialogue in the comments stream, pointing out how soft kids are nowadays, that’s not how the real world is, and we aren’t doing enough to keep our kids tough in a tough world.

I understand where this friend is coming from.  I also know him well and know for a fact that yes, he may have been a hard-ass to his three daughters from time to time during their formative years, but there’s no doubt in my mind that they know he is their biggest fan.

God, being a parent is so hard.  The hardest part is taking a long, hard look at myself to see what it is that I can do to help my kids succeed in what really looks to be a crazy world.  Good crazy, bad crazy, lots of extremes.  How do we navigate it with them?  How can we have our adult awareness of all the threats out there, and compartmentalize it enough so our fear doesn’t rub off on our kids?

One answer has rung true since the first time I asked myself this question: Love them.  Make sure they know I love them.  Make sure they know I am in their corner.  Make sure I am a person they can bring problems to.

How? I tell them all the time that I love them, but then I holler about a carrot bag leaking carrot water on my favorite chair, clearly showing my daughter I love the chair more than I love her.  Holy hell, she came up to me to admit the infraction.  Like she is ever going to tell me about something that really matters in her teen years?  Look at how I completely overreacted to a baby carrot bag that leaked water…

To make matters worse, I am not a warm, fuzzy type of mother.  I’m rather business-like, with a bit of kindness tossed in here and there.  As I admit this, I remember a situation where one mother was complaining about how her second-grade child got a teacher who was “too nice, too kind, too compassionate.”  I laughed out loud.  I said, “well, my child has her too, and I really feel kids that young should get kindness and compassion from somewhere, and since my children don’t necessarily get the ‘warm fuzzy’ in our home, I’m thankful they can get it somewhere outside our home, ha ha ha…”  That shut her up.  Seriously, when did it become wrong to show kindness to children?  As long as the curriculum is learned, which it was, I’m all for a teacher helping me build self-esteem in my kids.

But with all these great teachers, my kids didn’t have any self-esteem.  My son was falling prey to bullies.  My husband and I would talk about it a lot, trying to understand why our son seemed to wear a “kick me” sign.  And then one day it dawned upon me, “I bully (‘tough love’) him, so he thinks that’s they way he deserves to be treated by everyone else.”

It didn’t matter how kind his teachers were or weren’t.  Ultimately, the opinions my son respected most were his parents.’  A huge light bulb lit up.  This was big.  I had great teachers growing up, but until I was an adult, I truly did not believe I was anything special in my parents’ eyes.  As an adult with kids, I know this is untrue; but as a kid, it was my perception, and my perception was my reality growing up.

I was able to work with this.  I could find kinder ways of telling my kids for the thousandth time that they need to brush their teeth or put their dirty clothes in the hamper.  I didn’t need to condemn them for forgetting or adding to my already overflowing workload.  So, it took some work, but adding a few more “I love yous,” changing my default response from “no” to “yes, you can have that” when I didn’t really care one way or the other, and giving them reasons why they are awesome was helpful.

However, the bullying continued.  My husband and I were very frustrated.  We had adapted on our end, but our son was almost 11, and still a target at his school.  We toyed with the idea of changing his school.  We heard both sides – “life is tough, you can’t always avoid when the going gets tough, so he has to toughen up.”  But my gut said to move him. Practicality seemed to be winning out, and we kept our course on “life is tough, get over it.” And then I was shown how ignoring my gut was not in the best interests of our son.  I thank God for that message I received.

We were at a party.  Our son was being teased by girls 2 grades younger than he.  I made an offhand comment about the girls just having a crush, and my beautiful, kind, gentle son went off the deep end.  He was shaking, crying, pushed to the point where he couldn’t even handle a couple little girls being little snots.  He swung at me, crumbled, and felt like he was lower than the dirt on the bottom of my shoe.  All of his agony flashed across his face, and it imprinted directly into my brain.  I grabbed him, told him how sorry I was, and how wrong I was for not seeing how desperate he had become.  I told him then and there that I was going to fix the situation, and he would not be attending his current school in the fall.  He cried and cried, saying “how could I have done that? You are my mother, how could I have done that? How can you forgive me?” I told him there was nothing to forgive. I was his mom, I should have had his back.  I didn’t (want to) realize how bad it was for him at school, now I do, we will fix it, can he forgive me for taking so long?

Fast-forward a year.  By our son’s estimation, he and his friends are “going to rule the school next year!”  The change of venue to a school where being a considerate human is built into the curriculum has done wonders.  A year and a half of karate has also helped tremendously, since he now has the ability to defend himself.  Our son is no longer on edge and can focus on being a kid and enjoying life.

I moved both kids at the same time, and my daughter appreciated the focus on kindness at the new school as well.  Have I done my kids a disservice by moving them from a competitive, dog-eat-dog elementary school with high academic accolades?  I think not.  Actually, I shudder to think what the outcome might have been if I had left either of my kids at their former school.  Both of them have come a long way in gaining self-esteem. I know it’s naive to think that changing schools would help in every situation.  I think the bigger point that was made, even if the new school was no great shakes, was the fact that I had their backs. They were heard, I made an attempt to fix things for them.  In our situation, we were fortunate to have a win-win.

So, are kids softer today?  Does kindness toward one’s children translate to raising kids with no work ethic, and the belief that everything should come easy in life?  Should we praise them and give them trophies simply for participating on a team?  Maybe, maybe not.  In a home where a kid gets absolutely no positive reinforcement, that trophy could be a lifeline.

There is no “one-size fits all” magic bullet piece of advice blueprint on how to raise kids.  I was raised in a home where I was either ignored or recipient of “tough love,” and I was the most miserable person I knew from childhood through high school.  I don’t want that for my kids.  So, I listen to my gut.  I remember what I would have appreciated as a kid.  I talk to my kids (hard for me), and try to listen to them (sometimes painful, yes, I’m awful).  And when I holler about a bag of carrot water getting on my favorite chair, I explain after a chill period “you know it wasn’t really about the carrot water, right?  It was about how I’ve asked you hundreds of times not to eat in the living room, and you did it anyway.  I felt like I wasn’t being heard or respected. Again. And this time it landed on my favorite chair.  My trigger. Can you see why I would be upset?”

I followed it with “I know I overreacted.  I fear that you will remember this outburst over a drippy carrot bag, and when it is really important for you to talk to me, you will be afraid of my reaction.  I am very sorry about that, and hope you can forgive me and trust me for the important stuff, too.”

Too much explanation for my 9-year old?  I don’t think so.  It took her from “I’m an awful child and my mother hates me” to “my mom has feelings too, and she really does love me, she’s just a bit uptight about that chair. I won’t eat in the living room anymore.” (yeah, right)

My friend is right.  Sometimes tough love is necessary, and sometimes it is even unavoidable, as in the case of my family (it can be hard to break generational patterns).  So, people need to make the best decisions they can for their families.  I try not to judge others. The one thing I will say is I think in a world that at times seems very unkind, it is essential to raise kids to believe in themselves.  In our case, it required changing schools and listening to what our kids say. 

With all the young kids and gun violence, I can’t help but wonder if those kids felt heard. If something as simple as moving schools might have helped them. Dear God, I don’t know. But what I do know is that kids who shoot up schools do not love themselves, so that is the one thing I can try to do for my own.  If my kids know, I mean, really really know their self-worth, they will be OK.  Right? If they love themselves, they can handle all the tough times in their future, when it is age-appropriate to navigate bullshit. You think? Well, that’s my theory, and for now, I’m sticking to it. 

4 thoughts on “To Tough Love or not to Tough Love?

  1. Lynn

    Great piece of writing Sara. I agree…it’s hard to change what you were taught and hard to know what is the right thing to say and do to have the best outcome for our kids. I need to work on “having my kid’s back.”

  2. slm425 Post author

    Thank you, Lynn. By the time I have it figured out, I might make a decent grandma 🙂 We do the best we can…

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