Tough Love, effective love and just plain love

rescue meIn a recent article in The Guardian about “Tough Love” ( it was found that both laissez-faire and authoritarian approaches to parenting fell significantly short of “Tough Love,” for raising well-adjusted kids.  However, the version outlined by the researchers of “tough love” seemed to mean engaged parenting and appropriate limit-setting.  Now when I think “tough love” I think about neon-lit parents taking a hard line in verité kitchen sink realism as Drs. Phil and Laura shout at them after kids have gotten into trouble with drugs or the law; now maybe that’s just my “Think that I saw it on Mulberry Street” imagination running away again, but it did make me wonder how many modern progressive parents might turn off a the phrase “tough love” and miss the larger point.

So while “tough love” might be a problematic phrase, I think many parents would respond to the notion that kids do well under engaged parenting with good limit-setting by saying, “Duh.”  The point of posting on this topic is to underscore that what the researchers seemed to mean by “tough,” I (and I suspect many of my fellow-parents) would simply call engaged parenting with healthy limits and boundary setting.  The article made it sound to me like we’ve come to calling the setting and holding of appropriate boundaries “tough love.”  I’m also concerned that the word “tough” may intimidate some parents who were raised in such a harsh manner that they want nothing “tough” to hurt their kids, and then inadvertently hurt them by being too soft.  This lack of parental spine is what hurts kids, the laissez-faire that reads to kids as “we don’t care.”

Sometimes articles like this one in the Guardian, although potentially helpful in reminding us to stay engaged and hold to limits, tend to confuse correlation with causation.  I suspect that parents who are solid, happy and healthy naturally exhibit an ability to remain emotionally engaged with their kids and tolerate the frustration it takes to hold the line in a reasonably graceful and compassionate manner.  Thus it may not be the choice of parenting style that helps kids turn out well, but rather the ability to actualize the good parenting we would naturally bring if we felt supported and calm ourselves.  And then there’s reality—and hence my wish to band together in a spirit of mutual support, not so that we can be told how to parent, but so that we can actually parent the way we would wish to have been parented:  i.e. by engaged parents who set limits with love.

Thus the take-away is first and foremost balance between being too harsh and too checked-out, but that’s the obvious part—beyond this came a more intriguing finding that kids who are raised with this so-called “tough love” are better able to self-regulate, manage feelings and have empathy for others.  The researches go on to say that such traits (i.e. good interpersonal skills and the ability to hold it together) are 33 times more important in the modern workplace than in the one of the prior decade. 

I like to think that this underscores how living in a more interconnected world means that one’s ability to interconnect is rewarded, and also how this moves all of us as a group from prior models of control and dominance (and the empty alienation these brought to both victors and victims of that time and world view) toward mutuality and cooperation; in this sense the zeitgeist is potentially moving toward balance after a hundred and fifty years or so of know-it-all reductionism. 

Love versus limits, in some sense is another potential battleground on which conventional masculine vs. conventional or stereotypical feminine might fight it out; I say it’s time to all get a little more Bowie on the whole thing, a little less my position vs. your position, and toward an integrative approach where to some extent we’re all correct, but more importantly the shared recognition that in our own way we all actually care; and further, that it’s the responsibility of the group to help support and engage (and set limits where needed, i.e. if parents hurt children) parents who seem unable to do their best for whatever reasons (often due to poverty and other social stresses that the more fortunate may lose sight of and think are marks of “bad” parents rather than “there but for the Grace of whatever go you and I”).

There is no better model for getting past our own narrow views and interests than parenting, where we try to cultivate others (i.e. our kids) to surpass, outlive and outreach us.  We need to help each other get parenting going better for all kids, starting with our own but not ending with them.

It therefore follows in a logical circle that parents who can authentically relate to their children, educating and guiding in a spirit of love and mutual respect, prepare those children to thrive in our emerging world which is (hopefully) increasingly authentic and caring, as well as increasingly relational; and, conversely, raising such children helps make our world more respectful, calmer and less toxic, thus making it easier for the subsequent generations.  I believe that consciously seeing these trends can help us parents heal our alienation and insecurity and find happiness in loving, engaging and having clear healthy limits—about our individual identities, gifts, rights, etc. and thus being able to get past ourselves and to be more engaged with the group without conforming to the group and disappearing or obliterating our uniqueness.  In my introverted, non-joining way I am trying to do this via writing and blogging, but I recognize that we all engage in different ways.

Being unable to regulate our emotions is a chief cause for parents to “lose it,” therefore learning anger management, better self-awareness and self-control are key building blocks of best-Self parenting (for more thoughts on Anger Management see:  Unregulated parents are unable to strike the firm but loving balance of “tough love,” and are unable to bring such a balance to bear on their kids as well as being unable to model equanimity and balance—whereas modeling, more than lecturing, is our best parenting strategy—it does not do much to merely choose a parenting strategy, we must live our parenting philosophy.  Doesn’t it then make sense to support parents rather than criticize them, just like kids need and deserve, so that their best Selves can naturally emerge?

Firm boundaries are not “tough”—they are love.  Love is not always soft or yielding and thus love can be strong across the range of soft to hard.  What love is not is indifferent, checked out or disengaged—that would be better called “depression.” 

It is November as I write this, and my heart’s wish right now is not to get readers to nod and smile along with me, but rather for those capable of a nod and a smile to join with me in virtual compassion—to spend that energy on the readers I’m most hoping to reach with these words, the ones who have been falling short, feeling screwed, hurt, unsupported, burdened by demons inner and outer and have come to these words looking to get it right for their children.  I have often been that person and that parent—the one missing the point, over-working, shushing, checking out; but then sometimes I snap out of it.  Today I’m inspired to do the reach-out; tomorrow I may need the reach-out.  If you are sincerely looking to help your kids, yourself and our world, please try to relinquish shame and judgment on yourself and trust that the fact that in your heart you care and are trying your best, that you love your child no matter how unapparent that may seem to them as they run into their room and slam the door, or directly hurt your feelings, try to understand that this is her love being communicated in a primitive and direct manner—making you feel the bad feelings she feels but cannot stand, at least not today. 

Hang in there, and hang here with us in spirit; breathe deeply, taking in trust and encouragement and breathe out your fears (including that you are a bad parent) and breathe out your desires (even the one to be a better parent).  Be still and clear in this moment, in the deeper truth that we are in this together, and that together we make one vast and engaged consciousness.  We don’t need to sum it up, we awaken within it, kissed gently awake (or rudely shaken) through our relationships of caring for kids, parents, animals, plants and all our pulsing, vexing and breath giving/breathtaking world.

Namaste, Bruce


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5 Responses to “Tough Love, effective love and just plain love”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    Last 2 paragraphs made me cry. Thank you.

  2. sandysays1 Says:

    An enlighten post. I would hope you have lots of visits. Sandy

  3. krk Says:

    What is there to say but thank you.

  4. Michele Priest Gautret Says:

    Now please don’t take this the wrong way, but I love you!

    Thank you so much for being there every day. For putting that marvelous brain and spirit to good use, and then putting “pen to paper” and sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.

    I don’t know how you do it, but there is always relevance, always kindness, humor, intelligence and acceptance.

    (Being a writer, I will also say that I greatly appreciate the fact that your writing is GOOD. EVERY DAY. Cheers to you!)

    I will be so sad when your year of blogs ends…

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Wow, thank-you!

      While my ego self blushes (and I do confess, after too many years of being “he doth protest too much,” self-effacing, that I really want to be loved, liked and appreciated).

      My deep Self, however, the place from where I actually find this writing comes, says, “I love you too,” and trusts, like you, that it is taken the right way.

      Please take the spirit that we are cultivating together here and love and nourish your own writing, in addition to your children, as yet another facet of “all our collective children.”


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