|A recent newspaper story described parents who
deliberately embarrassed their child at a mall by screaming at him
and striking him. When one of the bystanders objected, the parents
said they were "just using tough love".
Tough love was originally intended for adult drug addicts, not
for young children still learning about life. Tough love as used
by the parents at the mall only teaches a child the harmful and
illogical lesson that deliberately hurting another human being is
supposedly "an act of love". Children instinctively know
that this mangled definition of love makes no sense.
But when this lesson is repeated often enough, they begin
to believe it. A humiliated child grows up emotionally crippled,
confusing cruelty with love, and sadism with intimacy. This
confusion of love and pain is surely the origin of the curious
"spanking wanted" ads in many alternative newspapers.
Parents who use tough love should be reminded that "the
proof is in the pudding". As a child, Adolf Hitler was often
humiliated and harshly disciplined, while the young Albert
Einstein was consistently treated with gentleness, kindness, and
patience. Einstein's mother was often accused of
"spoiling" him. Fortunately,
however, she ignored those warnings. These are extreme examples,
of course, but there is no doubt in my mind that there is a close,
direct correlation between the degree of punishment in childhood
and later difficulties in adulthood, just as there is
between loving parenting and later health and happiness.
Punishment, threats, and humiliation never achieve long-term
goals because they provoke anger, create resentment, and diminish
the bond between parent and child. Punishment interferes with the
child's opportunity to learn from
direct experience, which ideally should be unencumbered by fear
and pain. As the educator John Holt warned, "When we make a
child afraid, we stop learning dead in its tracks."
According to the mother in the newspaper story, her child was
being punished for having forgotten to flush a toilet in a public
rest room. But more than likely, what this child learned had
nothing to do with bathroom hygiene. What he most probably learned
instead was that it is foolish to believe people who claim to
"love" us, and that it is dangerous to allow ourselves
to be close to others. His parents' harsh and unfeeling treatment
taught him that the world is fundamentally a mean and dangerous
place to be. Such beliefs form the worst possible foundation for
life. They are the attitudes toward life and self which are likely
to induce angry behavior in childhood and lead to a life of
impoverished, self-centered, and ultimately futile attempts to
meet critical emotional needs - needs that should have been met
long ago in childhood.
This child learned many things that day at the mall, by the
example set by his parents and by those bystanders who did not
intervene on his behalf. He learned that it is right and proper to
cause and then to ignore a "loved" one's suffering. He
learned that even those who claim to love us can hurt us. The
anger, frustration, embarrassment, and helplessness he felt then,
and has probably felt many times before the incident at the mall,
are likely to form the foundation for a life of unhappiness, and
possibly even a life of crime. Our society bemoans the rising
crime rate, yet does little to prevent its real origins in the
early years of childhood.
The boy's parents are, in all likelihood, well-meaning. They
think they are teaching their son to do the right thing and to
grow to be a responsible adult, and their teaching methods are
most likely those that were practiced by their own parents.
Ironically, their behavior is very likely to accomplish just the
opposite: a U.S. Army study found that it is good experiences, not
painful ones, that best prepare a child for adult
What these parents did to their child is clearly abusive.
Unfortunately, North American laws are not as clear about
emotional abuse as are laws that exist in many other countries. In
Sweden, it is illegal not only to hit a child, but also to
A follow-up letter to the newspaper suggested that the parent
be required to wear a sign saying "I am a child abuser".
Unfortunately, such a sign can be translated as: "I am a
former abused child". And so it goes through the generations
– until schools teach enlightened parenting skills, and new
child abuse laws are written that clearly promote the respectful
treatment of children, rather than merely offer vaguely defined
minimum standards below which a child is deemed to have been
The letter writer suggested that the bystanders should have
called the police. Perhaps, but there are a few other calls to be
made: Call legislators to strengthen laws against emotional child
abuse. Call school superintendents and remind them that positive
parenting skills are infinitely more important than dates of
historical battles. Call judges, who need to understand the link
between childhood punishment and adult crime, so they can stop
recommending "more discipline" and start prescribing
classes for abusive parents. Call expectant parents and remind
them of the underlying principles of behavior: that children
reflect the treatment they receive, and that children are human
beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Call
newspaper editors and tell them that articles teaching
compassionate parenting are infinitely more important than stories
about men throwing balls through hoops, even if sports coverage
sells more papers. Call those adults who are lucky enough to be
parents, and who have had difficulty adjusting to that role.
Gently suggest that if they have had painful childhoods, perhaps
they might consider counseling so that the cycle of child abuse
can be stopped now.
It's not surprising that a child with "tough" parents
would be so preoccupied with painful feelings that he might forget
to flush a toilet. He'll probably forget a lot of things, but what
he'll remember is that it is dangerous to trust other people,
acceptable to ignore the suffering of children, and less painful
to live a life of loneliness and isolation than to risk being hurt
What kind of love is it if it doesn't allow for mistakes (which
all of us make)? To love a child means to treat him or her with
respect, patience, gentleness and compassion, and in a way that is
consistent with the Golden Rule. Tough love is tough, all right,
but it has nothing to do with love.