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Tough Love

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 responsibilities.1

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 "bully" him.

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 abused.

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 any further.

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.

1 John Holt, 1981 interview in England, transcribed by Jo-Anne Beirne.

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.