Even As A 'Gentle' Parent, I Recognize That Tough Love Is Necessary Sometimes

by Annie Reneau
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If I had to label it, I would describe my parenting style as “laid-back.” I lose my patience sometimes, as all parents do, but overall I take an approach of gentle guidance and mutual respect with my kids. They know that my husband and I hold the final authority in our house, but we are not authoritarians. We talk things through, we listen to our kids’ opinions and concerns, and we let them have a big say in both their individual lives and our family life.

All of that works out fine the majority of the time — but not all the time. Sometimes kids dig in their heels for reasons even they don’t understand. Sometimes they push the boundaries to see how far they can stretch. Sometimes circumstances make it necessary for us to force them to do things they don’t want to do. Sometimes they need a “tough love” approach.

I’m not talking about little kid things that have to be done like getting buckled in their car seat or brushing their teeth. Some things are and have always been non-negotiable, especially when they involve the health or safety of themselves or others.

What I’m referring to is the teaching of character habits. While I’d love to be able to say that being a good example and creating an atmosphere of love and kindness and responsibility in our home is enough to make our kids turn out stellar and make good choices, it isn’t always. And while I’d love to say that kids can learn all of their lessons through natural or logical consequences, that’s not always true either.

With bigger kids, it’s issues like neglecting chores after being reminded or not wanting to attend something they’ve committed to. Sometimes talking things through works, but other times they need to be told in no uncertain terms that they simply don’t have a choice. Sometimes they need to hear, “I’m not going to let you slack on this because you’ll regret it later,” even if they argue about it in the moment. Sometimes they need to be told, “We’ve told you over and over that the cat box has to be scooped every day, and if it isn’t, we’ll have to find the cats a new home where it will be” (no, we wouldn’t really rehome our cats, but this always works on our kids).

Sometimes they need us to get firm and not back down. Sometimes they need assurance that we are not going to allow them to let laziness or discomfort or even anxiety lead them down the wrong path. Sometimes they need a metaphorical kick in the butt to help them form and maintain a healthy habit.

It can be hard to know when it’s time to put on the “tough love” hat though. I usually try to gauge whether there are emotions that need to be addressed or stressors that need to be examined first. I explain the reason why a rule exists or why we want them to do something to make sure they fully understand the importance of it. It’s only when it’s clear to me that the kid needs a push — which all of us need on occasion — that I don my “not messing around” face and lay down the law.

When you know your kids well, you get a sense for when they need you to be firm and when they need wiggle room. The challenge is when they think they want one thing, but they really need another. Those moments are hard for me as a parent — when my child is upset and telling me they need something that I know for sure they don’t. Tough love is tough on moms with tender hearts.

But 16 years into parenting, my instincts are pretty dead on, if I do say so myself. I always talk things through with my kids after any unpleasant interaction, and they always — well, almost always — acknowledge that they needed me to do what I did. The times I’ve been wrong, I’ve apologized directly. But in general, our kids appreciate that we have high expectations of them.

Thankfully, this approach has resulted in kids who rarely need a heavy hand. Thank goodness, because I kind of hate being the heavy. I think the tough love approach is best used sparingly anyway, coupled with open communication and plenty of “untough” love. When you have a strong relationship built on a foundation of trust and respect, tough love moments have more value. They can truly be seen and felt as the expressions of love that they are.