I grew up in a house where you did what you were told, or you were punished. That meant if I talked back to my parents, or peeled very expensive wallpaper off my bedroom wall (I did both, but only once), you got smacked on the butt with a belt. Literally.
It also meant if I didn’t do one of my chores on time, or slacked in school, I was restricted from using the phone or watching television for a week. Zero discussion. Zero excuses.
In the ’80s that was referred to as “tough love” or “putting kids in their place.” Some referred to it as abuse but my father never wavered — he was one of 7 kids and got the belt often. “It works,” he’d say to his friends, bragging over a Budweiser.
I never disagreed with my parents. I was afraid of my father, and talking about feelings wasn’t something we did in our house when he was around.
After he and my mom divorced, she showed my sisters and me a softer side of parenting where emotions were allowed, we were able to disagree with her, and she didn’t scare us into behaving by hitting us. That worked too.
But my early upbringing scarred me more than I realized. When I had kids of my own, I never wanted them to feel uncomfortable. I wanted them to have everything and know they were allowed to be seen and heard. Giving them consequences was incredibly uncomfortable for me.
I’ve struggled along the way with punishments and giving consequences for disrespectful or bad behavior. As soon as I’d dole out a consequence, I’d watch my kids morph into sad souls; and there were many times in their younger years when it crushed me so bad, I’d undo the punishment I had given and would allow them to have that snack or watch the very show I’d just taken away.
It wasn’t long before I had to take a hard look in the mirror and remind myself their childhoods are nothing like mine. Giving my kids consequences for missing their chores or being a jerk to their sister is showing them love. Also, it’s nothing like a spanking or hitting them with a belt. NOTHING.
And in order to not raise huge assholes, they need punishments. They need consistency, and they need to know their mother is serious and not wavering. And every one in a while, they need an extra firm hand.
The truth is, my kids want tough love some of the time; they almost beg for it. Of course, they’d never say that, but I see a change in their behavior immediately after it’s given — like a few weeks ago when I got a letter from my son’s teacher saying he hadn’t handed in homework for the past few days. After talking about it, and finding out he had zero excuses, I took away all phone and television privileges for five days.
I didn’t give those luxuries back when he stopped being angry and was back to his cheery self. And I didn’t feel guilty about it either. I didn’t give it back when he turned in homework for the next three days and did extra work. I didn’t back down when he offered to do extra chores around the house. I waited the whole five days and while it was hard, and some might think I was being too harsh, I knew it was for the best.
It’s not often I have to use this much force, because when I say I am going to use it, I do. And my kids know without question, I won’t change my mind. That didn’t used to be the case and my life — our life — was much harder.
Now that my kids are in middle school and high school, I’ve observed something. When they do something wrong — like not doing a chore or they sneak their phone in their room or when I caught my oldest smoking pot under the deck when he was 13 — and I break out the tough love, it’s not long before they get back on track.
I’m not sure if it’s because they know mama isn’t changing her mind and it’s in their best interest to shape up all the way. Or it’s simply their way of saying, “Thank you, Mom, I feel safe now.” I just know it works and because of the results, I’ve decided to put my guilt about it to bed.
You can give your children room to breathe, grow, express their concerns about things they don’t believe are fair, opportunities to make things better and have discussions about choices they’ve made … and play the tough love card, too. The two aren’t mutually exclusive and I’m glad I figured it out when I did.