Tough love: A guide to firm but fair parenting

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Think back to your childhood. Do you remember the time when you left a school project to the last minute, and then begged your parents to help you get it done, but they flat out refused? You hated having to struggle through the assignment on your own while everyone else went to bed, right? But now, looking back as an adult, you’d actually thank your parents for giving you that serving of tough love because you learnt valuable life lessons about time management and why procrastination is a bad idea.

So, why should things be any easier for your children? We take a look at what tough love is, and how you can put it into practice without scarring your children in any way.

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What is tough love?

We know it’s a form of discipline, but what does it actually entail? “The two important elements to consider are ‘tough’ and ‘love’,” says Siphokazi Qotyana, a Durban-based clinical psychologist. “It’s an expression used when someone treats another person sternly, with the intent to help them in the long run,” she says. Another childhood example could be when you were repeatedly warned to stop missing your curfew. . .or else. Whether the “or else” involved talking to or a spanking, you knew that some form of discipline awaited you.

Tough love often comes from a good place. It’s about ensuring that your children take responsibility for their behaviour and knowing that when they do something wrong, it will have ramifications, says Dr Nthabiseng Mabena, a Midrand-based clinical psychologist. “It’s love that isn’t blind. It’s saying, ‘You need to know that every action has consequences’ and ‘I’m not going to shield you against the repercussions of your unbecoming behaviour, thus missing an opportunity to turn this into a teachable moment’,” Mabena explains.

The danger of being too lenient

No one wants to be that parent at the shopping till with a screaming toddler, hurling himself on the floor or wailing in the trolley because of the packet of sweets he was denied. Right? Well, wrong. Mabena says, “Let the child be.” They’ll soon learn that going to the shops doesn’t mean getting treats. And the people watching? Let them talk – you understand the bigger picture. “You’re letting them be because you’ve had an open conversation with them about how going to the shops isn’t an opportunity for them to demand things. Remember that behaviour is learnt so don’t get intimidated by their sulks or screams. We say neglect is child abuse – but so is overindulgence,” Mabena states, matter-of-factly. “We’re supposed to raise our children so they can fend for themselves. By being too lenient, you’re incapacitating them as adults. Know your role as a parent, because if you don’t, you’re producing entitled adults who’ll never take responsibility for their actions,” she adds.

Lwanele Khasu, a clinical psychologist at the Ubuntu Family Health Centre, agrees. “What builds frustration tolerance is the delayed gratification you experience as a child. You knew that in order for you to get new sneakers, you had to wash the car or do some other chores. When you’re lenient, kids don’t learn the responsibility of working for what they want. If you don’t practise tough love every so often, your kids develop a sense of entitlement. They’ll think that people are unfair to them, and feel neglected when they don’t get what they want. Correcting this type of thinking should start at home,” Khasu adds.

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How to be firm, yet loving

To implement tough love, Mabena recommends first having a talk with your child about what they can and cannot do. That way, they know that if they break the rules, there’ll be consequences. “Before anything can happen, you must understand your child’s personality type and what they like and dislike.

Tough love in practice

Amanda Ndlangisa, mom to a 10-year-old girl: “I’m a long distance parent, so I overcompensate a lot. But, when needed, I let her cry and later explain why I refuse to do what she’s demanding. I let her work through her feelings and get her to explain why she feels things should be done her way. By chatting about it, we understand each other better.”

Hope Magubane, mom to a 7-year-old girl: “You need to know your child. When mine was younger, we’d spank her but found that it didn’t work and neither did the ‘naughty corner’ or telling her to stay in her room. My daughter responds better if we talk to her about her behaviour. When she was four, we started implementing an awards chart. Everytime she’d do something good, like cleaning after herself, we’d give her a sticker and after a certain number of them, she’d get a treat.”

Sibongile Dambuza, mom to a 5-year-old boy: “I try to make my son understand that he’s not always going to get what he wants, especially when he throws tantrums in public. I usually say ‘No’, and stand firm so he learns that not every visit to town is a shopping spree.”

Lehlohonolo Tladi, mom of two: “I always explain why what they did was wrong, or why I decided on certain actions. I first compose myself, then ask why they saw it fit to act the way they did. Then, I make them understand the consequences of their behaviour. I need them to learn that I punish because I love them.”

Patiently set the rules and agree on actions,” she continues. “Tell them, ‘If this happens, then this will be the result’. And now that everyone knows what’s expected of them, stick to your guns. Although your kids are part of the discussion and you all agree, your role as a parent is to lead. Don’t overburden your kids with parenting themselves. You must have the last word,” Mabena advises.

Consistency is pivotal, Khasu points out. Kids will always try and push boundaries to test if you’ll let things slide or not, so you have to be consistent with your disciplinary measures. “Love them enough to be firm. Create boundaries they can internalise so they grow up to be adults who know what’s acceptable and what’s not. Be consistent so kids know what the consequences are if they fail to hold up their part of the agreement. React the same way each time. Inconsistency is confusing to children,” Khasu concludes.

Other forms of discipline

Khasu offers the following tips:

  • Restrict access to screen time, e.g. mobile phones or electronic gadgets.
  • Time out in a ‘naughty corner’ can work, but don’t leave young children by themselves – this could lead to feelings of abandonment. Sit with them and ask if they understand why they’re there, and how they plan to act differently.
  • Help your child think about what they’ve done, and apologise when necessary.

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