Blog Introduction

For more on the purpose and origin of this blog, click here for the inaugural post.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Tough love, warm love and their imposters

One of the positive trends I've noticed in modern society is the increasing focus on doing a good job of parenting. The old 'children are to be seen, not heard' days seem to be well behind us which is a good thing. My husband and I have chosen not to have children but almost all of our friends chose differently. So I get to observe the many different attitudes and approaches that people take and I've paid attention to the same in people I meet through business, sport and other endeavours.

An issue that has arisen for me as I've done this, is whether there is any place for 'tough love'. I want to be very clear what I mean by that because I think it can be understood in different ways. What I mean is letting people we care about deal with difficulty as a source of learning. I don't mean the following non-loving routines - let's call these tough love imposters:
  • being tough with people as the norm, or because we are too uncomfortable with being softer or kinder
  • being tough with people because 'that's the way we were treated and so why should anyone else (e.g. the next generation) have it easy?'
  • the 'sink or swim' strategy where we give the learner no assistance with the learning process, they are just left to either make it or not, and if they don't, well, they're left to deal with the consequences because 'that's life!'
My own upbringing contained a mixture of things including tough love as I've defined it and I think it has had some very positive effects. It taught me reponsibility, the valuing of and an appreciation for money and the freedom it offers, and a strong belief in cause and effect which is a foundational belief that underpins an achievement orientation (not achievement to please others but enjoyment of achievement) and the dharma itself.

However my upbringing also included the tough love imposters. These taught me to believe that when the chips are down no-one will want to help me (so I felt unsupported and un-cared for), to have a scarcity mindset that included the belief that I didn't deserve and would never have enough, and it caused me to be a very slow learner on some of life's important lessons because I often felt under threat and so was in ego-protection mode.

One of the things about tough love is that it doesn't have to be done coldly or impersonally. Indeed if we communicate about why we are doing it, we stay connected with them during the challenge, we offer ourselves as a sounding board, coach or advisor, and let the person know we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be a confidence building experience and a true form of love. If we think of love as the genuine care for one's wellbeing, this helps prepare the person for the challenges of life ahead, so it is indeed love. The net result is an increase in confidence and competence - what a gift!

I started this post talking about parents I've observed. One of the concerns I've had as I've done this observing is that many parents seem to be pushing the pendulum down the other end of the chamber where they do everything for their kids, pay for everything, let them live at home until they are in their 30s and get in and 'help' by solving their kids' problems. I imagine that seeing your kids suffer must be difficult; painful. Yet I can't help but think that this kind of behaviour is not love - it's not caring for their wellbeing because it is fostering an inability to deal with life themselves and a set of beliefs and expectations that are destined for a collision with the world outside the home.

At a business conference a few months ago I was talking to a fellow who would have been in his 50s. He has three 'children' all in their 20s. All of them live at home. None of them have driver's licences or cars of their own because their parents drive them where they want to go, none of them have jobs (one was studying a second degree, another was an 'artist', another was unemployed), and two of them had been on overseas holidays - paid for by Mum and Dad. If Mum and Dad were hit by a bus, these adults would be lost. They would need to learn how to take care of themselves in an awful hurry, under great stress, with little confidence in their own competence and having probably learnt some unhelpful expectations from life which would make that learning more difficult.

While this example might be an extreme, I see smaller examples of it everywhere. From letting children interrupt adult conversations at whim to allowing them to have everything their hearts desire, to giving a teenager money without ever having to earn it, to always letting kids win games, to removing or chasing away a child's conflicts to prevent them from being upset. I'm not suggesting for a minute that we don't try and help; I'm suggesting that the way of helping that is truly loving is to let them feel the heat and help them learn to deal with it, rather than shielding them from the heat so that when they do eventually venture into the big wide world, they are not shocked and overwhelmed.

At some point, almost all of us have to learn that we need to take responsibility for our lives if we also want freedom. We have to learn that self esteem is largely earned, we have to learn to be competent, that acting aggressively and avoiding conflicts have negative effects that usually come back to bight us, and that we are not the centre of the universe. There are many other things too, but parents who are unwilling to let their children suffer are shielding them from these important lessons - which means they will learn them later in life, when they are surrounded by a world that is much less likely to take care with how it teaches them. Or they won't learn them and they will suffer even more.

And why? Because the parent doesn't want to suffer the pain of seeing the child suffer. While that's understandable and worthy of compassion, it's not love, it's aversion to pain. In a way it's saying 'let's avoid both of us suffering now, so that you can do it alone when I'm gone'. Another motivation I've seen is from parents who seem to need the approval of their children. So they try to make them feel good (never saying no, never insisting that they do things they don't want to do) in order to be liked and to avoid dealing with the pain of their own insecurity. Either way, it doesn't seem to me that it's all that loving as it's not directed at the wellbeing of the child - their momentary happiness perhaps, but not their wellbeing past this moment. It's passing up an opportunity to support them through a lesson and leaving them to learn it themselves in what will likely be a much more difficult and less loving circumstance. Perhaps we could call these 'warm love imposters' (I've often heard of such things referred to as the 'near enemy' - e.g. it looks/sounds a bit like the real thing but is in fact something inimical to it).

So I guess I'm making the case for the importance of tough love amidst plenty of warm love, and to be wary of tough love imposters and warm love imposters which are two different means of avoiding some fear by dressing it up as love. The Buddha's first noble truth is that there is dukkah (suffering, angst, stress, unease etc.) and the imperative is to get to know it. Tough love can actually help us prepare our kids for this truth and its implications. The imposters are forms of clinging and aversion that cause more dukkah (second noble truth). Some possible questions to help ascertain if it's an imposter:

For warm love imposters:
  • is this course of action preventing them from learning something important about cause and effect?
  • if I said no to what they are asking of me, how would I feel? Why? Have I got some fear around saying no or refusing to rescue them?
  • if I let them take the painful option, could I be with them during the experience to help them learn? If not, why not?
  • if this person/child was angry at me for a period of time, could I handle that? If not, why not?
  • is it important for me to be seen to be helping/rescuing my child? If so, who is it that I think is watching/ noticing? And why do I want them to see?
For tough love imposters:
  • is there any room for this person to possibly doubt that I am supporting them through this difficulty, or that I support and care about them generally? If so, what can I do to reassure them?
  • do I give this person plenty of genuine warm love too? If not, how do I feel when I imagine doing that?
  • do they really need this lesson (e.g. do I already give it in many other ways) and could I let them off the hook sometimes (to teach them that life isn't ALWAYS hard)?
  • how can I deliver the message in a way that communicates my care for them?
  • What can I do along the way to show that I care for them?
  • How can I help them learn from this? (Remember, if they feel too unsafe, they are unlikely to learn well.)
I'd love to hear people's thoughts.

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