Let’s face it; it’s a tough world out there, and kids need to be ready to face it. Once children reach adulthood, they won’t have what they want unless they’re willing to work for it. That’s why many parents like tough love, a catch phrase  used to describe a firm, or even strict parenting style. The tough love parent uses discipline to achieve outcomes that are ultimately to the child’s own benefit. For example:

  • Not letting a child watch TV until his homework is done
  • Confiscating a toy that a child is using to hit his brother
  • Sending a child to time-out for throwing a temper tantrum

Is there a place for tough love when it comes to raising infants, toddlers and preschoolers? Is tough love a smart or productive approach when trying to improve a young child’s behavior? Maybe. Maybe not. It all depends on the child and the situation, so here are some guidelines:

  • Infants: Infants cannot control or regulate their behavior. They are developing the ability to think, communicate, and move on their own, and depend on the adults in their lives for physical and emotional nurturing. During the infant stage, there is never a reason to yell at or punish a child. Doing so is hurtful to the child and has no real benefit. Infants are developing the ability to trust. Do not interfere with that delicate process.
  • Toddlers: While some toddlers have the ability to understand and follow directions, others do not. Toddlers with delays may have trouble processing instructions, have difficulty following through, or may simply lack the self-regulation skills necessary to follow rules. While many children will respond to tough love and disciplinary measures at this stage, there are other methods that are just as effective and more gentle.  These strategies include keeping “down time” to a minimum to keep toddlers busy and productive, redirecting them to appropriate activities, and reinforcing desired behaviors while ignoring the less desirable ones.
  • Preschoolers: During the preschool stage, children are learning about rules and limits. It is important to communicate expectations clearly to the child and have consistent consequences for both positive and negative behaviors. While it is a good idea to correct or discipline a child who is not listening, there are certain forms of “toughness” that are hurtful and should be avoided. Never intimidate or shame a child into compliance. While these methods may seem to work, in the long run they teach the child a very different lesson: that hurting others is an acceptable means of getting what you want. Instead, set firm and predictable limits and reinforce them as necessary. Criticize the behavior (“It’s wrong to hit!”), and not the person (“You are a bad boy!”). Build on the child’s strengths whenever possible.

If you’re in a situation with your child and you’re not sure how to proceed, ask yourself “Am I doing this for the child’s benefit or my own?”

Get help when you need it, and give yourself a time-out if you feel like you’re at risk of losing control.  Tough love can be true love, when used carefully.