Tough Love–not just the greatest show in the history of VH1

17 08 2011

People love to simplify complicated problems. Too much unemployment? Um, clearly our president is an idiot. You’re in your 20s and single? You must have never heard of speed dating. The kids you social work are misbehaving? Break out the tough love.

Tough love. It’s what I’m always hearing my clients need. You see, I’m told by people who have never met these kids, that the problem isn’t that they’re not getting enough love and assurance. It’s that they’re coddled. Spoiled, really. Until someone is willing to really make those kids, or parents, face some consequences, things are never going to change.

And it sounds great. It’s kind of hard to argue with. I think it was popularized by Sally Jesse and Maury, who spent much of the 90s marching wild pre-teens across their stages, having them sass their parents and the audience, and then sending them off with a “drill sargeant” (who I maintain was just a body builder in fatigues) to be screamed at. Sometimes they even left the premises for a few hours and ran through tires. At the end of the day, they were fixed. Forever. Problem solved.

Something tells me they didn’t do too much follow up.

The thing about “tough love” in its many incarnations–boot camp, scared straight, locking kids out when they miss curfew, having large men with questionable qualifications yell at them on day time talk shows–is that they’re satisfying. This kid thinks she can swear at me, ignore my rules, embarass me in front of other people? I’ll show her! He thinks he’s got it bad here? Wait until he hears those prison doors lock behind him at Scared Straight!

I see it with one particularly overwhelmed parent I work with. Her twelve year old daughter is being a real pain in the ass. She’s ungrateful, she won’t do chores, and she’s got quite a mouth on her. So mom is trying her best to be “tough.” The problem, she thinks, is that she was too much of a friend to her daughter. (We’re off to a good start.) So she needs to work on setting some boundaries and establishing herself as a parent. (We are so on the right track! This is awesome.) Therefore, mom doesn’t speak to her daughter for days at a time and is refusing to buy her school supplies. (Abort! Abort! This has veered horribly off track!)

Withholding necessities, including love, is not an acceptable punishment. I’d like to skywrite this all over. Mostly over the Bronx, because that’s my catchment area. What exactly will your kid be working for? You being a little bit less of a dick? It’s really not much incentive.

All right then, what about boot camps, or scared straight? I think a lot of people would be shocked to hear how many parents want these programs for their kids. I get asked about them constantly. One of my thirteen year olds was arrested for fighting recently, and so impressed the police officers with her attempts to pick open her handcuffs with a bobby pin, as well as her knowledge of swear words, that they instantly signed her up for Scared Straight. (I’m so proud.)

For anyone unfamiliar, Scared Straight is a program that brings at-risk youth into adult prisons, has prisoners yell at them, allows them to experience life in cells, to scare them…straight. Show them potential consequences, see what they could become.

The problem is, there’s no data to prove that these programs work. Another problem is, who is going to pay for this? The city won’t. You have a much better chance of getting your child shipped off to a residential treatment center.

Wearing uniforms in school, having to call adults, “ma’am” and “sir,” also tend to sound pretty good. People like the look of these things. But again, there’s no hard data. People act like this is common sense, but nothing is proven. Essentially, it looks good. And that’s not the best reason to create policy. (Possibly it’s the worst.)

This also extends to adults. So many of my clients have had their benefits cut off, because they supposedly missed some appointment. The purpose of the appointment is essentially to show the client the importance of keeping appointments. One family is in the process of being moved to a far-away, extremely undesirable shelter, because the mother missed curfew too many times.

I firmly believe that if city agencies could get away with smacking people on the nose with newspaper, they would do it.

I’m also told that I should just be more honest with people. Have the balls to tell them, hey, you’re being a bad parent. And then work with them on improving their parenting over the course of the next year. That should totally work, right?

Very recently, I both read and saw The Help. (If you haven’t already done so, I really suggest it.) One of the maids asks her employer for a $75 loan, to help send her twin boys to college. The employer refuses, saying that good Christians don’t give handouts to the able-bodied, and that the maid will learn from this experience.

Did I mention that this employer was a real bitch?

I get it. People need consequences. Kids especially. And I want to hand them out, especially when I’m constantly being told that I need to understand people–understand why they hit their children, why he abandoned his family, why she refuses to take responsibility for her life. I can understand the reasons, but at some point there aren’t excuses. But telling someone they’re a bad mother, cutting off their benefits, shipping them off to brat camp, is about you feeling good about yourself. Hell yeah, I told her. And where are we now?

I can’t say that I know what will work. I know enough to realize that there isn’t one answer for everyone. I think most people need family counseling, mentoring programs, school issues to be addressed, as well as early (as possible) interventions. Tough love will probably work for some people. But acting like there’s a one size fits all solution just shows ignorance of reality.

Reality is much messier. With room for actual love.




2 responses

29 08 2011

i’m with you. i hear this all the time in chicago. those kids growing up in subsidized housing with parents hustling to get by are just sooooo spoiled. heck, people say that about babies all the time. “he’s only crying because he’s spoiled and trying to manipulate me.” mind you, “he” is only 8 months old and has no way to communicate that he needs a bottle/clean diaper/cuddling to calm him down than to cry. oof.

but i recently was sent to a very interesting training on the Circle of Security. i swear i’m not a paid endorser of their program, just a fan. their website gives a taste of the program: it was developed to work with teen parents in the northwest but has since been adjusted to work in other communities too. i find the whole theory very interesting. we all do reflect or “become” our parents and, if they couldn’t provide us a stable circle of security when we were kids, it’s doubtful that we’ll just naturally be supportive parents. anyway…it helps find a compassionate way to think about why we do what we do, even if it’s obviously f-ed up. good luck!

31 08 2011

I just had that conversation with someone, about babies being “spoiled.” She was asking if it was all right to let a newborn “cry it out.” I told her it wouldn’t kill the kid for a few minutes, but it’s also not going to teach the child patience or anything. You’re totally right, infants cry to meet a need. If it’s a two year old, then we’ll talk. If I could get the message across that you can’t discipline a baby, I’d be happy and feel like I’ve done my job.

Thanks for the program recommendation, I’ll look into it. And thanks for reading!

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