Monday, October 26, 2020

The Secret to Breaking the Ugly Habits of "Tough Love"



Long ago, I became acquainted a middle school teacher who came across as a smart, jolly guy. Talking with him in social circumstances, he gave me the impression that he was likely one of the more popular faculty members at his school: casual, hip, and funny. I was a new teacher back then and not knowing many male educators, I looked at him as a potential role model. One day, we were talking about handling difficult behaviors. I explained how I was working with children on some challenging issues. He put his hand on my back condescendingly as he informed me that "it gets a lot worse" in middle school. "If you could see what I deal with, you'd be a lot more firm in preschool. That's where we can nip it in the bud." Then he explained his approach to me, "Oh, I'm their best friend as long as things are going well, but the second they cross the line, I come down like a house of bricks."

I let our friendship cool after that. Maybe, I thought, middle schoolers really are that much different than preschoolers, but there was no way I would ever come down like a "house of bricks" on anyone, let alone the young children with whom I was entrusted. Not long after this, another friend, a child psychologist, told me about an eight-year-old boy he had seen for the first time because his parents were concerned about his behaviors. The boy came into his office for his getting-to-know-you appointment, took his seat, and declared, "I'm bad because I'm sad." As my friend said, "That kid saved his parents a lot of money."

If you listen to some people, maybe even most people, you would think that the leading theory for why children behave badly is that they need more "tough love," the idea being to treat kids harshly, sternly, or punitively "for their own good." This will, the theory goes, somehow scare them straight. There are lots of variations on this idea, ranging from assaulting children under the label of spanking to systematically restricting their freedom or taking away their "privileges" until the desired behavior or attitudes are achieved. It's a method not supported by science, of course, because the underlying cause of destructive behavior, as this insightful eight-year-old knew, is almost always sadness.

You can't "house of bricks" someone out of sadness. You can't punish it out of them. You might be able to frighten or shame someone enough that they refrain from bad behavior for a time, but since the sadness hasn't been addressed it will continue to come out destructively, perhaps turned inward, but destructive nevertheless. The therapist's job is to help patients discover the source of their sadness, which might be hidden under a hard shell of anger, especially with older children and adults who have had decades during which to suppress their emotions. Only then, only once the sadness is identified, can healing start to happen. Tough love will only add fear and shame to the already heavy burden of sadness.

As Oscar Wilde wrote, "The best way to make children good is to make them happy," which is such an obvious, common sense thing that I wonder how such toxic ideas like "tough love" ever come into existence. But we see this punitive mentally everywhere we look. It's so pervasive that children are even being policed by their teachers through their computers in this era of pandemic, with expulsion and even threats of arrest being applied to children (not to mention the petty day-to-day policing of being required to ask permission to use the toilet while in your own home). It's the same counterproductive "house of bricks" approach used in society at large. Just as black and brown Americans are far more likely to find themselves the victims of harsh policing, black and brown children are more than three times more likely to face harsh policing at school for the same behavior as white children. The tough love of policing can only make a person sad, afraid, and ashamed, emotions that always lead, ultimately, to destructive behavior. 

The secret to breaking the ugly habits of "tough love" is to listen, of course, to actually be their "best friend" without the conditional threat of a "house of bricks." I could even argue that listening is what actual love looks like. This is true for all people, but particularly for our youngest citizens. That middle school teacher was right about one thing, we can nip it in the bud, but only if we listen, only if we give children the opportunity to talk their way through to their sadness. Above all, that is the curriculum. Of course, we can never make another person happy as Wilde suggests, but when we listen, when we love, we empower our fellow humans to make themselves happy. From there, anything is possible.

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Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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