Tough Love or Love Tough?

by Michael Orange, Dean of Students

The Tough Love movement started in the 1970’s by a couple who ran out of options in dealing with the problematic, self-destructive behaviors in their children. This program stresses parental action, holding their children responsible for their own choices and behaviors. When their children were made to suffer the logical and natural consequences of their behavior, without being rescued by their well-meaning parents, they tended to mature and act more responsibly. All of this was done within the important context of active participation in support groups for the parents, (

In my 30+ years of working with children and families, I have known many parents who said that they were using the “tough love approach” in dealing with their children. However, my observation was that many, if not most, of these parents were not seeing the desired changes in their children. Admittedly, much of this was due to the fact that these parents were adopting the idea of ToughLove© without studying it, nor were they involved in the vital parental support network that is central to the organization’s approach.  Additionally, it often seemed that their approach was just “tough," without much “love” involved. It seemed that their children frequently resisted this approach, even growing worse in their reaction to their parents. I began to wonder if the emphasis was misplaced on being tough, apart from maintaining a loving relationship.

 Think of it like the food labeling rules of today. The next time you go food shopping, look at the labels on the packages. The ingredients are listed in order of content by weight/volume. The most prevalent ingredient is listed first, and the least prevalent is listed last. This is an important distinction, as we begin to consider our approach to parenting.

 I prefer to emphasize a “love tough” approach. Our Heavenly Father has taught us in his Word that, “We love because he first loved us," (1 John 4:19). He has made his great love for us evident, “…in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us," (Romans 5:8). This love of the Father is not void of consequence for the sinful choices of his children, because Hebrews 12:6 teaches “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

 I truly believe that when our homes are places immersed in unconditional love; when our children truly know that they are loved with an enduring commitment to what is best for them, they will accept parental discipline with less resistance and bitterness. They can bear the seed of instruction and correction, because the soil of the parent-child relationship has been prepared with love for them. They can be secure in knowing that their parents’ discipline is coming from hearts that are for them and with them, no matter what may come.

 So, the question is what ingredient comes first in your relationship with your children, especially when you are in the midst of conflict? Is love the most prevalent ingredient in your home and family, (remember that love is a verb). Or does toughness get the lion’s share of your approach to dealing with the challenges of the parent-child relationship? I encourage you to consider the Father’s love for you, as you ponder these questions. So love tough! Do the first well, without ignoring the need for the second. May the Lord strengthen you for the important work of parenting. The next generation is depending on it.