Does Tough Love Parenting Work?

My parents never sugar-coated anything growing up – like, ever. Both are straight shooters and subscribe to the theory that honesty is the best policy. Therefore, even as a child I was given ‘tough love parenting’ when something, whether it be the neatness of my room or the results of my spelling test, was not up-to-par. Ultimately, my parent’s brutal honesty motivated me, but at times it did a number on my self-esteem.

Despite the fact that many of today’s adults grew up in tough love households, there has been a recent shift in parenting and classroom strategies towards the “everyone gets a trophy” methodology. My brother and I are eight years apart in age, and my mother swears that in those eight years this shift has been monumental. For example, my eighth grade award ceremony lasted an hour and a half, with the top five students being recognized. Meanwhile, my brother’s lasted for almost three and a half hours with every student receiving an award at some point. Both eighth grade classes were the same size. While this approach avoids damaging students’ self-esteem, many argue it does not prepare students for reality. As my mother frankly puts it, “not everyone can be the best.”

What the Research Says on Parenting

The discussion over how tough to be on students seems to be a double-edged sword. On one side, honest parenting can provide students with realistic expectations but sometimes at the expense of self-worth and esteem. Meanwhile, the “A for effort” approach buffers students’ view of themselves but at the price of self-delusion. The debate is a fairly new one with limited research supporting either side.tough love parenting

The most comprehensive study done on the topic looked at 9,000 families in the UK to discover the long-term effects of different parenting styles. The study found that children’s upbringing had a profound effect on social skills later in life. Those children with “tough love” parents were twice as likely to develop empathy, resiliency in the face of difficulty, will-power, and control over their emotions. The study states that, “Confident, skillful parents adopting a ‘tough love’ approach to parenting, balancing warmth with discipline, seem to be most effective in terms of generating these key character capabilities.” The principal author of the report, Jen Lexmond added, “far from a ‘soft’ skill, character is integral to our future success and wellbeing.”

Opponents of tough love parenting call it “bullying parenting.” Studies have shown that children who grow up in households with an authoritarian parenting style in place often struggle with self-esteem, and aggression, and are less mature than their peers. However, there is a fine line between tough love and bullying parenting and even Lexmond agrees that there is a time when parents need to be empathetic with their children. Her report concludes that children who are most successful in the world grow up with a mixture of tough love and warmth.