An alternative to “tough love”

“Tough love,” as I understand it, doesn’t serve our students. However, there are valuable aspects to the concept of tough love, and I want to offer an alternative way to talk and think about these concepts.

The concept of “tough love” doesn’t have a single definition, but its connotations are common enough that Rusul’s comments really struck a chord with me:

“Tough love,” to me, connotes a combination of caring and accountability, but that accountability has a tinge of “no excuses.” “Tough” implies that accountability needs to be absolute, and that accountability must necessarily be harsh, forced or adversarial. I find that “tough love” also comes with a built-in power dynamic – people rarely describe a relationship with an equal as “tough love.”

However, the core idea of “tough love” does resonate with me – caring and accountability is a great combination.  I want to offer a different way to talk about this combination that I believe serves our students better: unconditional positive regard for the person with conditional response to behavior or choices.
Unconditional positive regard means “I care about you, you have value, you don’t have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing is going to change my mind.” I expand on this concept a lot here:

Conditional response to the behavior or choices means: “I don’t have to agree with every choice you make, but I understand that a choice with negative consequences does not detract from your value as a human, and I will care about you no matter what choices you make. I will help you understand the consequences (positive, negative or neutral) of your choices, and if there are impacts on me, I will respond in an authentic way.”

Where tough love says: “you gotta get this done,” conditional response says: “looks like you haven’t done your work. Tell me why, we’ll work together, and I’ll tell you what you can expect if you miss your deadline.”

Where tough love is firm and “objective” and sometimes discipline-driven, unconditional positive regard with conditional response is person-centered, and responds with natural consequences. It’s not “anything goes,” but it also doesn’t rely on arbitrary rules or consequences. Rather, a conditional response is aligned with a person’s true impact on others.

Where tough love says: “I love you, but..” unconditional positive regard with conditional response says: “I care about you, and…”

Some of you may be using the phrase “tough love” to describe an approach more like unconditional positive regard with a conditional response to behavior/choices. Shifting our language (even though the latter is more of a mouthful!) will help us be more clear about our practice and align our talk with our walk.

Students benefit when we care about them and hold them accountable, but in ways that are truly person-centered and respond to the student’s need for clear expectations, and not our own need for control or compliance. Let’s unconditionally care for our students while we do the messy work of responding to the challenges, together.

3 thoughts on “An alternative to “tough love”

  1. As a student teacher myself who just completed my final field teaching practicum last week, I understand the importance of Unconditional Positive Regard. Although I never used the actual phrasing ‘I care about you….’, I think that they understood this.

    I say this because my most ‘ill-behaved’ students in the last couple days before I left, were behaving much more friendly to me. The leader of the pack (lol) of the bad-behaved ones actually told me on the last day “Miss you’re leaving, and I’ll cry”. I laughed, I was like “You’ll cry?”.

    I did see a big turnaround in another one who without fail, would just blurt out whatever he wanted to say in the middle of my talks / instructions / teaching. He got a prize from me on the last day as being the male student who showed the biggest change. When I was leaving, he asked me, “Miss, when will we see you again?” Awwwww.

    I’m saying all this to say that, even though they practically made me cry at times (I had to hold myself together not to) because they were so disobedient, and made me shout and hurt my throat, I continued to encourage them to be better individuals for their future’s sake. I think they understood this to mean that I care about them, and want the best for them.

    I might, in a future class, type out the full Regard statement, and hang it up in the classroom as a permanent affirmation for them.

    Thx u!

  2. One possible alternative to “tough love” may be “firm boundaries.” In my current job there are many situations where in facilitating a (hopefully) healthy group dynamic I step in and say I’m not willing to accept x behavior. I don’t always know what my specific response will be in advance, and my intention would be to influence client/student choice (an invitation, not a demand) by focusing on what’s in my control. For example, if a client isn’t practicing appropriate fire safety I may ask they follow expectations. If I’m met with resistance, I don’t have to manipulate/disempower. I can simply focus on things in my control, like dousing the fire. Something similar is true of self-harming behaviors.
    The larger question seems to be: What am I willing to accept behavior-wise and how am I willing to enforce/embody those boundaries? When I get clear on that, I know my own behaviors are coming from a place of care (for them and for myself).

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