Sometimes Love Means Having to be the Bad Guy

This post is part of our Love Symposium. An introduction to the symposium can be found here; all of the posts written for the symposium can be found here.

Trust is a foundational element of any strong relationship.  The healthy development of children requires that they have trust in the adults charged with their care.  But what does trust look like?  And how can it be developed?

In determining what trust looks like, I always find it important to differentiate between trust and fondness.  The former is confidence in the reliability of another.  The latter is deriving pleasure from interactions.  While trust can lead to fondness, fondness alone does not develop true trust.  Trust is difficult to find and develop, but once arrived at, it is harder to shake.  Fondness can be gained and lost at the drop of a hat.  With this in mind, I think it is important to evaluate the decisions we make when working with children and determine whether they are focused on developing trust or acquiring fondness.

One of the best ways to develop trust with children is through the implementation of clear and consistent limits.  While doing so can often be one of the least fun parts of working with children, it is also one of the most important things that we as teachers and parents do for our charges, and ultimately one of the most rewarding.  Put simply, limits demonstrate that we care and that we aren’t going to allow them to engage in behavior that is detrimental to their development, no matter how fun it might seem.  When we do this, we build trust.

This might mean saying no when saying yes would be easier.  It might mean following through on a consequence which they are not going to like – with their displeasure being expressed loudly and intensely.  It will certainly mean drawing their ire when you know with all of your mind and heart that you are doing the right thing.  Fortunately, it also means that your relationship with them will become that much stronger.  And later implementation of limits (when they involve far more daunting topics like driving privileges, dating, and curfews instead of bedtimes, healthy snacks, and toy purchases) will be easier, since the groundwork will have already been laid.  And, most importantly, it means that you become a person they can trust, a person they can rely on, a person whom they know they can count on through thick and thin to always be looking out for their best interests… a person they can love.  In the grand scheme of things, there are few things they will be fonder of than this.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

19 thoughts on “Sometimes Love Means Having to be the Bad Guy

  1. Reading this, my mind fills with the flashes I had as a young adult in my late teens, early 20’s that “I HAVE BEEN LIED TO!”

    About rock and roll, about alcohol, about marijuana, about sex. Well, yes, and about the age of the universe.

    Getting through those realizations were formative for my adult self… and I’m wondering what I might not question had I not gone through them.

    I shudder to think.

    Report

  2. Sometimes, even with adult love, we have to be the bad guy.

    I put my foot down about a decade ago with my husband’s drinking. He didn’t really seem like an alcoholic in the classic sense; none of the disruptive alcoholic behaviors we associate with the disease. But when he drank (and he’s a musician, he works in bars, and people supply the band amply,) he began having extreme personality change; he’s shy, and became extroverted, for instance. He would drink himself sick more and more often, losing the next day to it. And he reached a point where he’d have tremors the next day, until he had an afternoon cocktail. So I was the bad guy, and told him to quit, that I simply would not abide it anymore.

    And he did. He’s been sober for a long time, now.

    This in itself is not easy, either. We’re both very intense and focused people, and not all that great on casual conversation; maybe a little bit toward Asperger’s. Alcohol is a terrific social grease. And many of our friends are also musicians and probably alcoholics, and having us dry discomforts them.

    But we’ve also both managed to accomplish an incredible body of work in that decade, work that we would simply not have been able to do had we been drinking. I look at others our age (50’s), and see that their most productive years are behind them, and often, alcohol’s to blame.

    Report

    • I struggle with this when it comes to adults. Adults have a different agency from children. That said, I do think “tough love” is often warranted. The question would be how we enforce it. If your husband didn’t want to stop drinking, it would have been wrong for you to physically remove the drink from his hand unless there was imminent danger to himself or others (e.g., he was behind the wheel of a car). However, I would not hesitate to physically remove a pair of scissors from the hand of a child sprinting across the room. You could impose other consequences… “I can’t be with someone who treats himself, his life, me, and my life this way”… but they would almost certainly have to be of a different form than they would be with a child. Avoiding enablement would be more of the name of the game than would be outright prohibition.

      I remember advising my mom on this when my brother was making some sub-ideal life choices, many of which she disapproved of. “Mom… he’s 30. You can’t berate him into finding a career. What you can do is say he can’t continue to live at home rent free if he is going to bounce from job to job and quit the moment they get hard.”

      Report

      • You can’t berate him into finding a career.

        Ha! Let me introduce you to my parents. And I loped past 30 a while ago.

        I do get and acknowledge your point that adults should be treated like adults, but things are a bit different when the adult is your spouse. Surely some of this arms-length, I-respect-your-decisions-whatever-they-might-be attitude can be tempered or forgone when the adult is your spouse.

        Report

      • Oh, certainly. My wife does all sorts of things I disapprove of and which I actively seek to change in her. And she does the same with me. That is indeed part of loving someone… looking out for their own best interest, even when they aren’t. I just think there is a sliding scale on how much you can literally *force* someone to do something that roughly correlates with age. My son is 10-months-old. If I see him about to take a tumble, I can swoop in and pick him up. In fact, I need to do this because he lacks all sorts of things that would allow him to avoid the tumble himself. My response would be different if he were 5 or 15 or 25. That doesn’t mean I’d stand idly by. But I probably won’t be picking up the 25-year-old version of him.

        Report

  3. My trouble is in the mistakes. As my daughter grows older, she becomes more and more capable of surprising me. She is always actively searching for the limits by pushing them, and sometimes I don’t know where the actual limit is, so she may get slightly different responses from me at different times. Also, she remembers indulgences from when she was younger and less capable, and becomes furious when the limits tighten. She has a very strong desire to seem incapable around me because she knows that I will expect more of her as she proves herself capable.

    Eh, maybe this just sounds like venting, but I really am concerned that her constantly pushing against limits and against self-improvement is due to my inconsistency and poor memory (compared to hers).

    Report

    • “She has a very strong desire to seem incapable around me because she knows that I will expect more of her as she proves herself capable.”

      This is common. Some kids hide the ability to read from their parents because they fear it means the end of bedtime stories. I don’t know exactly how old your daughter is, but if she is in the 5-6-7 range, you could reason with her thusly: “I know you are able to put your shoes on by yourself. I also know you like when I help you because it means more time with Daddy. BUT… if you get your shoes on by yourself, then I’m able to finish washing the dishes while you do it. That means we have even more time together and we can spend it doing something funner than putting on shoes.”

      There are other approaches. You can playfully appeal to her vanity: “You can’t trick me! I know you know how to put your shoes on!”
      Or you can take a harder line: “I know you know how to put your shoes on so I’m not going to help you. You are going to sit here until you put them. If it’s time to leave for school and they still aren’t on, you’ll get in the car without them and put them on once you get there.”

      You can also employ these in conjunction, though need to be really thoughtful about doing so. And outside forces will also dictate.

      I also wouldn’t stress inconsistencies over time. You’re not perfect; no one is. And you operate in the “real world”. It is easy for me to do these things in school because I’m getting paid to do nothing other than attend to your child. You are often trying to do the same things I do but you’re also trying to get dinner on the table and the laundry done and the floor cleaned. So it is necessarily going to look different. But if you are treating her differently at 6 than you did at 3 and she is saying, “Hey… I want you to carry me like when I was 3,” you can simply explain to her that she isn’t 3 and you won’t treat her like a 3-year-old. But if she wants to insist on that, she gets the entire 3-year-old package… which means none of the privileges that three extra years on the planet have afforded her.

      If all else fails… noogies.

      Report

      • “This is common. Some kids hide the ability to read from their parents because they fear it means the end of bedtime stories.”

        I’ve seen this pattern with my stepdaughter. When she was younger she would let her grandmother cut up her food for her at their house even though she had been doing it for over a year at home. Same with having her hair washed in the sink (a big treat) or other things she should be able to do for herself. It is still going on at nearly 16. She will ‘forget’ to get herself a drink before dinner because she knows my wife will do it. It can be infuriating.

        Report

    • I really am concerned that her constantly pushing against limits and against self-improvement is due to my inconsistency and poor memory (compared to hers).

      From what you describe, I don’t think so. Rather, I she’s very aware of rules and how thinks work and who does what. If you’re so inclined, there’s a lot of testing the boundaries there. If you are relatively inconsistent as you work things out (but are then consistent), I don’t think that’s a problem, I think, instead, it demonstrates a willingness to work things out and to change when the worked-out-solution isn’t working.

      Also, she remembers indulgences from when she was younger and less capable, and becomes furious when the limits tighten. She has a very strong desire to seem incapable around me because she knows that I will expect more of her as she proves herself capable.

      Here, it’s important to reward her for doing more and for being independent; at the very least with appreciation of achieving something new and of being responsible, and where appropriate, recognition of the effort it took, especially if multiple tries were required. I think it’s really important to help children see that a failure at first, followed by repeated attempts, leads to improvement, and that this is the path to being good at something. There is no such thing as natural talent, there’s inclination and effort. Not not natural talent.

      Report

      • I think it’s really important to help children see that a failure at first, followed by repeated attempts, leads to improvement, and that this is the path to being good at something. There is no such thing as natural talent, there’s inclination and effort. Not not natural talent.

        We both try hard to remember to promote this idea to her. Everyone who spends a little bit of time with her inevitably says she’s “so beautiful” so we really praise her when she trys “hard even when something doesn’t work.” Things like that. But she doesn’t “like to do hard things. I like to do only easy things.” I think she’s just pushing my buttons, but there’s always the worry that it’s deeper. Parenting always comes with worry, I guess.

        Report

      • First, this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tag/how-to-talk-to-little-girls

        Second, my kids do that. How old is she? When kids are around five, they are suddenly conscious that other people have perceptions of them that might differ from their own self-perception. This can be terrifying for kids, because it means they are being judged. It can lead to a refusal to try new things for fear of failure. If you pickup the book “Yardsticks” which outlines some basic developmental milestones at each age, perfectionism is identified for 5-year-olds. That doesn’t mean she isn’t also pushing your buttons (limit testing is also a hallmark of that age). It is likely a confluence of things.

        When my students tell me they don’t like trying hard things, I tell them that doing hard things is how they learn. And that making mistakes is how they show they are trying new, different, and/or hard thing. I say point blank: “If everything you do is easy, it means you are only doing things you already know how to do. You’ll never learn that way.”

        I also tell parents that the sort of worrying you demonstrate is exactly why you shouldn’t worry all that much. The parents who don’t worry are the ones that scare me. The fact that you are noticing these things, thinking about these things, and planning responses to these things are ultimately going to serve you very well. You won’t bat 1.000, but you’re also not going to let major problems go unchecked.

        Report

      • Oh, those, “see the pretty little girl” comments really get me in a dander.

        First, I’d figure out a 100%-of-the-time response like, “Yes she is, and you should see how beautifully she learned to do ________; she really worked hard at that, and we’re so proud.” In other words, take compliments about what she is, and turn them to compliments and pride in what she does.

        It’s okay to be beautiful and pretty. We all love beautiful people about.

        But pretty fades and accomplish last a life time.

        Report

      • Second, my kids do that. How old is she? When kids are around five, they are suddenly conscious that other people have perceptions of them that might differ from their own self-perception. This can be terrifying for kids, because it means they are being judged.

        Isn’t this also about the time they realize the no, the parent cannot read my mind, and yes, I can lie, and I will lie (actually, usually fib in small ways) to figure this new revelation concerning the privacy of my own thoughts.

        Report

      • I’m actually about halfway through the chapter in “Nurture Shock” on children and lying. Really fascinating.
        et al.

        I should note that I’m talking a lot about what I would say, but obviously your behavior needs to support the underlying ideas. If you say that mistakes are an important part of the learning process but then head slap yourself and mutter, “I’m such an idiot,” when you buy the wrong yogurt, the latter is going to communicate much more than the former. If you’re doing that… stop. Immediately. It communicates that to make a mistake is to be an idiot. Children do not want to be idiots. Our broader society often does not support us in teaching them otherwise.

        Report

      • Great article, Kazzy, thanks. My daughter is definitely more focused on her looks than I would prefer, but I think it can be empowering for her to make decisions about what she wears. If she cares more about looking her best than worrying about unchangeable parts of her appearance, I think she’ll be OK.

        She’s four, but pretty mature for her age. She wants to be perfect, and failing that, she wants to appear to be infallible.

        It’s funny that you used shoes as an example, because her saying that she couldn’t put shoes on this morning (and every morning this week), despite ultimately being able to, was part of what I was thinking about with my initial comment. Anyway, thanks for your tips. I’ve heard most of them in theory, so your examples are helpful.

        Report

Comments are closed.