How to Resist the “Toughen Up Trap”

Naughty KidThe family is a nurturing ground, not a training ground. When I hear parents say, “My job is to prepare him to deal with the real world. People out there aren’t going to care how he feels about what he has to do,” I hear a justification for traditional, authoritarian parenting, and I want to counter it to expose the moving parts.

This all-too-common argument about the responsibility of parents offers license to the threats, punishments, and blame that get dished out, and has forever been dished out, to ensure children’s compliance to what the parents want. When the adults in that family have been brought up under similar punitive tactics, those adults must justify the reasoning behind those tactics. To carry on with the same methods hated and dreaded by those adults as children, they must create a belief in their ultimate worth. “It’s for your own good.”

Mom Yelling

What good comes of authoritarian coercion? Answer: The continuation of this way of raising children. This is called generational trauma as patterns of parenting pass on through the generations and allow parents to continue irresponsible, disrespectful behavior in order to stop the “childish” behavior that is annoying, aggravating, and inconvenient.

I’ve got to “toughen him up” to deal with the real world, the bully bosses, the terrible events life hands out. But how does that toughening up get accomplished? By tearing down.

The family is not the place to train children to be tough so they’re ready for the big, bad world. It’s not like the military that trains adults to function in specific life and death scenarios. Living in a family, before launching independently into the world, is the place where one’s sense of self, trust, self-confidence, and motivation develop.

Mom and Son huggingThe launching of our young adults varies remarkably. Kids who feel confident and capable are best able to succeed in the training they get outside of home from colleges or trades. They come from families where they feel a sense of belonging—cared for, respected, and accepted. They neither think the world owes them privilege nor are they already beaten down by believing they are never good enough.

Nurture ChildrenThe goal of the family is to raise secure, confident children capable of leaving the nest and contributing to the greater society—and able to find their way in an unpredictable world. Giving them an unpredictable childhood where they never know when their parents are going to shout and punish is not what equips them for an unpredictable world. A child’s self-confidence is stripped away bit by bit when there is always fear of having what they care about taken away as a “consequence”.

“But life is full of consequences,” the argument goes. Yes, it is. But to clearly see ahead to the consequences of one’s actions, the child needs a critical, opinionated mind able to judge, negotiate, and think through the situation. This does not happen when “consequences” are doled out as punishment but when the child is engaged in solving the problem, heard and understood, and therefore truly held accountable.

The stronger one’s self-confidence (not bravado), the more able they are to withstand the knocks of life, perhaps fall, but get up again having learned from those knocks. This is the definition of resilience.

Mom yellingBut when those knocks come first from a parent, basic trust and belief in oneself is shattered. Without trust and self-confidence everything one does is in question. A shattered young adult is not strong enough to emerge from the family as an independent, capable member of society. As opposed to being “toughened up”, this individual is extremely vulnerable to being knocked down by the storms of life and not making it back up again.

When parents are ignorant of how to take responsibility for their behavior, children learn to take responsibility for what is not theirs. For instance, take Erin…

Erin was the type of child who easily did what she was told attempting to be who she thought she was supposed to be. She had a screamer and a victim for a mother and a random rager for a father. Erin has memories of her and her brother being chased by their father to catch and spank them. She never knew why she was in trouble, but she decided that if she did what was asked as much as possible, she would be fine. And she was. Until she left home, got a better education than either of her parents, got married and had a child.

Erin’s mother who had appeared proud of her, now did an about-face and criticized everything she did especially her parenting and saw Erin’s independence as an attack on her parenting. Her parents would only be happy if Erin remained in the same town and allowed her mother say over her granddaughter.

Erin’s ability to submit to her parents’ wishes and punitive tactics has left her in doubt and guilt over her life choices. Were her parents right, should she do as her mother told her, how could she know who was right? Erin has been left disabled to know and trust her own mind. She experiences enormous stress and spends way too much mental energy doubting herself and feeling incapable of managing her days.

Erin has not launched into an independent life toughened enough to weather any storm. She knows herself only as defined by what her parents reflected back to her—that she was right when she did what she was told, which translates to: Listen only to us, do not trust yourself, you should have no opinions that are not in sync with ours.

We want our children to find a way in life that fosters their potential. We don’t want to prepare them to deal with a boss who criticizes their efforts. When we do that, they will allow themselves to be criticized and fear not being good or strong or smart enough. We want them to create trusted relationships and work with people who respect them and their efforts. We want them to have the self-worth to steer clear of those who don’t.


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