We all want our kids to be strong, to have the strength to endure tough times, and to be able to rise to any challenges in life.
How do you toughen up a child correctly without breaking their spirit?
Let’s take a look at what science says about raising tough kids.
Why Do Parents Want To Toughen Up Their Kids
We like the word “tough” because it sounds, well, tough.
From grade school, we learn that the opposite of tough is fragile or weak.
No one likes to be fragile or weak.
So we want to be tough.
We want to use tough love parenting because it sounds like it should make our children tough.
Toughening up children makes them strong. That makes sense. Does it?
But what we really want is for our children to be mentally strong enough to handle adversity in life. Parents want their children to persevere and bounce back from hardship instead of falling apart.
This is the kind of “tough” we want.
But there’s a better term for it…. we want our children to be resilient, not just appear tough.
How To Build A Strong Car (Kid)
Think about building a car.
Car manufacturers and engineers spend lots of time and resources to improve car designs from generation to generation.
Besides performance and vanity, the most important part of designing a new car is to ensure it can protect the driver and passengers inside, especially in car accidents.
So we want strong cars.
Does it mean that the engineers keep building stronger and stronger car structures and frames?
Well, yes, they do… partially.
But the other part and one of the most important parts in building a strong car is actually creating a crumple zone, a part of the car that can crumple and absorb energy from an impact to protect the occupants in a car crash.
Auto safety has come a long way in the past century.
We no longer focus on only building strong exteriors. We don’t just want the car to look intact after a crash. We also want the people inside to be safe and sound.
The same principle applies to raising kids. We shouldn’t just focus on how tough they act on the outside. We want them to be mentally strong and be able to pick themselves up no matter how hard it is.
How To Raise A Strong Kid
From resilience research, we know that one of the most important resilience factors is having a warm, close connection with an adult (usually the parent).
Authoritative parents are warm and responsive to a child’s emotional needs. They naturally create close relationships with their children.
On the other hand, authoritarian parents who are cold and non-responsive to their kids’ emotional needs do not usually enjoy such close connections with their children.
So contrary to conventional wisdom, tough love parenting does not create tough kids. Even worse, it usually results in mean kids1.
A study was performed in Israel where 18-year-old men must serve in mandatory military service. It was found that male adolescents who grew up in a non-nurturing environment coped and adapted worse in the tough military scenery than those who grew up in a nurturing household2Turning Tantrums Into Triumphs
A strong child doesn’t have to act tough all the time. They can cry and get emotional, too (remember crumple zone?)
A child expressing emotions is not being soft or a wimp.
They are just being human.
When parents allow their children to show emotion and help them learn to regulate it, kids have better emotional regulation skills, which will protect them and help them weather tough times.
Besides, emotional repression has been shown to do more harm than good3.
What Kind Of “Tough” Do We Want In Our Kids
Ok, so having resilience means a child is strong inside despite occasionally showing negative emotions.
But we don’t want our children to break down at every challenge.
So, we still want to have tough kids, but a different type of toughness.
What does the word “tough” mean?
Physically, one can become tough by doing exercises such as weightlifting.
You start with a 5-pound or 10-pound weight.
Then 20 pounds, 30 pounds, gradually increase to build up your muscle strength.
You don’t start with 100 pounds or a weight you cannot withstand at first.
You don’t ask someone to throw a 100-pound weight at you.
You also don’t want someone to be mean to you for being unable to lift a 100-pound weight on the first day.
As you train and lift heavier and heavier weights, you want encouragement and recognition along the way.
Physical toughness is about diligently practicing, building tolerance, and increasing muscle strength to lift heavy weights.
How To Toughen Up A Child
We are not talking about weightlifting anymore, but it’s the same.
You start with something small, something the child can handle4.
Then you gradually increase the level of difficulty.
Over time, they struggle less, build up a higher tolerance to adversities, get back up after failure, and attain a greater ability to solve problems even in harsh situations.
True toughening up is
- Letting children struggle at times when they can reasonably handle a situation themselves instead of swooping in and doing it for them,
- Teaching children how to handle more and more difficult situations and allowing them to practice in a safe environment,
- Being supportive when their children fail and cheering them on as they overcome one difficulty after another in life.
What Does Tough Love Mean
Unfortunately, most parents do not harden up a child in this way.
When authoritarian parents say tough love, they usually mean
- They will push a child into difficult situations, whether the child is developmentally ready to handle them or not,
- They are unkind if the child fails.
- They are callous toward the child’s suffering.
- They are rude towards their child or don’t treat them with respect.
- They believe being nurturing and supportive will create a weak child.
There is no LOVE in that kind of tough love.
Why do those parents toughen up children that way?
Sometimes, it’s because we have this image of a buff guy walking around being loud, is never defeated, and seems “tough” on the outside, as portrayed in silly movies.
We thought that was tough.
Sometimes, it’s because we think we’re offering practice for our children as they will eventually encounter plenty of cruelty and harshness in the real world. We want to expose our children to that kind of environment now so they won’t be unprepared.
The intention is good, although the method is wrong.
But sometimes, it’s because parents don’t want to respect or be nice to their children and use “toughening” as an excuse.
These are usually mean people, to begin with.
They can be nice to other grownups for the most part, but they are very capable of being mean if they don’t like you, even if you’re a grownup.
Toughening up their children is usually not the real intention of these people.
So, parents use tough love for various reasons, some good but some not so good.
What Is Real Toughness
Real toughness is having the tenacity and the strong will to overcome adversities and the ability to be still kind and caring in the face of hardship.
True toughness is being strong inside and mentally, not just acting tough outside.
That should be the kind of toughness we want our children to develop.
As shown in the research above, toughening up a child cannot make them tough.
Being nurturing and supportive parents to our kids can.
A firm and kind parent can raise a much stronger child than a mean and cruel parent can.
Final Thoughts On Toughening Up Your Child
There is nothing wrong with wanting to raise strong, resilient children, but make sure we are after the right kind of tough, i.e., mentally tough.
- 1.Knafo A. Authoritarians, the Next Generation: Values and Bullying Among Adolescent Children of Authoritarian Fathers. Analyses Soc Iss & Publ Pol. December 2003:199-204. doi:10.1111/j.1530-2415.2003.00026.x
- 2.Mayseless O, Scharf M, Sholt M. From Authoritative Parenting Practices to an Authoritarian Context: Exploring the Person-Environment Fit. J Research on Adolescence. December 2003:427-456. doi:10.1046/j.1532-7795.2003.01304002.x
- 3.Wenzlaff RM, Eisenberg AR. Parental Restrictiveness of Negative Emotions: Sowing the Seeds of Thought Suppression. Psychological Inquiry. October 1998:310-313. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0904_15
- 4.Brendtro LK, Longhurst JE. The Resilient Brain. Reclaiming Children & Youth. 2005;14(1):52-60. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ713676.