For Christian parents wrestling with this question, the answer depends on the definition of “tough love.” Wikipedia describes it as “when someone treats another person harshly or sternly with the intent to help them in the long run,” while Dictionary.com offers this muted descriptor: “a mixture of toughness and warmth used in a relationship, especially with an adolescent.” Of course, true love must be defined Scripturally. So let’s compare the two.
Biblical Examples of Love
Often described as the love chapter of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13 gives a pretty exhaustive list of what true love is like. Verses 4-8 catalog the following attributes of this kind of love:
- Not envying
- Not prideful
- Not easily provoked
- Not pleased with sin or wrongdoing
- Pleased by truth
That list will certainly be difficult for anyone, but especially for parents of rebellious teens. Can a person be “stern” and consistent, while demonstrating this kind of love? Certainly. Can a parent be “harsh” in how she treats her teen, while still being kind and forbearing? Not really.
Difficult Extremes of Love
Throughout the Gospels, Christ is constantly challenging those who would point to the letter of the law as their frame of reference, when they want to shirk from their duty to love and forgive others. Far from eliminating traditional rules for how to deal with others, He raises the bar. In Matthew 5:43-44, He tells us to respond to those who treat us badly with love, blessing, goodness, and prayer. In Matthew 18:21-22, He lifts any limits on forgiveness. Romans 12:20 encourages putting actions to your love, and those actions are some of the ones we regularly do for our children: feeding them and caring for their thirst. Enabling negative, harmful, and especially illegal behaviors is not ultimately showing love, but even while putting restrictions or “tough love” in place, we can show kindness and love.
Real Evaluations of Love
One phrase that’s key in the “tough love” discussion describes the purpose behind what sometimes comes across as stern or even harsh treatment: “with the intent to help them in the long run.” As parents, we have to constantly examine our hearts regarding whether our perceived harshness is truly in our children’s best interests. Let’s face it: Sometimes, we just want a release. Our kids may even provoke us and “push us to the edge,” but we must remember that “Love is not easily provoked,” and even when self-control is difficult, “Love suffers long and is kind.” As parents, we’re commanded throughout Scripture not to provoke our children to anger, and there’s no tit-for-tat allowance that says if they provoke us, we’re free to ignore that biblical mandate.
So is tough love true, biblical love? It really depends on your definitions!