Select a story
to read

The Freedom in Surrender

House of Prema  - Tough-Love Parenting

We’d been friends with Maureen for just eighteen months or so and were aware that she was bringing up her two boys with little help from the ex-husband. On the evening that she came for dinner with the twelve-year-old, Frank, she was looking tired and unhappy as if the weight of the world had finally caught up with her. Normally Maureen was bubbly and happy, brushing over life’s difficulties with an easy-going positivity, but tonight she was down and, after we’d finished our meal, the tears started to flow.

She would shake her head as if trying to make the unhappiness disappear, and then apologise again for ‘spoiling’ our evening with her misery. After a few reassurances on our part and just a little prompting, a sorry tale emerged of a tender-hearted woman who was being taken advantage of by those she loved.


    First in line was the 21 year-old, Peter who, although unemployed, was not looking for work, did not pay her any board from his welfare cheque, and stayed in his room all day and night playing intrusively-loud ‘life-sucks’ music. He did not lift a finger to help around the house, not even doing his own washing and ironing, and spoke to his mother and younger brother as if they were a nuisance in his life.

    This part of the story rushed out of her in a flood of pent-up feeling and was capped off with her complaining, “Why is it just me who does all the loving? Where is my love? Why is he so angry and nasty to me? He’s even worse than his father.”

    Unable to answer her question at that moment, we turned to young Frank who’d been sitting quietly throughout all of this outpouring with his head hanging down, occasionally putting his arm around his mother to comfort her. His face was soft and concerned, the voice gentle. We asked him, “What about you, Frank? Do you help your Mum?” He lowered his eyes as if embarrassed and Maureen chipped in, “Oh, Frank is good. He even brings me a cup of tea sometimes when I’m unhappy.”

    Not really convinced, I (Ron) asked Frank, in a gentle, non-threatening way, “Do you tidy your own room?” “No, Mum does that.” I raised my eyebrows as if surprised and went on, “Do you do any of the housework – washing up after meals, sweeping, any of the washing and ironing?”  Frank was again looking uncomfortable as he replied, “I put away the dishes sometimes.” “Anything else?” Occasionally he took in the washing off the clothes line; and that was it.

    Not wanting to involve the young lad in further ‘grown-up’ talk, Su turned the topic to other matters – mutual friends, outings and so on – and soon Frank wandered into the adjoining lounge-room where I could see him lying on the floor ‘reading’ a book. I got the impression that he wanted to listen in on our talking, that he knew something was in the wind and didn’t want to be the last to know.

    Su and I were obviously in accord as to what needed to be said to Maureen. But how to say it? There was some denial in her of the real extent of her dilemma, as evidenced by her being quick to reassure us that only Peter and her ex-husband were the demons, and not the younger one. There was one more pained exclamation, “I can’t go on. I come home from work and work starts all over again. I can’t give more love than I already do.”

    At this I said, “No, it can’t go on. And there is a way out of this, but it could be uncomfortable for you. Should we speak frankly? We can see what is going on now and we’d like to help, but we don’t want to be intrusive and tell you how to run your life.”

    “No, No. Go on,” she urged, “I need all the help I can get. This can’t go on. It is enough!” So what follows is the gist of what we said to Maureen, with Su and I giving those uniquely different man-woman perspectives yet pressing the same point home:

     Your loving is very generous, sweet and tender. You do all of these beautiful loving things for your children and yet they just use you; one even abuses you. How could this be?

    Maureen, you’ve got to learn to love in a different way. You’ve made your children into ‘cripples’; you’ve crippled them with too much love. Imagine how Peter feels: he’s twenty-one but he can’t do anything for himself; he hasn’t even got the courage to go out and look for a job, and he’s so ashamed of himself he has to retreat to his room. No wonder he is angry and disrespectful – by doing everything for him you’ve been saying, in effect, “You are such a poor weak person and you are incapable of doing anything for yourself so I’d better do it for you.”

    And what about Frank? Do you want him to grow up to be like Peter when he is twenty-one? Because he will, you can bet on that. He is showing signs of it already, although he’s still very sweet to you. But he’ll begin to resent you too because you are taking away his confidence, his self-reliance, his joy of accomplishment, that wonderful feeling of being able to stand on his own feet. You don’t want that, and it’s not too late to change.

    Peter and Frank are both good boys and you have so much love in you. But you need to start using ‘tough love’.

    What is ‘tough love’? Well, Mahatma Gandhi was once asked, “What is the secret of good parenting?” and his reply was, “You have to be willing to run the risk that your children will hate you.”

    You’ve been avoiding using tough love, the same as you did with your ex-husband all of those years you were together – you turned yourself inside out in your efforts to get him to love you and treat you with respect and finally he left you, shouting insults all the way.

    So, dear Maureen. We love you and this is what we think you should do: when you get home tonight, ask Peter if you can have a little talk. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer – you have to act now, quickly. Say to him something like this: “Peter, I love you too much to turn you into a cripple. From now on I’m not going to do your washing, and you have to pay your way. You eat with us or you don’t eat at all, and the music has to be down low so that I can’t hear it. You have to do this and this and this around the house. I love you but I’ve been doing too much for you. I don’t want to ever treat you again as if you are weak and helpless.  So, you’ve got until morning to think this over.  If you agree to all of my house rules, then you are welcome to stay; if not, you’ll have to be out of here within two weeks. Whatever you do, I’ll love you forever.”

    And, dear Maureen, then you have to take young Frank aside and say pretty much the same thing, except for the moving-out part. Tell him that you love him too much to go on training him to be a ‘cripple’; that you don’t want him to end up like Peter.

    The two of them headed for home and we didn’t hear from Maureen for a few days. Then she rang Su with the exciting news: she’d had the talk with both boys and the effect had been nothing short of miraculous. Peter had changed immediately and become friendly and loving; he’d agreed to all of her conditions for living in the house; he no longer played his negative music, and he’d already applied for three part-time jobs.

    Within two months he was working fifty hours a week, and living in his own rented apartment. Six months later he had a job across the seas in USA.

    Frank too had changed. Even before she started telling him how her love was moving into a new dimension he said, “I know, Mum. I don’t want to be a cripple either.” And from then on he became an asset in the house, like his older brother.

    Returning home from work was now a pleasant and rewarding experience. “I’m so proud of my boys,” Maureen said for the first time.  “I can see them growing in confidence and enthusiasm for life every day.”

    We trust you enjoyed the story.

    Until next time;
    With our special love,

    Ron and Su
    At House of Prema

    Sources for Follow-up:

    The book ‘Parachutes for Parents’ by Bobbie Sandoz-Merrill is mostly for dealing with younger children, but also has good ideas for teenagers.

    Self Esteem: This is one of our Self Help Therapy CD sets which could be helpful for parents who don’t value themselves enough to risk using ‘tough love’.

    A good web page to click on to is:  This is one of the better sites to give you more of an understanding of ‘tough love parenting’. Many of the others are confusing and misleading.

    Another good web site is the Positive Parenting Program developed by Professor Mathew Sanders and his colleagues at the University of Queensland in Australia.  This is an evidence based parenting program with over 25 years of research into family dynamics or       

    With love,
    Ron and Su Farmer

     click here for word doc of this article