Family & Parenting: Tough Love & Discipline Prove Best Practice

Posted at 22:12pm on 23rd November 2009

Bereavement comes in various guises, chief of which is the grief and loss caused by death. But losing a child to drugs has its own grieving process. And it was in recognition of this that I wrote my bereavement poem, Weep For A While.

In my article last week, titled, British Law Undermines Parental Authority I reproduced part of an interview I did at the end of my book, A Painful Post Mortem, which looks, among other things, at parental bereavement and ways of coping with the loss of a child. Today, I want to look at the next part of that interview, particularly as it ties in with recent reports on research done by an organisation named Demos.


It seems that the diktats on tough love, which abounded when my daughter started her downward spiral into drugs – the inspiration for my novel, in which the characters, Claire and Mark, look back over their daughter’s life – have now been debunked. When it comes to family and parenting, it seems that tough love and discipline may, once again, be fashionable. As you can see, it's something I've advocated for a while. In this part of the interview, I begin by responding to the question ‘so if legislation is ineffective, how do you see the answer?


A The ethos of the Welfare State – like many good things – has been abused, so that what we have, now, is a culture of dependency and blame. Parents like Mark and Claire, and teachers like those who reprimanded Katya for bad behaviour, have been robbed of their authority, their right to discipline the children in their care. Discipline, in effect, has become a dirty word. What we have to do is to start again: to create a society where self-discipline, a work ethic, and ownership of responsibility are perceived as desirable qualities. Qualities which are not inherent in the human race, but which have to be taught from the cradle and throughout childhood, and reinforced in adolescence and young adulthood.

Q It might sound a bit Victorian to some people, to be talking of discipline.

A Quite! You only have to look at the number of TV programmes there are on child-rearing and boot-camp for adolescents to see how confused we’ve become about the merit and method of teaching self-discipline. By muddling cause and effect, rights and responsibility, we’ve left a whole generation with no satisfactory pattern for living a meaningful life. Personally, I find it helpful to think of self-control – i.e. discipline – in terms of practising selection, rather than abstinence. Learning to say ‘no’ to one option leaves you free to choose another. For instance, the TV programme The Choir showed, very movingly, the benefits of disciplining yourself to show up for rehearsals instead of roaming the streets or playing computer games. Making that choice meant the youngsters had a chance to go to China or The Royal Albert Hall to compete against other choirs. What those kids gained was not simply a skill, or even a trip abroad, but a huge pride in their achievement; a mutual respect for each other, and a sense of self-worth.

In the book, Katya has been taught self-discipline, but what she’s witnessed at home hasn’t been entirely in accord with that ethic. For instance, the rows between her parents; her father’s drinking habits and, later, her mother’s religious hypocrisy. But there’s a paradox. Because the turning point in Katya’s life comes only when Claire stops trying to make Katya accept responsibility for her predicament (by pointing out that using drugs to escape from the unhappiness at home was the wrong choice) and makes herself accountable for her failings as an adult and a parent. When she asks, weeping, for Katya’s forgiveness, Katya responds – for the first time – by accepting responsibility for her own destructive behaviour, and absolving her mother from fault. Only then is Katya able to take the first crucial step towards helping herself to make the right choices.


Q You don’t honestly believe that by using these methods we could wipe out drug addiction and crime?

A Because we’re human, there will always be Claires and Marks and Katyas making wrong choices. But I don’t think that criminalising drug addicts is the answer. To a rebellious teenager with low self-esteem, like Katya, taking on ‘the establishment’ is a huge fillip. It’s at this point that we need systems in place to support, correct, guide and help those concerned. To give them a second chance.

Q You mean counselling – that sort of thing? But wouldn’t it be prohibitively expensive?

A Preventative measures would be far more cost-effective than what we do now. At the moment we’re simply picking up the pieces; dealing with the aftermath. And that’s very costly, financially and emotionally. There are charitable organisations – I’ve listed some at the end of this page – which exist to educate the young about the dangers of drug addiction before they start; others that aim to help addicts to give up their habit. Both have their place. But it shouldn’t be left to charity. Government should be involved. The huge sums spent in locking up drug-users would, in my opinion, be better spent in providing alternatives for them.

NEXT TIME: I’ll set out the basis for practising tough love.

Links to Helpful Organisations in the UK:

  • Care For The Family: nationwide education, advice and support
  • Narcotics Anonymous: nationwide group support for addicts
  • Families Anonymous: nationwide group support for the families of addicts
  • Betel of Britain: Birmingham, Nottingham, Watford, Ireland: offers help to ‘restore homeless and substance-dependent people to productive independent lifestyles.’

© Mel Menzies - All Rights Reserved

Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV.

All proceeds from Mel’s latest novel, A Painful Post Mortem, are for charities benefiting children worldwide. Buy a copy here and help raise cash for children like Rachel, who, at 13 is mother to 6 kids orphaned by AIDS, or this project, drug-proofing teenagers in the UK

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