In Grace Metalious’ novel, Peyton Place, one character, Leslie Harrington, was kind of a “dictator” over the town. He owned the mills, the only place of employment for most of the town’s people and he also owned the bank where everyone had his account and mortgage. This position gave him a great deal of economic power which led to political power. Another character, Seth Buswell, wanted to take him on. But Leslie always won. “Seth…said that the people would soon tire of Leslie’s dictatorial methods, but in this he was wrong for Leslie did not dictate, he bargained.”
Most people don’t understand what a great role bargaining and negotiation plays in power. Naked, brute force is exercised much less frequently. It has the weakness that keeping up with such methods requires enormous effort. People find loopholes in the system and circumvent that which they can’t challenge. I’m thinking of another novel, Hunger Games, where the heroine, Katniss, would regularly slip into forbidden territory guarded by an electrical fence. She discovered that the powers that were didn’t want to pay for that much electricity and often left it off. Even this totalitarian society on the Hunger Games depended on popular approval to stay in power.
Tough Love, a system whereby mostly middle-class parents sought to regain control over their wayward teens seemed to use naked power to force their children to obey and do what the parents wanted. Their method was about forcing consequences on their teens. If the consequences were severe enough, they could force their kids to “straighten up and fly right” no matter how repugnant that was to the kids.
What these parents did wasn’t really new or revolutionary. Society has always imposed a power structure on those it would control. The reigns of power could be held loosely or tightly. B.F. Skinner, the father of behaviorism, liked to use the term “behavioral engineering.” Control was achieved by means of reinforcement. There were two kinds of reinforcement: positive or negative. Skinner was a firm believer in the power of positive reinforcement, which he once referred to as “the power of love,” in Walden Two (1948, New York). The society which existed when tough love came onto the scene was based largely on the positive kind of reinforcement. People strove for reward and jumped through the right hoops, for the most part, to get the goodies society doled out. This was true of teenagers as well as adults.
In the ’60’s, a lot of people rebelled against the behavioral engineering that was in place. Teens and young adults, especially, began thinking outside the box. They started taking drugs that were not the approved kind (alcohol and tobacco). They dropped out of the “rat race” and formed counter-cultures, communes where different values were practiced. They changed their appearance as a visible sign that they were not on board with the mainstream form of programming. Long hair, beards, grannie dresses and “trucking boots” made the hippies stand out in a way that defied the accepted structure. Others, stood against the political structure, studying Marx and other forms of seriously revolutionary ideology. Women also challenged their role in society.
Society was, in part, tolerant with the new trends but also felt, in part, threatened. During the years characterized by Reaganism, a reaction to all this rebellion developed in the working and middle-class public. They missed their hold on their kids and wanted to reassert their power. This is where tough love came in. Kids were not about to relinquish the freedom and autonomy (their own kind of power) that easily. Tough love was a strategy to force them. The purpose of this blog post is to examine the degree in which their strategy consisted of naked force and to which it involved negotiation.
Parents make rules. When kids break the rules, parents usually punish the kids some way. By obeying the rules, kids usually manage to get treated better. Sure the parents are getting the kids to act a certain way that the parents want. But the kids are also getting the parents to do what they want by acting “good.” It’s a trade. Any behavior that is conditional involves a trade. Manipulation involves getting the best deal. Convincing parents that you are “good” because you love them and think they know best is likely to win you the best deal. It takes time to really get them to think that. The kid that’s always been good will be the most trusted. On the other hand, a prodigal child can gain many points due to shear gratitude in such a drastic change.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The term “tough love” is manipulative. It’s obvious that being “tough” with someone is a form of coercion. It’s “behave or else.” But the word “love” after “tough” makes it sound like it’s really all for the kid’s own good. Google defines love as, “an intense feeling of deep affection.” To love obviously implies the wish for the object’s well-being. So locking your child out of his house, letting him languish in jail rather than taking him home, ignoring him on holidays, giving away all his possessions (all things recommended by the Tough Love program) are really intended for his benefit, no matter how great the cognitive dissonance. By calling it “love,” parents are deflecting the hostility their actions might otherwise arouse. By acting in concert with a group, they are gathering power. Naturally, parents already have more power than their children. They own the house the kid lives in. They have the money and social standing. The kids, on the other hand, have emotional power in most cases. Most parents do feel strong emotional ties with their kids. After all, they made them and raised them. The more one does for someone, the more one is likely to love. Kids do well to use that bond long before estrangement ever reaches the level where the parent will turn to an organization like Tough Love for support.
The “survivor” blogs on the web usually involve adult children who are estranged from their parents or people who have been hurt in a love relationship. Their most frequent remedy is “no contact.” If someone is really serious about totally severing a relationship completely and absolutely, the manipulation and trade that have gone on in the past are at an end. You don’t know what is happening with the other person. You can’t affect each other. Of course, enforcing no contact can be difficult. There are people who know bother you and the other. They can try to bring about a reconciliation. The person who doesn’t want to be cut-off can do lots of things to sabotage the goal of no-contact. And the person who declares “no contact” might have a hidden agenda of his/her own in which the relationship goes on but he/she wins strategically. But that’s negotiation for you.