In that upper middle class world, the subject of tough love would come up rarely, but it was necessary when young people would make horrible choices. Drugs, underage sex, law-breaking for a thrill -- these weren't the norm, but they certainly happened, and it was important for parents to take a firm stand against such behavior. One of my sisters actually went to Juvenile Hall ever so briefly. The rules were clear and we (mostly) didn't break them. We did look forward to graduating or turning 18, whichever came first, that being the magic time when we could choose to move out of our parents' oh-so-restrictive cocoon.
What a different world we live in now. Kids start high school with every intention of graduating, but overcrowding, stress and anxiety disorders, and the lack of parental support due to both parents working, have all created a much more difficult path for the average high school student. Most of my kids' friends, now in their early 20s, don't know how to drive. Most families have a single car. More and more families are renting homes due to the unreachable cost of home ownership. Fewer young people pursue college, and why should they? Our society has become so complex that they cannot determine a career path in their teens anymore. Who knows what jobs will be in demand when they graduate? Not the traditional ones, for the most part. How deep into debt will they have to go before they qualify for a career that offers the chance to pay off that debt in their lifetimes, if they are able to land a job in their field at all? With the promise of a livable minimum wage soon, why should they waste those years on gaining skills, when it's likely they'll be able to earn $15 an hour soon for unskilled labor, the same rate many of their college-educated parents are finally earning after 20 years of experience?
The worlds of finance, social responsibility, civic engagement, upward mobility -- these are completely different critters than what my generation believed them to be. In this constantly changing, far more difficult world, who knows the proper use of tough love? Parents are telling their 18 year olds to get a job and pay rent or move out. My parents said that, and I moved out, no problem. Now, though, there's no place to go. I couldn't qualify to rent an apartment now -- how can my kids expect to? Stay in school or move out? Half the kids are suffering from stress disorders due to the over-complexity of our "civilization" and cannot cope in the very broken public school system. Support for the stress diseases is only beginning to be available. The lines between protecting and pushing are wide and blurry.
Tough love had its day, but I think that day has come and gone. Sure, there are exceptions. Some young people have no respect for house rules or parents' reasonable expectations, and those kids need extra support, extra firm boundaries, extra consequences for bad choices. Most young people, though, are trying. They're fighting a losing battle and can't see any light at the end of the massive black tunnel. They are stretched tauter than piano strings, and pushing them can more often cause them to snap rather than produce resounding music.
I vaguely remember a conversation or two about what the world might be like when we grew up. We never envisioned all this. It never occurred to anyone, back then, that we would destroy our children's health, not by our pollution as we expected, but by our amazing energy-saving inventions and the demands of high-tech. Mental health is one of the most prevalent medical problem in young adults now, along with risky behaviors like obesity, drug use, and lack of activity, all of which are directly related to a sense of helplessness or futility.
As families weaken, dinner tables dissolve, homework help becomes a social service instead of a parental responsibility, it takes a different kind of hand to parent young adults. We need a little less of the hand raised in a stop-right-there gesture, and more palms extended in a let-me-help attitude. More communication is essential -- so much more that most of us can't ever communicate enough, not in the crazy, pressure-filled, stress-ridden world we live in now.
Kicking kids out of the house isn't the answer. So many young people are on the streets because parents thought they were doing the right thing, just helping young people along in the battle of right vs. wrong. So what is the right thing? Challenge them to a game of basketball. Go for a long walk in the woods to talk out the problems. Tell kids over and over that they are good enough, that we love them, that there is hope. Say it so often that you feel like a broken record. (Records were those big, black CDs they had when we were young.) Say it more often than their own subconsciences are telling them everything is hopeless. This is the critical battle that faces parents now.