I know why they call it tough love. Because it’s tougher on the mom than it is on the kid.
“Mom, I don’t like carrying my lunch bag in my backpack. It gets too heavy.” My fourth-grader enlightened me to this new preference as we were getting ready for school.
“Okay,” I said. “I usually put it in your backpack so you won’t forget it. But if you want to carry it separately, that’s fine.”
Fast forward 20 minutes to the school hallway. My daughter unzipped her backpack, pulled out a pink binder and her piano books, and gasped.
Heaven help me.
“You forgot your lunch.”
She nodded, looking up at me with wide, panicked eyes.
“Well, I guess you’re having hot lunch.”
“It’s sub sandwiches today. You like sub sandwiches.”
“But I wanted my cold lunch!”
“I know. So it’s too bad you left it at home.”
At that moment, I’m telling you part of me wanted to make the extra round trip back home just to deliver my daughter’s lunch bag. To be the hero who saves the day. To prevent the disappointment and animosity that was building in my sweet girl’s heart—toward her mother, that cruel and stubborn woman. I mean, come on, it was a minor mistake, forgetting her lunch bag. If I had a dollar for every time I left something at home, well, let’s just say I’d have enough money to hire a limo to pick up Happy Meals for the whole school.
Where is the grace?
Ah. Yes. Grace is one thing.
Negligence is another.
And effective parenting rests somewhere in the middle, I think.
“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
Let me be the first to say I error on the side of grace. I believe in grace-based parenting, and my husband and I establish our expectations, disciplinary actions and reward systems accordingly.
But a big part of raising kids in a grace-filled home involves loving our children as Jesus loves. And Jesus, while deeply forgiving, does not ignore our mistakes. He points them out and allows us to learn from them.
Consider the story in John chapter 4 about the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus asks her for a drink of water, they get to chatting, and then he calls her out on her less-than-holy lifestyle. He’s not angry. He’s not casting pity or shame. He’s just telling her something she already knows.
She forgot her lunch bag, so to speak.
But here’s the crazy part. What does Jesus do next? He doesn’t turn her in to the authorities for punishment (that’s the grace part). But he also doesn’t bless her decisions (the tough love part). He just lets his original offer stand—come to me.
“But whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
When our kids mess up, we have three choices. We can:
1. Scold them for messing up (which doesn’t help if they’re already feeling remorseful)
2. Rescue them from their own mistakes (which doesn’t help prevent them from making the same mistake again)
3. Empower them to learn from it (which ultimately helps build their godly character)
The lunch bag thing was definitely an empowerment opportunity. Short-term my daughter huffed into her classroom for the best hours of her day, mad at me for not making the problem go away—and that hurt my heart. But long-term I knew she’d be far better equipped to remember her lunch bag for the rest of the year if I allowed her to feel the pain of forgetting today.
And so it goes with the Christian life. I don’t know about you, but I’ve sure had some mess-up moments in the past few months, weeks, hours. I’m expecting God to swoop in and save the day—bring me my lunch bag, Lord!—but He hasn’t. I think He’s letting me discover my part in the mess I’ve made. And he’s inviting me to learn from it, to draw closer to Him, to drink the water from His well.
Tough love is tough to take. But it’s tougher to give. So if we struggle to allow our children to suffer natural consequences, imagine how it grieves the Lord to let us go through the same kind of suffering on a soul level. Yet it’s always for our good. Always.
“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Proverbs 3:11–12).
My daughter is loved. Therefore, she will eat hot lunch today. You and I are loved, too. So let’s swallow what God has allowed in our lives, knowing it’s somehow for our long-term benefit.
And tomorrow—I’m gonna pack a candy bar in that lunch bag. Suffering has its rewards.