Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
I was looking for lead pennies in the change drawer grandpa kept at the front of his grocery store when Chuck hurled his massive bulk through the front door. Chuck’s body wouldn’t let him come in gently. His misshapen feet forced him to lean forward at a tilt that propelled him quickly and precariously across the floor until his cane eventually brought him to a halt.
“A pack of Luckies!” Chuck shouted to my grandfather who, having heard Chuck’s rumbling arrival, was now standing behind the counter. The two men exchanged friendly banter as grandpa rang up twenty-three cents on the cash register and handed Chuck two cents in change. I watched as Chuck gingerly leaned on the counter for support, rifled through his right front pocket, pulled out a wooden match, dragged it across the back of the cash register, and then put the flame to one of the cigarettes he had just purchased.
I liked Chuck. He was always cheerful and, even though I was only a kid, he treated me like a real person. I felt sorry for him though. His feet were horribly turned in and you could tell that it took a great deal of effort, accompanied by a lot of pain, just for him to get around. I had no idea what had happened to him, but had long ago learned it wasn’t something I should ask him directly.
Nevertheless, we did talk. Whenever I ran into Chuck at my grandpa’s grocery store or around the neighborhood, we discussed baseball. We were both fans. On this particular day, as Chuck puffed on his cigarette, we chatted about Dizzy Dean and what a cracker jack announcer he was.
“He hit the ball nine miles,” I shouted in my best Dizzy Dean voice. “Four and a half up and four and a half down!” Then the two of us laughed. It was nice having a real conversation with an adult, even though I was only seven.
“What happened to Chuck?” I asked my mom over the canned tamales we had for dinner that evening. “Why can’t he walk like everyone else?”
“I’m afraid it was his mother’s fault,” Mom responded.
“Melba!” my father inserted—unhappy with what he thought was an attack on Chuck’s mother. Dad had no patience with speaking ill of others.
“Well, it’s true!” Mom said. “Chuck was born with his feet turned in. The doctor prescribed special shoes that would eventually correct the problem. But every time she put on the shoes, little Chucky would whine or cry. They were terribly uncomfortable. His mom couldn’t bear to see him suffer, so one day she simply stopped making him put on those shoes. Now Chuck is a grown man and he’ll never walk normally. It’s his mom’s fault because she gave in to his complaints.”
This was my first encounter with the concept of “tough love.” I could see Mom’s point, but couldn’t totally grasp the idea. It had too many facets for my young mind.
Now, insisting that someone else do the hard thing in the short-run in order to provide a benefit over the long-run—why, that’s easy. When we’re not actually in someone else’s skin, we know with certainty that, given the chance, we’d act thoughtfully and logically—even if it were hard. We’d insist that little Chucky wear his corrective shoes. It’s easy to make such a claim when you’ve never actually held him in your arms, heard his whimpering, or stared into his eyes.
To her credit, Mom demanded that she herself administer that same tough love when called for. It wasn’t long until I discovered this firsthand. As I moseyed home from school a couple of days later, I ran into “Red-headed Rodney” Axleby, the eight-year-old boy who lived just up the hill on the way to our house. Red-headed Rodney asked me to come play with him. I explained that I had to go straight home from school or I’d get in serious trouble with my mom. Rodney didn’t care about our silly rules and since he was bigger than me, he told me he’d beat me up if I didn’t stay and play.
An hour and a half later, when I finally arrived home, Mom was standing on the porch with her arms folded. This wasn’t going to go well for me.
“Go cut a switch,” Mom insisted as she handed me a knife.
This was new. I had to cut the switch that she’d use to punish me and it wasn’t even my fault. What was the world coming to? A few minutes later, I returned with a switch small enough to not hurt much but not so small as to anger my mother further. She immediately put me across her knees.
“But Mom,” I cried. “Rodney made me play with him. I wanted to come home on time. Honest. But Mom . . .”
Swat! Mom wasn’t taking excuses. She also wasn’t taking any satisfaction from the experience. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see tears slowly running down her cheeks. Mother never used a switch on me again (although as the years unfolded she did find plenty of other ways to discipline me). I also was never late coming home from school again.
Decades later, as I drove my eighty-year-old mother to the market and happened to catch a glimpse of what looked like the adult version of Red-headed Rodney in the rearview mirror, the memory of that switching came to mind.
“Hey!” I accused. “How come when I was just a little kid and I came home late from school because Red-headed Rodney made me stay and play with him, you punished me? It wasn’t my fault!”
“I hated doing that,” Mom explained.
“So why did you do it?”
“Five days a week you walked home from school all by yourself, a full mile and a half, down a road that was filled with all kinds of temptations and dangers. I knew if I let you stop and play with friends, skip rocks on the pond, chase water-skippers and the like—you’d never get home on time and who knows what would happen to you.”
“Plus you had a very inventive mind,” Mom continued. “If I accepted your explanation that a bully forced you to stay and play, you’d have ten more reasons for being late the next day and twenty more the next. I hated spanking you that day. If I had done what I wanted, I would have taken you into my arms. But I did what I thought was best for you.”
Mom understood tough love.
My partner once sat on the plane next to a fellow who had just given a speech on the threats to the modern family. “What’s the biggest threat?” my partner asked.
“Distance,” the fellow replied. “In today’s mobile society, grandparents often live far away from their grandkids.”
“And why’s that a threat to the family?” my partner asked.
“Because it’s a grandparent’s job to give unconditional love. Kids need people who dote over them, no matter what, and grandparents are perfect for the job.”
My one living grandfather (the one who owned the grocery store) knew all about unconditional love. He thought the sun rose and set on me. I could tell by the look on his face. I’ve tried to be equally admiring of my own grandchildren, plus, I’ve done my best to be just as loving to the neighbor kids when they drop by. Everyone needs an occasional dose of undiluted adoration from someone who doesn’t also punish them. And you know what? I’m up to the task.
But now, as I think of the many faces of love, my mind turns to the tears running down my mother’s cheeks that day. I don’t know if spanking me was the right thing to do. I’m certainly not advocating corporal punishment. But I do know she was doing what she thought was right, even though it hurt her.
So Mom, for Mother’s Day this year, let me say this: thanks for loving and adoring me when I did the right thing. And equally important, thanks for being tough when I didn’t.