Disciplining children is an integral part of parenting. Without discipline, a child lacks necessary boundaries and an appreciation for consequences — indispensable tools for adult life. Nonetheless, all too often, well-intentioned discipline estranges children and, instead of prodding them in the right direction, steels their resolve to continue on their ill-chosen path. At what point is "tough love" too much?

To answer this question, first let us analyze the parent/child relationship dynamic, starting with the core of this powerful relationship. Why do parents love their children? As I am writing this article, my wife and sister-in-law are sitting beside me (both holding their little infants). In response to this question, my wife shrugged and At what point is "tough love" too much?said, "It's just natural." My sister-in-law was confused by the question. "You probably meant to ask, 'How is it that some people don't love their children?'"

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi defines "nature" as an event or phenomenon that occurs constantly. Nature isn't any more logical than the miraculous, but its repetitiveness dulls our senses to the extent that we can't imagine life otherwise. Why is it natural for parents to love their child no matter what? The real reason is because we are merely a reflection of G‑d; created in His image. And since G‑d unconditionally loves His children, we are programmed to feel and behave as such.

And following G‑d's example, our love for our children expresses itself in two primary forms. The most obvious expressions of love are embraces, kisses, gifts, and other forms of endearing behavior. Disciplinary actions also are motivated by love, perhaps an even deeper love than the obvious expressions of affection. We give gifts to distant relatives and casual acquaintances, but disciplinary measures are reserved for our children only. We shower praise liberally, but we reserve our well intentioned constructive criticism for those whom we really care about. We have to really love a person dearly in order to care enough to dispense tough love.

[The Israelites] came to Marah, but they could not drink waters from Marah because they were bitter ... The L-rd instructed [Moses] concerning a piece of wood, which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet. (Exodus 15:23-25).

They came to Marah

Nourishing, flowing water is a metaphor for kindness. On their way to receiving the Torah, the Israelites encountered "bitter waters." It was G‑d's kindness, but it did not express itself as such. Rather, it was a more profound level of love which expressed itself as hardships, adversity, and difficulty. Hardships, adversity, and difficulty which were intended to elevate the nation to a higher level, to reveal their latent powers, to mold them into a refined nation.

But they could not drink waters from Marah

It was G‑d's kindness, but it did not express itself as such.The Israelites couldn't drink the bitter waters. A child can become non-receptive to disciplinary actions for two reasons: a) The harshness of the measures are too much for the child to bear. b) He doesn't feel the love inherent in the actions.

Because they were bitter

The Israelites were too "bitter" and unrefined. They were not mature enough to appreciate the "waters" which lurked behind the bitter taste.

The L-rd instructed him concerning a piece of wood, which he cast into the water, and the water became sweet.

At this point G‑d realized that the bitter waters were counterproductive. If the child cannot bear the pain, or if the child cannot appreciate the love motivating the discipline, then it is time to sweeten the waters.

It is now time for us to turn to G‑d and say:

We believe that all Your actions stem from the infinite love You harbor for us. But it is simply too much for us to bear, and we do not feel the love you have cloaked in our nation's tortured history.

It is now time to sweeten the waters.