Sneaky, manipulative, covert bullies try to force us into difficult, all-or-none choices.  They figure we won’t make the hard choice; we’ll choose them instead.  Don’t accept the choices they present to us. Don’t give them control of how to look at things. For example: Tim’s first wife had died 20 years ago and he’d been happily married to Jennifer for 15 years.  She’d tried to be a good step-mother to Tim’s daughter and son, despite hatred and intense provocation, especially from Tim’s daughter, Coral.

Coral was now 28.  She’d harassed, abused and bullied Jennifer all during her upbringing.  Two years ago she’d even slapped Jennifer in the face.  Coral’s excuse was always that she was still suffering because her mother had died, because Jennifer didn’t give her everything she wanted and because it was Tim’s fault that he wouldn’t defend her.

Actually, Tim had been riddled with guilt and, although he’d pleaded with Coral to be nicer to Jennifer and to himself, he’d never enforced any consequences that mattered to Coral.  In fact, he’d trained Coral to believe that if she was nasty and negative, and threw temper tantrums long enough, he’d relent and give her what she wanted.

Jennifer had always felt like a second-class citizen, lower on Tim’s priority list than Coral.  Tim always excused Coral by saying that she was young and still suffering from her mother’s early death.  He excused his tolerating Coral’s behavior, his not protecting Jennifer by saying that eventually, if he loved and forgave Coral enough, she’d come around.  He didn’t want Coral to feel unloved.

Jennifer thought Tim simply avoided conflict with his daughter because she’d never be reasonable, apologize or compromise.  He gave Coral control because Jennifer was reasonable and understanding, so he could more easily ask her to give in.

Finally Coral had the leverage she wanted.  She gave birth to Tim’s only grandchild.  Then she laid down the law.  He’d have to choose: either her and his grandson or his wife.  If he chose Jennifer, he’d never see his grandson and Coral would bad-mouth him to everyone.  She’d also turn his grandson against him.

There are many other examples in which bullies below the radar try to force these difficult choices on us:

  • New husbands or wives who try to force spouses into choosing between them or the kids from a previous marriage.  It’s especially difficult on the parents if the biological kids are going through a troubled time and spreading their unhappiness around.
  • Toxic parents who want us to choose between them or our spouse.

In all these examples, a bully presents us with a difficult choice: them or someone else we love.  In all these examples, we know the truth we’ve been trying to avoid acknowledging: someone we love is bullying us.  They’re trying to beat us into submission in order to get what they want.  We also know the difficult truth: if we give in to this blackmail, it’ll never end and the price will keep increasing.

So what can we do?

In all these examples, the same process opens the door to the rich and grand future we yearn for:

  1. Accept that we’ll never get what we want if we give in to blackmail. Accept that the blackmailer wants to control our lives – they want to tell us what’s right and what we must do; or else.  Accept that we’ll never change these narcissistic predators by begging, bribery, peace-making, the Golden Rule or unconditional love.  Tim had to accept that although he loved his daughter, he didn’t like her and he dreaded any interaction with her.
  2. Decide what behavior we must have and what we will tolerate in our personal space. Forget about the name of the relationship and focus on the behavior. Set high standards for how people have to behave in order to be invited into our space.  What values are more important than which others?  What’s the life we want to live, given the givens that other people try to force on us?
  3. See the choice for what it really is.  Tim finally saw that the choice was not between his daughter or his wife; it was between being beaten and controlled by his daughter or his life. In order to have the life he yearned for, he had to choose to be a person worthy of that life.  He had to have the courage of his deepest desires.
  4. Protect our personal environment from pollution, even by those we love.  That meant that Tim had to act with courage and determination to defend his personal space from any toxic polluter, even from his daughter and from the weakest, most needy, most cowardly part of him.

By choosing the life he wanted, which he shared with Jennifer, Tim chose the possibility of a wonderful life.  He and Jennifer started doing things they’d always wanted to.  They stopped wasting their time thinking about Coral.  Tim stopped being depressed and riddled with shame and guilt.  They started being happy.

But what about Tim’s broken heart because he couldn’t see his grandson? There’s no way around that.  Tim’s daughter was adamant: she wouldn’t let him see his grandson.  However, we must remember that we can never appease predators and vampires.

But eventually, Coral and her husband divorced and her husband, who had finally seen how Coral operated but was no longer afraid of her, let Tim and Jennifer bond with his grandson.  Eventually Coral needed money and Tim had to decide if he wanted to put her on a pay-for-play plan.  Should he give her a little money each time he and Jennifer saw his grandson?

For some examples of different tactics, see, “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids,” available fastest from this web site.

Since all tactics depend on the situation, expert coaching by phone or Skype helps.  We can design a plan that fits you and your situation.  And build your will and skill to carry it out effectively.

Stopping bullies, whether overt, covert or cyberbullying, and especially stopping self-bullying, requires time, effort, courage, determination and perseverance – grit. It’s easy to lose heart along the way, but we must not give into fear, discouragement, despair, defeat, loss of hope or depression.  We must not listen to negative self-talk, or give in to the self-flagellation of shame or guilt, or pay attention to the voices who are convinced we’ll lose.

Instead, we need two crucial things to become effective in stopping bullying.

From deep in our guts, we need to rally our spirits and keep them high.

  1. Our lives and lives in history and fiction give us many examples.  Our task is to build a treasure trove of examples and models who will inspire us when we falter; who will keep us from becoming passive victims.
  2. They may be personal memories of times we’ve surprised ourselves with courage, strength, fortitude and skill.
  3. They may be the examples of family members, teachers, priests, ministers, friends.  I always think of my mother’s mother, who walked across Europe when she was 16 in order to come to America – barefoot.  I’m inspired by her example.  If she could do it – with no cell phone, wireless tablet, social security, health or unemployment insurance – and not a word of English, how can I be less determined?  How can I succumb to fear or despair?
  4. They may be people in history or the news.  Think of Joan of Arc or the women who walked across America along side covered wagons or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who escaped from Somalia.  Think of the men at Valley Forge or the Battle of Britain who kept going even though everyone “knew” they didn’t have a chance.  Think of George Washington and Winston Churchill refusing to admit defeat.
  5. Many movies and books come to a dramatic moment when the heroes can chose to give up or to continue on, whether they win or lose.  For example, in the last “Matrix” movie, Mr. Smith is defeating Neo.  He keeps calling him Mr. Anderson and trying to sap his will and strength by taunting him with, “Why do you keep fighting.  You know you can’t win.”  Finally, in agony and desperation, Neo says, “Because I choose to!”

There it is.  Because we choose to.  That’s the beginning and end of it.  Keep choosing to resist bullies; keep choosing to resist the self-bullying and the perfectionism that would discourage us and sap our will and strengthSimply choose to fight on, whether or not we really think we can win.  Hope or will: choose which ever reason feels better or choose both reasons.  But choose to keep on keeping on.

We need helpers to lift us out of the pit of despair; who will march on together with us.

  1. We usually need help to remind us to keep on when we might otherwise give up.
  2. Family, friends and even strangers can sometimes say the right words or make helpful gestures.  When abusive, bullies seem unstoppable or our self-bullying seems overwhelming, our guardian angels can encourage us to keep our spirits strong and stand with us to keep us fighting.  They can keep us from defeat, depression and suicide.
  3. Sometimes they’re the gestures of famous people who inspire us.  Because I grew up in Brooklyn at just the right time, I remember Peewee Reese, from Louisville, Kentucky, putting his arm around Jackie Robinson’s shoulder to let Jackie and the world know that Peewee was not a bystander.  He was a witness for what was right, standing with him.
  4. Sometimes fictional characters remind us of people being lifted and supported. In “The Lord of the Rings,” all the characters except Gandalf and Aragon have moments when they despair and are ready to give up to seemingly inevitable defeat by the forces of evil.  And someone encourages them to keep fighting, because we must be an example for future generations and, also, we never know what will happen if we keep fighting.  There are thousands of other examples.

We need to build:

  1. An inner world of those models who will inspire us by saying the right words when we need them.
  2. A community of deep and sturdy friends who will inspire us to remain strong and dedicated.

They don’t have to make anything okay.  But what they do in the darkest times is to show that there is light and they throw a life line.

Sometimes we may act immediately and firmly to stop bullies.  At other times we hold back while keeping an intense fire burning in our guts, waiting for the right moment to act.  But that’s our choice of tactics, not the acts of a defeated soul.

As Winston Churchill said, “Never give in, never give in, never give in.”

Then we have a chance to succeed.

For some examples, see the case studies in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” available fastest from this web site.

Since all tactics depend on the situation, expert coaching by phone or Skype helps.  We can design a plan that fits you and your situation.  And build your will and skill to carry it out effectively.

Everyone has moments that matter: moments when our life can go in either direction; moments when we can choose the strength to soar to heaven or the weakness to fall into hell.  You know, those moments in which everything gets absolutely quiet and the air seems to pulse and throb with the power and weight of a choice that will change our life.  What will we do?  Which path will we choose?  What will our life become? All bullies, all targets and all witnesses have those moments when the rest of their lives hang in the balance.  Will they stop bullying?  Will they stop being victims of bullies or of their own self-bullying?  Will they give up in defeat and despair or will they forge ahead, no matter the consequences?

These are the moments when, if we have the “Will,” we can will ourselves into wonderful futures.

Charles M. Blow reminded me of the moments of truth that I’ve seen in the lives of all the bullies and also all the targets I’ve known.  He wrote a wonderful, deep, heart-felt column in the New York Times, “The Bleakness of the Bullied.”

He describes his own experience when he was eight, the subject of “relentless teasing and bullying from all directions – classmates as well as extended family.”  In a pit of despair, he contemplated suicide, only to be heartened when a song, often sung by his mother, leapt to his mind, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

He knew he had “to be brave and patient, that this was not to be my last night.”

Notice the “Will.” Charles was not going to be a victim any more.  Somehow he’d resist, he’d grow, he’d survive and thrive.

Every target of bullying I’ve ever coached had a similar moment in their childhood or in our work together: A moment when they faced the bleakness of a future of continuing to be a victim or, alternatively, the brightness of standing up and fighting back in some way.  In that moment, they each responded to that choice with a great surge of Will, power and energy.  They fanned the spark in their heart into a fierce flame that warmed, strengthened and sustained them.

Once their Will took over their actions, despite a little anxiety, the rest was straightforward.

They would not give in to bullies, predators and abusers.  They would not give in to their self-bullying, negative self-talk, anxiety, stress, fear, panic and despair.  They would not succumb to self-doubt.  They would not let their self-confidence and self-esteem be eroded or destroyedThey would not be defeated.

They would keep that flame alive by daring to protect and defend themselves; by taking the risk of creating a brilliant and wonderful future for themselves, no matter the opinions of their oppressors or the cost to the old, destructive patterns they had been mired in or the people they were related to.

In “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids,” available fastest from this web site, you can read about the moment I had.

Their action plans were different depending on their circumstances but they had the same Will and they learned the same skills.

I’ve seen the same moment of truth with bullies.

One former bully told me of a moment when he was about nine and was the biggest, toughest angriest kid in his class.  He had thought he was simply doing what he had to do to make his place in the world.  Then, a principal hauled him into his office, sat him down and told him, in so many words, that he was a bully and he had to stop or he’d be thrown out of school.  He was too vicious, nasty and brutal to be allowed to continue harassing and tormenting the kids he was victimizing.

The boy was stunned.  He’d never thought of himself as a bully, as vicious and nasty.  And he certainly didn’t want to be thrown out of school.  In that moment his heart broke open and he vowed never to be a bully again, even if he was the biggest kid in the room.

That principal was great because he confronted the situation and acted firmly and effectively, even though the boy’s response might have been dangerous for his career.  He was not a cowardly, do-nothing principal.

Why was that bully seeing me?  He wanted to learn skills to negotiate his adult life without reverting to bullying in order to get his way.  He didn’t want to be a bullying spouse, co-worker or boss.   He didn’t want to be a bullying parent.

What has been your experience?

In all cases, success requires two things of us:

  1. The Will – determination, strength, courage and perseverance – grit.
  2. The skills to succeed.

Expert coaching by phone or Skype helps.  We can design a plan that fits you and your situation.  And build your will and skill to carry it out effectively.

Many people still feel like children when their parents boss, belittle, criticize, demean, blame, shame, bully, abuse and guilt-trip them.  The now-adult children still feel afraid, just like they did years ago. Angry, hostile, harassing, taunting parents still elicit the most primitive responses from their adult children – fight, flight or freeze.

How can these adult children free themselves from uncivil, impolite, nasty, manipulative or toxic parents who trample their boundaries?

The first step is always inner change.

Grown children need to mature into adults; to free ourselves from our childhood rules expectations and roles, from our fears and guilts.  In many ways it’s like shedding our old skin and growing one that fits better, or going into a cocoon and emerging as a butterfly.  It’s also just as natural.

We must make up our adult minds and hearts about what we will allow in our personal space.  Will we allow anyone to treat us like a child or simply treat us badly, or will be allow only our parents?  If our answer is “yes,” then we’ll probably be bullied, abused and terrorized by toxic parents for the rest of our lives.

That is a life choice many people make.  If we make it as an adult, not only as a beaten and submissive child, then it’s our choice and we get to live with it.

Many cultures consider that duty, obligation, respect and catering to parents – even vicious, abusive, bullies – as the most important duty of a good child.  It’s often called “filial piety.”  The principle is that we owe them our lives and must pay that debt as long as we live.  If we’re lucky, our children will pay their debt to us in the same way.  Some cultures have been organized around filial piety for thousands of years; it works and is self perpetuating.

However, the negative, bullying, abusive self-talk can corrode our spirit, sap our strength, ruin our focus and destroy our courage.  Looking at ourselves with demanding, toxic parents’ hostile eyes and talking to ourselves with their critical, perfectionistic, never-pleased voices can be demoralizing and debilitating.  Constant repetition of all our imperfections, mistakes, faults, failures and character flaws can lead us down a path toward isolation, depression and suicide.  Don’t go there.

In many ways, the Enlightenment in the West broke with that old tradition of filial piety championed a new way of being in the world.

As adults, we have the freedom and responsibility to make a different choice.  We have the moral right, permission and strength to stand against our parents and other people’s commandments.  We may and can and must choose for ourselves.

We can choose not to look over our shoulders and bow to our ancestors in fear and obedience.  Instead we can look ahead to our descendents with hope.  We can focus on taking care of our physical and spiritual children more than our parents.

The old way was to ask authorities, ask “What’s right?”  Now, we say, “That’s for us to decide.  We will follow the call of our Spirit, not the roles, beliefs and ideas we accepted when we were children.”  Of course, the Enlightenment’s way has its own downsides, but I’d rather have its upsides.

Maturing requires us to stand our Spirit’s ground, especially with our parents and extended family.  The longer we endure what we think of as mistreatment, the more our Spirits will shrivel and die, day-by-day. We must say some form of, “I love you but I’ll allow you in my space only if you treat me like I want to be treated, like you’d treat a person whose affections you’re trying to win.  I’m an adult; treat me nicely, kindly, respectfully and with fear that you might anger me.”

Often, we hold back because of our fears – fear of offending a moral code, fear of the condemnation of the “elders,” fear that we must think they’re evil, fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of going too far, fear of our bullying parent’s power and retaliation, fear of being on our own emotionally even if we’re already married and have our own children.  We hold back because of the Golden Rule.  We hold back because we accept their excuses and justifications.

If we hold back, their bullying and abuse will continue and escalate.  If we still try to beg, bribe, please and appease them in order to get them to treat us decently, they’ll keep thinking they’re right and safe in continuing to beat us into submission.  We’ll get what we’re willing to tolerate.

Instead, break the game.  We don’t have to be perfect before they have to change how they act.  We’re not mature until we simply tell them what we want and have rewards if they’re nice and consequences if they continue abusing us.

Many people think that before they act they should do psychoanalysis until their fear is gone.  That’s a seductive trap, especially because it means they don’t have to act.  That way makes us think we’re weak and cowardly – it fills us with anxiety, stress and self-recrimination; we lose confidence and self-esteem; we’re more easily subject to physical ailments; we isolate ourselves and become depressed.

Speaking up and acting to make our words real is the way of courage; it builds strength, confidence and power.  Those fine qualities are developed only by overcoming fear and strong challenges.  Don’t wait until we’re “ready” to act in a way that’s perfect.  Act now; act next time.  We don’t have to be perfect the first time. If we go too far or not far enough, accept no blame, shame or guilt.  Simply adjust so we get closer to the way we want next time…and the time after…and the time after.  There will be more “time after’s.”

Some parents will finally see the consequences of losing contact with us; they’ll change their behavior.  Some won’t.  They also have free will and choice.

We’re not mature until we make an adult decision about what we’ll allow in our personal space and then back up that decision with rewards and consequences.

Of course the predicament is the same for parents with abusive children, or even worse since the children can deny their parents contact with the grandchildren

Remember, all tactics depend on the situation – the people and the circumstances.  We must plan tactics that are appropriate to us and to the situation.  With expert coaching and consulting, we can become strong and skilled enough to overcome our fears and hesitations, and parents who won’t treat us right.

How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” contains the case studies of Carrie, Kathy, Doug, Jake and Ralph taking charge of themselves and stopping bullying parents and extended family members.  For more personalized coaching call me at 877-8Bullies (877-828-5543).

Sometimes toxic parents think they have us over a barrel even after we’ve grown up, gotten physically and financially independent, and started our own family.  They count on our loyalty to some ideal of “family” no matter how badly they treated and still treat us.  They count on our self-bullying and guilt.  They count on us still trying to jump through their hoops to win their love and approval...  They count on our fear that they’ll manipulate the rest of the family into thinking we’re ungrateful and bad.  And they often count on our enduring the verbal and emotional abuse so we can inherit our share of their fortune. Of course, I’m talking about those toxic parents who are still blaming everything on us and abusing us because “It’s your fault” or “You are selfish, ungrateful and don’t deserve any better” or “It’s your duty to do what they want in their old age.”  They’re the toxic parents who know our every weakness and sensitivity, and still poke them hard when they want too; still find fault with every little thing we do; still compare us unfavorably to someone else or to their standards; still criticize, belittle and harass us and our spouse and our children in public or they’re the sneaky ones who criticize, demean and denigrate us in private but pretend they love us in public so everyone thinks they’re wonderful, loving parents.

Of course, we’ve tried everything we can think of, but the negativity, harassment, criticism, blame, shame, bullying and abuse haven’t stopped.  We’ve tried to do exactly what they want, but it’s never enough.  We’ve apologized and pleaded with them to stop, but that just makes them act nastier.  We’ve gotten angry and threatened not to see them, but they broke down in such tears of distress we felt guilty or they blamed on us even more or they acted nice for a few minutes but, when we relaxed, they attacked us more about something different they didn’t like.

So what can we do now?

  1. For the sake of peace and quiet in the whole family, we could keep trying to endure the abuse while begging them to stop.  After all, we never know; if we only kept trying, if we only did enough, they might change.  Also, they might leave us in the will.  And it’d be our fault if we quit too soon.  Many people fly low until they have children and see their toxic parents either criticizing and emotionally abusing their children or belittling and criticizing them while being sweet to the grandchildren.
  2. We might continue objecting and arguing; enduring our frustration and anger.  Usually this tactic repeats endlessly and often spirals out of control.  Relentlessly toxic parents won’t admit they’re wrong and give up.  Eventually they’ll escalate and cut us out of the will.
  3. We might try withdrawing for a while; not seeing them, telling them we won’t return emails and calls, and then carrying through.  People usually shift from the first two tactics to this one when they see the effect of their toxic parents on their own children.  This tactic sometimes convinces nasty, mean, bullying parents that they’d better change their ways or they’ll lose contact with their grandchildren.  But the relentlessly toxic parents don’t care.  They’re sure they’re fine and they’re sure they’ll win if they push hard enough, like they’ve always won in the past.  So they don’t change and we go back to arguing or we give up or we finally respond more firmly.
  4. The next step is to withdraw for a long time, maybe forever – no contact.  It’s sad but we have to protect the family we’re creating from our own predatory parents.  It’s usually both scary and very exciting.  Most people, despite any guilt they feel, also feel a huge surge of relief, as if a giant weight or a fire-breathing dragon has been removed from their shoulders.  Our spouse and children may celebrate.  Get out of town, go on a vacation, turn the phones and email off.

What to expect and how to respond?

  1. They’ll attack when we withdraw.  Expect them to make angry calls and send hostile emails.  Save these on an external drive or a cheap recorder before deleting them.  They want to engage us, so do not engage endlessly and fruitlessly; no return calls or emails, no hateful or vindictive responses.  We’ve only gotten to this point because they haven’t changed after many approaches and warnings.  We might have to change our phone numbers to unlisted ones and change our email addresses.
  2. They’ll rally the extended family.  Prepare by making cue cards of what to say; no excuses or justifications.  Just tell the family what you said and did, and what you plan.  Ask them not to intervene.  Tell them we’d like to see them but only if our toxic parents are not present.  We’re sorry they’re caught in the middle but that’s life.  They do have to choose who to believe and what behavior to support.  Be prepared to withdraw from anyone who attacks or interferes.
  3. They’ll disinherit us.  When they can’t manipulate us through love, blame, shame and guilt, they’ll try greed.  If we don’t do what our toxic parents want right now, they’ll cut us out of the will.  Don’t be a slave to greed; it’s a deadly sin.  If we want to have a bully-free family life, we’ll have to make it on our own.  The real benefit is not merely ending the brutality, it’s the strength of character and the skills we gain when we make decisions for ourselves and chart our own course in the world.  We’ll end the negativity, stress, anxiety and depression usually caused by toxic parents.  We’ll develop the strength, courage, determination, perseverance and resilience we all need to make wonderful lives.  We’ll be able to express our passion and joy without cringing, waiting for the next blow to fall.
  4. We’ll have an empty space in our lives.  Even more than the empty physical space we’ll now have at the times when we used to get together with our toxic parents, we’ll have a huge mental and emotional space.  How many hours have we wasted thinking about our parents, worrying about the next episode, dreading what might happen next, agonizing over what to do.  We don’t have to do that any more.  Of course, being weaned from an old habit takes a little time.  We must be gentle with ourselves.  Focus on the freedom we now have.  Now we can think about the things we want to think about; not about pain and suffering, not about past failures.  Now we have space to bring into our lives people who will be part of the tribe of our heart and spirit.
  5. Our children will wonder why.  Tell the kids in a way that’s age appropriate.  Are we protecting them from the verbal abuse of their toxic grandparents or from lies that paint us as bad people?  They’ll want to know what’s going to stay the same.  Will they have fun, celebrate holidays, get presents, have extended family?

The most important lessons we offer our children are not through books and lectures.  Those are important, but the most important ones are the ones they see in our behavior when we’re models of behavior we want them to learn.

Be a model for them of someone who protects himself and them from anyone who would target them, even someone who’s close by blood.  Being close by behavior counts more than blood.  Show them not to be victimized even by blood relations.

Show them to how to be the hero of their lives.

With expert coaching and consulting, we can look at individual situations and plan tactics that are appropriate to us and to the situation.  We can overcome the voices of our fears and self-bullying.  We can overcome childhood rules to endure whatever bullying and abuse our toxic parents dish out simply because they’re our parents.  We can become strong and skilled enough to stop bullies in their tracks – even if those bullies are blood relatives. “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” has many examples of children and adults getting over their early training and freeing themselves from toxic relationships.  For more personalized coaching call me at 877-8Bullies (877-828-5543).

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AuthorBen Leichtling
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Amy Chua’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” has gotten enough publicity to make her book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” a best seller.  She’s clear that she uses the term “Chinese Mother” to represent a certain way of treating children that may be found in people from many, many cultures. If many people adopt her style of parenting in order to make their children play at Carnegie Hall that would be a shame.  Amy Chua is an abusive bully.

She beats her children into submission and claims that they’ll have great self-esteem as well as becoming successful in the competitive jungle of life because they can accomplish the very few things Ms. Chua thinks are important.

They also won’t suffer from anxiety, nightmares, negative self-talk and depression because they’ll be successful in her real world.  The bullying and beatings will make them as tough as nails.  They’ll wipe out your kids; you lazy, slacking, guilt-ridden, ambivalent, permissive American parents.

Some of her ideas and claims are:

  • “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it.  To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”
  • “Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight “As.”  Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best.”
  • “Western parents are extremely anxious about their children's self-esteem…Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches.  Chinese parents aren't.  They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.”
  • “Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them.  If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough.  That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child.”
  • “Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything.”
  • “Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences.”

Therefore, she proudly states that never allowed her daughters to:

  • “attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin.”

Why will some people take her seriously? People who think that American culture produces only losers – selfish, lazy, narcissistic, weak, slacker teenagers and adults who will never succeed – will be tempted to improve their children’s test scores acting like Ms. Chua did.  People who enjoy beating their children into submission will be tempted to use her ideas as a justification for dominating and abusing their children.  People who think that China is the next rising super-power and that today’s Chinese children will rule the world and our children won’t be strong and determined enough to stop them will be tempted to channel their children down Ms. Chua’s narrow track.

There’s a grain of sense in what she says, but that grain is covered by a mountain of brutality that will be successful in creating only slaves or another generation of bullying parents, not in creating fully human beings.

What’s wrong with Ms. Chua’s ideas?

  • She lives in a kill-or-be-killed world of desperate striving for the most material rewards of success.
  • She’s rigid, narrow, and all-or-none with only two possibilities.
  • She allows only a few criteria for success – Stanford or Yale, violin or piano, maybe ballet.  I assume only one or two acceptable careers like lawyer or professor.
  • She assumes that there are only totally slacking children (Americans) or totally successful children (with “Chinese Mothers”).  If you give children an inch, they’ll become complete failures.
  • She assumes that there’s only one way to get children to work and succeed.  Because no children want to work at the right subjects, you must beat them into submission physically, verbally and emotionally.
  • She thinks that the only way her children can be successful and happy and honor their parents is to be champions at her approved activities.
  • There’s almost no joy in their lives.  Yes, there’s a moment when her daughter masters a difficult two-handed exercise.  But the best that the rest of life holds is the thrill of victory and success at winning.  There’s no possibility for joy in doing activities that thrill your soul and uplift your spirit.

Ms. Chua has only one value – compete and defeat; win at any cost. This is a great and necessary value.  It has made our society the first world.  But if when the only value, when she ignores all the other equally great and necessary values she becomes inhuman – a barbarian, a torturer, no better than a Nazi or Communist or Fascist.

No wonder she’s aghast at all the personal attacks.  She may be a brilliant law professor and accomplished writer but she’s completely out of touch with the world’s great traditions championing other values like great character, individuality, liberty, self-determination, love, beauty, compassion, spirituality and human connection.  That’s why people take it so personally.  Ms. Chua is attacking our most cherished values; cherished for good reasons.  These values make us human in our most fundamental American, western ways.

Ms. Chua represents inhumanity justified by Darwin and Marx.  She represents a revival of B.F. Skinner’s way of raising his daughter in a “Skinner Box,” as if she was a pigeon.  When she grew up she sued him.

A better approach:

  • Have you observed your children individually and carefully?  One approach does not fit them all.
  • Which children need you to provide more structure and which will be dedicated and determined on their own?  Which children respond better when they’re encouraged and which respond better to having their imperfections pointed out?  This is where expert coaching is helpful to design approaches that fit you and each child.
  • What are your children passionate about so they become energetic and determined on their own?  Are following an artists path, playing the oboe, writing “silly” stories like “The Little Prince,” learning to program computers, studying bugs and strange sea creatures, mastering any sport, being a person who inspires others to be the best they can be, dedicating yourself to raising independent and creative children living rich and full lives, being a craftsman who makes great pianos or violins, coaching basketball teams at “minor schools” like University of Connecticut or UCLA to set winning-record streaks, being entrepreneurs like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, making movies, loving children and a thousand other endeavors worthwhile to you?  How can you encourage and nurture your child’s dedication and skill in those areas?
  • Character is critical.  All of the world’s great literature points to the deficiencies of social climbers, bureaucrats and people whose only focus is to win at all costs.  What would Ms. Chua have created if she could have gotten her hands on the children who became, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Dickens or Alexander Solzhenitsyn?  Or great figures in the world from Joan of Arc, Hildegard of Bingen and Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. or Aung San Suu Kyi, to name only five of thousands.
  • Don’t be a victim of your parents’ ideas about what constitutes success and how to achieve it.  You can give your children the tools of the mind, will and spirit and let them create their own lives that they’ll love.

By the way, Ayalet Waldman wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek response in the Wall Street Journal, “In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom.”  In part she defends her children’s choices and her catering to those choices.  In part she also defends her selfish desires to discourage her children when their activities would inconvenience her.  That’s not the answer either.

All of the poles in this discussion are the wrong places to be – being a wimpy parent or an uncaring, selfish parent or a brute.

Instead, find the fire in your children and feed that fire.  Help them become skillful and competent in areas that matter most to them.  Help them create a life that’s uniquely theirs, not one you think is proper or best for them.

Why do I say that Ms. Chua is abusive and a bully?  Let’s review – what do “Chinese Mothers” and bullies have in common.

  • Bullies and “Chinese Mothers” don’t care what you think or how much pain you feel.
  • Bullies and “Chinese Mothers” can do what they want to you and you’d better like it.
  • Bullies and “Chinese Mothers” are right and righteous.
  • Bullies and “Chinese Mothers” are the best because they’re the winners in life.
  • Control-freak bullies and “Chinese Mothers” beat you into submission for your own good.
  • Control-freak bullies and “Chinese Mothers” isolate you and make you dependent on them.

My conclusion is that if it looks like a bully, if it acts like a bully and if it feels like bullying then it’s a bully, even if it calls itself “Mommie Dearest.”

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AuthorBen Leichtling
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