Following reviews of Paul Tough’s book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” Holly Finn brings in Cowboy Ethics and the Cowboy Code in her review in the Wall Street Journal, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”  She contrasts the Cowboy Code with many examples of poor character shown by students and their parents – lying, cheating, stealing and doing anything to get ahead at many of our most prestigious schools. Of course she’s right about character versus greed and success at any price.

Whether the Code comes from Jim Owen’s book, "Cowboy Ethics: What Wall Street Can Learn from the Code of the West" or from Ernest Morris’ “El Vaquero: The Cowboy Code,” the message is the same.  Character counts.  Character counts first and most.  Or, as said elsewhere, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

Some of the crucial traits of Cowboy Ethics and different Cowboy Codes are:

  1. Live each day with courage.
  2. Take pride in your work.
  3. Always finish what you start.
  4. Do what has to be done.
  5. Be tough, but fair.
  6. When you make a promise, keep it.
  7. Ride for the brand.
  8. Talk less and say more.
  9. Remember that some things aren't for sale.
  10. Know where to draw the line.
  11. A cowboy never takes unfair advantage - even of an enemy.
  12. A cowboy never betrays a trust.  He never goes back on his word.
  13. A cowboy always tells the truth.
  14. A cowboy is kind and gentle to small children, old folks, and animals.
  15. A cowboy is free from racial and religious intolerances.
  16. A cowboy is always a good worker.
  17. A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents and his nation's laws.
  18. A cowboy is clean about his person in thought, word, and deed.
  19. A cowboy is a Patriot.
  20. The highest badge of honor a person can wear is honesty.  Be truthful at all times.
  21. Your parents are the best friends you have.  Listen to them and obey their instructions.
  22. If you want to be respected, you must respect others.  Show good manners in every way.
  23. Only through hard work and study can you succeed.  Don't be lazy.
  24. Your good deeds always come to light.  So don't boast or be a show-off.
  25. If you waste time or money today, you will regret it tomorrow.  Practice thrift in all ways.
  26. Many animals are good and loyal companions.  Be friendly and kind to them.
  27. A strong, healthy body is a precious gift.  Be neat and clean.
  28. Our country's laws are made for your protection.  Observe them carefully.
  29. Children in many foreign lands are less fortunate than you.  Be glad and proud you are an American.
  30. I will be brave, but never careless.
  31. I will obey my parents. They DO know best.
  32. I will be neat and clean at all times.
  33. I will be polite and courteous.

But the Cowboy Code is not true; few cowboys really followed it. Yes, that’s right.  Many of the exemplars are fictional or fictionalized characters like Hopalong Cassidy and Wild Bill Hickok.  We can quibble with many of the sentiments and find situations in which, for example, parents are not always good, right and deserving of respect.

So what?  The factual nature doesn’t matter.  What matters is what spirit gets stimulated in our children’s hearts and even in us as adults.  The history of the greatness of the human spirit and human endeavor is passed on generation after generation through stories that inspire each new individual to be great and to do good.  It’s passed on in myth, legend and fiction, as well as through the lives and deeds of great men and women – great humans.

That’s the way human education works.  What counts is what gets inspired in the heart of each child and each adult.

Won’t honesty and good character mean that our children will be beaten out by the cheaters? That’s what many parents are afraid of: the cheaters will get better grades, get into better schools and eventually get better jobs and careers; lying cheating and stealing are necessary for survival or success.  But those predictions come from fear and aren’t necessarily true.

Step back from fear and think.  Would we want our children to become or to marry people who are selfish, lying, cheaters?  Don’t we want our children to have “Cowboy” character and to their live lives based on that?

If our children become witnesses or defenders, won’t they get into trouble? Maybe.  Children or adults who speak out against harassment, bullying and abuse can get trouble focused on them.  Children or adults who speak out against domestic violence, racism, religious persecution, genocide and terrorism can get trouble focused on them.  We each decide what to do in specific situations.

What’s crucial is to know the difference between right and wrong.  If we don’t know the difference, if we think that all values are the equal because there are so many different ones across the globe, we are making a grave mistake.  Different values lead to different places and we choose the direction we will try to go.

The engine and the steering wheel. Traits and skills like grit, determination, perseverance, fortitude, endurance and resilience are our engine.  We need the power of these abilities to get anywhere on the long road of life.

The values, beliefs and attitudes that are embodied in the humans who exemplify the Cowboy Code or Cowboy Ethics, whether as real as Lincoln, as fictionalized as Wild Bill Hickok or as fictional as Hopalong Cassidy, are our steering wheel.

We need both an engine and a steering wheel to get where we want to go.

What engine and steering wheel do we try to teach our children?  What engine and steering wheel are we models of for our children?  Which values are more important when some of ours conflict or are even mutually exclusive?

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.

Carl loved his 45 year-old son, Brian, and was overwhelmed with feelings of compassion for his son’s plight.  Brian could never hold a job.  Also, any time Carl or his wife, Vickie, didn’t do exactly what Brian wanted or didn’t give him what he wanted, Brian would throw a fit – he’d yell and scream and curse them, even in front of his own wife and children, or in public.  Many times, Brian would suddenly turn on his own long-suffering wife and children in the same way. How could Carl love his son and have compassion for him, and still protect himself and his wife from Brian’s harassment and bullying?

Everything I say about this family situation is the same I’d say to people trying to have both compassion and protection when dealing with abusive and suffering:

  • Parents.
  • Friends.
  • Extended family.
  • Co-workers.
  • Drunk drivers.
  • Strangers in public places.

The tactics we choose would depend on the specifics of the situation, but our attitude and general direction would be the same.

For decades, Carl had bit his tongue as best he could and had asked Vickie to do the same.  His heart went out to Brian because of his suffering.  Brian’s mother had died when he was 9 years old and two years later Carl had married again.  His new wife, Vickie, had done her best to take care of Brian and she did love the boy.  But no matter how she tried, Brian hated her and made her pay.

Out of compassion for Brian’s struggles, Carl had given Brian hundreds of thousands of dollars and also had bought many things for Brian’s children.  But it never seemed to be enough for Brian.

Brian denied that he needed any help.  He thought he was fine the way he was and he had good reasons every time he exploded.  It was everyone else’s fault that he lost his temper, and they deserved what he said or did to them.

He told Carl clearly that if Carl didn’t do what he wanted and didn’t endure the attacks, Brian wouldn’t allow Carl to see his grandchildren.  There it was; not only attacks but also blackmail.

Carl was stuck.  His compassion didn’t allow him to set any limits.  All he’d allow himself to do was to beg Brian to change.

Separate from the blackmail, Carl suffered from a common misunderstanding about compassion.  He thought compassion meant that he had to give Brian what he wanted and to keep giving and to take the abuse in hope that, someday, his love and forbearance would cause Brian to have an awakening and become a grateful, appreciative, civil and polite person.

Carl also thought that if he acknowledged his anger and dislike of Brian, or really did anything serious, that would mean that he’d given up on his son.  Also, it would be wrong to try to force Brian to do anything against his will.

After coaching, Carl decided that there were two distinct and separate scales he had to operate on in order to protect himself and his wife from Brian, and to preserve their retirement funds that Brian wanted to get his hands on.

On one scale, he could love Brian and have infinite compassion for his suffering, even though it was self induced.  And Tom could always pray for Brian’s spirit to take charge of his life.

On the other scale Carl could see that he had to deal, not with Brian’s spirit, but with Brian’s personality – his weakness, selfishness, arrogance, need, sense of entitlement, anger and narcissism.  Against Brian’s personality, Carl had to protect himself.  Out of compassion, he’d do that calmly, lovingly and clearly.

So what did Carl do?

  • He and Vickie decided to tell Brian that they wouldn’t take the abuse any more.  They were going to create an Isle of Song for the rest of their lives.  Good behavior was required from anyone to get on that Isle; blood wouldn’t count.
  • They knew they’d said that before, but they’d always given in and had pretended that the bullying had never happened.  They knew also that Brian counted on that.
  • The next time Brian exploded at them in front of his 11 and 13 year-old children, Carl said publically that they weren’t going to put up with that behavior any more.  They weren’t going to see Brian.  They’d love to see the kids but Brian probably wouldn’t allow that.  They wanted the kids to know who was responsible for the breach.
  • Carl told Brian they were taking a break from involvement with him for at least six months.  He’d have to make it on is own.  After then, if he wanted to resume contact he’d have to call and apologize and promise never to act that way again.  He’d especially have to apologize to Vickie.  Carl was going to protect his wife against all comers, even his son.
  • Even after that time, they were going to continue to withhold money because they wanted interactions to be based on fun, not need or greed.

This time Carl and Vickie kept to their bargain with each other.  They said they were able to stay on track because they still allowed themselves to feel compassion toward Brian, and especially his wife and kids, but they weren’t going to rescue Brian from the effects of his behavior.  Also, they saw that the most compassionate thing they could do for Brian was to demand good behavior and maintain their boundaries.  Their new vision would determine what they did, not some old, out-of-date feelings and assumptions.

My experience has been that the Brian’s of the world never learn by being coddled.  The only chance they have to learn is by being kicked out of the nest and letting the world, not their parents, teach them the natural consequences of their obnoxious behavior.  That doesn’t always work, but it’s the only chance.

Some other situations are examined in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids.”

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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You may be the target of a bully, but you don’t have to be a victim. Bullies can go after you in many ways; physically harming you or threatening to hurt you; inflicting emotional pain through harassment, relentless criticism, taunting, put-downs, cutting out, manipulation, controlling, back-stabbing, spreading rumors, telling secrets, embarrassing you or generally mean behavior; cyberbullying.

In all these situations, the first step in defending yourself and in stopping bullies is the same and always has been.  This is the first step, even before you use any programs that are designed to stop bullies in schools or at work.

For instance, we can go back to Homer’s “Odyssey.”  At the end, after Odysseus and his son, Telemachus, have killed all the abusive suitors, they flee with two faithful servants to the mountain home of Odysseus’ father, Laertes.  They know they will pursued by all the older men of the city, the fathers and uncles of the dead suitors.

In the final confrontation, hopelessly outnumbered, Laertes kills the father of the most evil suitor.  Odysseus loses control of himself and goes berserk.  He advances in a murderous rage to kill all the fathers and uncles.

Athena suddenly appears and speaks the words that that exemplify a central belief of the Greeks about how to face whatever the world throws at you – whether overwhelming odds, verbal and physical abuse, unfairness, your fear and hesitation, your loss of self-control, bullies.

Take Athena’s command out of context – it’s not about the trigger; it’s about your necessary first step in response to any situation.

Athena says, “Odysseus!  Command yourself!”  And when Athena commands, we best listen.

There it is; the key to all success; the start of everything we must do – “Command yourself.”

Begin by commanding yourself.  In Odysseus’ case, commanding himself meant not starting a bloodbath, which would lead to generations of vendettas that would ruin the country.

In the case of facing a bully, we must take charge of ourselves, gather ourselves and command ourselves.  Even when we don’t know how things will turn out, we do know that we want to act bravely, resolutely and greatly.  Therefore, command yourself and go for it; 110%.

If we give in to fear, anxiety, perfectionism and self-doubt, we’ll do nothing to protect ourselves – we’ll become victims of our own panic and terror.  If we give in to anger and rage, we’ll explode, act unskillfully and do things we’ll regret.  If we don’t command ourselves, we’ll lose confidence and self-esteem; we’ll get depressed and become easy victims of the predators.

If we don’t command ourselves, nothing we do will have the power and energy needed to succeed.  We’ll be weak, hesitant, vacillating.  We’ll become victims.  We’ll take our first steps down the path to suicide.

With expert coaching and consulting, we can learn to command ourselves.  We can overcome the voices of our fears and self-bullying.

We can become strong and skilled enough to resist being targeted by bullies and to stop bullies in their tracks.  We can look at individual situations and plan tactics that are appropriate to us and to the situation.

When we command ourselves, we can overcome whatever confronts us.  We will let nothing crush us; our spirits will remain strong.  We can plan and take charge of our actions.  We can act with strength, courage and skill.  We can act with perseverance and resilience.  We can get the help we need.  We can succeed.

How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids,” have many examples of children and adults commanding themselves and then stopping bullies.  For more personalized coaching call me at 877-8BULLIES (877-828-5543).