Of course I have to explain what I mean by that stark statement. I use the words “power” and “empowerment” to refer to different ideas. You may have other words to describe the difference. The difference is much more important than the particular words used. Power has gotten a bad reputation but I want to bring it back as one of the essentials in life.
Most people I meet say they want to be empowered in the sense that they want other people to listen to them, respect what they ask for and act toward them in decent, respectful ways. What I hear is a sense of being given something – respect, civility, being taken seriously. Notice that there’s no common form of the word that allows us to take empowerment whether or not the other person wants to give it to you.
Maybe a good example of what I object to in this use of the word empowerment was captured in a commercial for Hummers that lasted for only a short time. It showed an upscale young woman with her 4-5 year-old son having fun at what looked like a public playground. Suddenly a large, coarse, crude looking woman was there with her large, crude, coarse 4-5 year-old child. The bully shoved the upscale child aside and took over the slide they both wanted to use. The upscale mom glared at the other mother, who glared right back. The upscale child looked crushed and did nothing.
The upscale mom was fuming but said and did nothing. Instead, as the next scene showed, she bought a new Hummer and was happily driving with her child as the voice over intoned that she now felt “empowered.”
Power’s bad reputation is because of the many misuses of power that we’re all aware of. A seemingly logical mistake was to think that since power can be misused and “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” any power is dangerous and bad.
Power is neutral. Power is the engine that moves us through life. Power is as necessary as an engine is. We all know what it’s like trying to motivate or depend on a person who has little or no engine.
Without an engine, nothing is possible. With a great engine we can get somewhere. And with a great engine, we must also have a great steering wheel and brakes. As Spiderman’s uncle said to him, “With great power comes great responsibility.
What does this have to do with taunting, teasing, harassing, bullying and abuse?
When we take power over our inner world, we can also take charge of our outer world. If we ask bullies to stop but they don’t, we don’t have to beg them, we don’t become victims while we’re waiting for laws, policies and programs to be enacted in order to empower us; we act from our own personal power.
Of course, I don’t mean for us to become murdering vigilantes. But I do mean for us to act skillfully to protect ourselves and to stop bullies. We don’t go buy a Hummer to feel good. We do something to rectify the situation in which there’s bullying or abuse.
Empowerment that’s given, gives shallow and hollow confidence and self-esteem. Confidence and self-esteem are real and deep when they’re forged by standing up courageously, powerfully and skillfully to challenging situations.
Relentless bullies are predators. They see weak people as easy targets; they become bolder in their attacks. They see strong people as difficult or dangerous to them and they go looking for easier targets.
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.
“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.”
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 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.