It had been a wonderful 9 months for Jane and her husband. Their youngest child went off to college and they had the house and their lives to themselves. No more picking up after the kids, waiting on them, cleaning up the bathrooms after them, helping them through their emergencies. They got over the initial shock of having an empty nest. They felt free and spontaneous again. Their chores were light.
Then their son moved back in for the summer. And it was like having a 200-pound-baby thrashing about in their nest. He was a good kid, had done well his freshman year and they did love him. But it was a royal pain taking care of him again.
What could they do?
They tried the usual ways of asking, lecturing, berating and arguing, but he continued acting the way he had before he’d left. He seemed to think he was an entitled prince. This was his vacation and he wanted to do only what he wanted to do. When they wanted him to do more, he tried to beat them into submission with angry temper tantrums or to manipulate them to back off by using blame and guilt.
Jane and her husband realized they were making no progress. They had training him to expect to do nothing and get away with being surly. Asking without consequences was just begging. Appeasing him didn’t buy them the civil, polite behavior they wanted.
They didn’t want to throw him out; how could he support himself? Or would he start hanging out with bad company?
They finally told him that since he was no longer a little baby and since he wanted all the rights and privileges of a responsible adult, he was now a guest in their home.
As a guest he had certain responsibilities, like treating their stuff the way they wanted (not the way he felt like), picking up after himself and asking permission to use their things. They knew that he would act like a good guest if he was staying at a friend's or even an aunt or uncle’s house. They loved him and he was doing well at school and seemed to be on his way to making an independent life for himself and they expected him to act like a good guest.
They said they wouldn’t accept being treated like victims, servants or slaves, cleaning up after their master. They wanted an adult relationship with an adult they might like being with. If he wanted something from them like room and board, loan of a car or college tuition, he had to pay for what he got by being fun, polite and civil. He also had to get a job so he wouldn’t be hanging around all day. That’s what adults do.
They said that in his absence, they had created an “Isle of Song” for themselves. No toxic polluters allowed. Anyone who wanted to get on that isle had to add to the music and dance. Was he willing? They knew he could because he acted great around everyone else.
Of course be blew up and tried anger (how could they treat him that way) and guilt (didn’t they love him any more?) to continue to get his lazy, selfish, narcissistic, self-indulgent way.
Even though they suddenly saw him as a bully, they laughed good-naturedly and applauded his efforts to get what he wanted from them. Literally applauded. And then they graded his tantrums: was that a 9.2 or a 6.5?
They told him that he had ‘til Friday to find a place with a friend. They were converting his room into the exercise room they’d always wanted. They told him they were going to buy boxes to pack up all his stuff stored in the garage. And then they went out for coffee and left him alone.
When they returned, their son apologized. He could see they were serious and he’d be a great guest. They had previously agreed to act sad if he said this, and to pretend hat they’d really wanted the exercise room.
They’d also agreed with each other previously to take him back provisionally on a weekly basis. They’d provide a list of chores and met weekly to review performance. But cheerful, gracious and polite behavior was graded at every interaction. Harassment, bullying or verbal abuse were not tolerated.
Summer with him became fun; except when his older sister came home for two weeks. But that’s a different story.
A grown child who is independent but has to move back suddenly because he lost his job or just got divorced. It’s only for a short time while he gets back on his feet and moves out again.
A grown child who’s life is a mess and needs to move home because she can’t make it on her own. She hates you and blames all her problems on you. And you’re afraid she’ll move in permanently.
Cindy was up again at 2 AM, infuriated at her mother and her older sister. They were so mean and cruel. What they’d said and done hurt so much. It was like she was a child again, subjected to their verbal beatings. The more she thought of what they had done, the angrier she became. She couldn’t stop her racing mind from obsessing on what they’d said.
She linked the episode yesterday afternoon to the thousands of times she’d felt the same pain and frustration. She wanted to beat them, even kill them, or never see them again. But they were her family and she thought she couldn’t talk back or leave them. She felt frustrated and stuck.
As the rage took her over, guilt and shame started growing. How could she feel that hateful about her family? Maybe they really were trying to help her? The more she tried to get back to sleep, the more she jumped back and forth between rage and guilt. She hadn’t seemed to make any progress in becoming a better, more spiritual person.
Cindy is stuck in “The Emotional Motivation Cycle.”
The episode yesterday was like the key that started her emotional motivational engine. And the more she thought about it, the faster ands hotter the engine went.
This cycle can be triggered by external events like Cindy’s mother and sister attacking her, or by thoughts and memories of previous episodes of harassment, blame or put-downs. Once triggered the cycle repeats and builds in intensity and speed until we are taken over by it. At 2 AM, in a half-sleep state we are most vulnerable to simply watching it run, as if on its own, and take over our minds and bodies.
Fear --> Run, Freeze --> Self-Bullying (Blame, shame guilt) --> Frustration --> Anger, Fear -->
Of course, the crucial question for each of us is, “What are the repeating stages in our cycle?” We probably know exactly which thoughts, memories and words will follow in which sequence because we’ve done it to ourselves so many times.
What’s the Purpose of the Cycle?
The purpose of the cycle is not really to make us feel angry and bad, even though it inevitably does. The purpose is to motivate ourselves to make effective action. Feeling is a tool; make us feel bad enough and we’ll finally break out of the iceberg that traps us and do something so they can’t hurt us again.
The major downsides to the Emotional Motivation Cycle method of self-motivation are that:
It can make us too depressed to act. We make ourselves feel like we did when we were children; all our strength, energy, adult wisdom, determination and skill are sucked out of us, and we feel helpless and hopeless again, like we did when we were children.
Two responses, often championed in self-help literature, do not work:
Stop thinking about it. However, ignoring the insistent call of our spirit is not effective, and who would want it to be? Our spirit wants us to do something effective; to stop bullying on our Isle of Song. Nothing less will satisfy our spirit. Why should we settle for less?
Become more spiritual, understanding, forgiving – act like the Golden Rule requires. The assumption here is that our unconditional love and perfection will convert bullies and they’ll stop abusing us. Or we’ll get into heaven faster. That’s simply not true for real-world bullies. Our spirit knows that also; that’s why it won’t stop bringing us back to the problem.
Instead, I recommend:
At 2 AM, wake up so we can be mentally, emotionally and spiritually strong, not weak. Get out of bed, eat a little chocolate, shower if you need and plan what to do to act effectively.
Often, the desire to protect our children from obvious, blatant rotten behavior motivates us to break the cycle and stop the abuse.
We can train ourselves to respond to our spirit when the situation is merely an irritation or frustration. We can develop good habits that function naturally, automatically, easily. The more we start listening to our inner voice, the more we’ll respond effectively in the moment of an assault or at the first self-hating thought.
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.