What do Children Owe Toxic Parents?

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A lot of feedback about stopping bullying by toxic parents focused on what children owe those abusive parents.  After all, even though they harassed, abused and tormented their children, those parents still fed, clothed and housed them.

Many of those parents now claim that a debt is owed them.  No matter how bad they were and still are, they claim their children owe them care, sympathy and loyalty.  And usually willingness to be continually abused.

I disagree.

To illustrate my point of view, here’s a story told to me repeatedly by my father.  He said it was a traditional story.  I call it “The Mother and the Three Baby Birds.”  It appeared in a wonderful collection of stories annotated Steve Andreas, published by Real People Press, “Is there life after birth?”

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At the time of the great flood, when the storm had just begun and the earth was beginning to be covered with water, a mother bird saw the danger.  She realized that her three babies were no longer safe in their nest at the top of a high tree.  Even if she remained with them, they would be swept away and drowned.  So she picked up the first baby and started to fly through the storm, across the rising water, seeking a new place that would be high enough, so she might save at least one of her children.

As she flew, she spoke to the first baby, asking, “When I am very old and I can no longer take care of myself, will you dedicate your whole life to taking care of me, just as I am using all my energy and strength to take care of you now?”

And the first baby turned to her and said, “No.  When your day has passed, when you can no longer take care of yourself, then I will not dedicate my whole life to taking care of you.  I will dedicate all my energy and strength to taking care of myself.”

The mother bird said, “No!  This is not the baby to save.”  And so she let go of the first baby and it fell, helplessly flailing its tiny wings, down into the raging waves.

Tired and wet, the mother bird turned and flew back to the nest, which she hoped would still be above the rising waters.

She found the nest and picked up the second baby bird.  Weary and wet, she struggled to fly higher, through the beating rain, against the driving wind.  Seeking a new place that would be high enough, so she might save at least one of her children.

And as she struggled, she spoke to the second baby, asking, “When I am very old and I can no longer take care of myself, will you dedicate your whole life to taking care of me, just as I am using all my energy and strength to take care of you now?”

And the second baby turned to her and said, “Yes.  When you have used all your energy and strength, when you are too exhausted to go further, I will dedicate my whole life to taking care of you.”

And the mother bird said, “No!  This also is not the baby to save.”  And so she let go of the second baby and it fell, helplessly flailing its tiny wings, down into the raging waves.

Almost exhausted now, bedraggled, beaten by the driving rain and raging wind, summoning all her remaining strength, the mother bird turned and flew back to the nest, which she hoped would still be above the rising waters.

She found the nest and, just as the raging waves washed it away, she picked up the third baby bird.  With barely enough strength to rise above the foam and spray, to move forward against the driving wind, she struggled bravely on.  Desperately seeking a new place that would be high enough, so she might save at least one of her children.

And as she struggled, with her voice and body failing, she spoke to the third baby, asking, “When I am very old and I can no longer take care of myself, will you dedicate your whole life to taking care of me, just as I am using all my energy and strength to take care of you now?”

And the third baby turned to her and said, “No.  When you have used all your energy and strength, when you are too exhausted to go further, I will not dedicate my whole life to taking care of you.  But instead, I will dedicate all my strength and energy to taking care of my children, just as you are taking care of me now.”

And the mother bird said, “Yes!  This is the baby to save.”  And with renewed hope and renewed strength, she steadily flew higher and faster and further.  Despite the beating rain, despite the driving wind, despite the raging waves.  She flew steadily.  And she did find a new place that was high enough to save the child who must be saved.

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Even though the mother bird was not a bully, the same lessons apply.  Don’t let a sense of obligation and duty lead you to allow yourself to be harassed and brutalized by toxic parents; don’t be stopped if they say you shouldn’t be better than they are; don’t seek approval from bullies; don’t listen when they say that you owe them whatever they want; don’t be depressed by their negativity; don’t let them destroy your self esteem; and don’t devote your life only to your own selfish pleasures.

Instead, take care of yourself so you can devote yourself to something greater and longer-lasting.  Devote yourself to the children of your body, heart, mind and spirit.  That’s what you owe your ancestors, no matter what other claims they may press on you.

What’s important are the responsibilities you take up joyously, not the onerous ones claimed by toxic parents.

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Ben Leichtling, Ph.D. is author of the books and CDs “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids” and “Eliminate the High cost of Low Attitudes.” He is available for coaching, consulting and speaking.  To find practical, real-world tactics to stop bullies and bullying at home, school, work and in relationships, see his web site (http://www.BulliesBeGone.com) and blog (http://www.BulliesBeGoneBlog.com).

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