Confessions of a (not so) Tiger Mother
Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. – Amy Chua
Ever read “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”? This controversial memoir by Amy Chua details her strict parenting philosophy. Her goal? Unambiguous success for her daughters. No other outcome imaginable. Anything less was failure.
For me, parenting Jack after learning he had special needs was no less urgent.
I enrolled Jack in Early Intervention, a state supported program for children 0-3 years old. Therapists from every field rotated through our house 18 hours weekly to encourage Jack’s development. They worked on his playing, moving, thinking, and even drinking—S.M.A.R.T. goals dominated his life.
One day, a well-intentioned Occupational Therapist said something that made my blood freeze.
She had been patiently sticking baby Jack’s hands in a bowl of dried beans over and over—slowly in and out—all the better to develop sensory inputs. I was hypnotized by the repetition and the soothing sounds of this strange activity, half wanting to stick my own hands in there. Out of nowhere she proclaimed,
This is the time to spend a ton of money on Jack. His brain is still really adaptable. Once he hits the age of 5, his brain loses plasticity and that learning window shuts. So spend money on everything you can RIGHT NOW–private schools, doctors, everything. Consider the money spent as what you would have spent on Jack’s college.
Whatever calm I felt from the rustle of the dried beans evaporated. My mind did the frantic calculations. According to her, the clock was ticking–only 3 1/2 years left—tick tock, tick tock. The window was closing!
Back then, an all-day private preschool for children with autism in NJ cost $75,000 annually—so that was out. Mike and I had always agreed that we’d never jeopardize our financial stability—unless it were literally life and death.
My panicked mind grabbed upon this (admittedly delusional) solution: I’d just prioritize his multiple challenges and, along with ongoing Early Intervention therapies, just “fix” him myself! No problem!
And so began my (oh so brief) flirtation with the ways of the Tiger Mother.
Jack’s team of therapists suggested additional work I could be doing with him. And each therapist prioritized his or her own specialty. Jack had 5 therapists. Daunting was an understatement.
That’s not to mention suggestions from well-meaning friends. I thank God social media wasn’t a thing, or it could’ve been far worse.
I found myself nodding vigorously to recommendations of brush therapy, chelation, gluten-free/ dairy free diets, stretching and massaging his limbs, cranio-sacral therapy, medical and homeopathic protocols, the list goes on.
I’d watch some inspirational special needs movie like Lorenzo’s Oil and fancy myself someday being the Susan Sarandon Mom character. Like her, I would be determined, patient and focused. Saintly, even. Therapists would flock to me begging me for my secrets. I would single-handedly heal Jack and become a legend.
So the only problem with my scheme was—OMG Jack’s challenges!!! There was JUST SO MUCH TO DO. Where do I start? Besides, I was pregnant with Megan, working part-time and haunted by the image of that damn window.
So unlike my hero Susan Sarandon, or even like fierce Tiger Mother, Amy Chua, I did nothing—except Early Intervention sessions.
Oh wait. Scratch that. I also beat myself up.
From there I started beating myself up for beating myself up, because no mentally strong mother—the mother Jack deserved—would EVER waste time in indulgent self-pity. Helpful, huh?
As a special needs parent, it is so easy to fall into the trap of trying to be everything to our child—therapist, teacher, social worker, nurse and parent. We think we can control all of the outcomes, if only we work harder with our children. Then we blame ourselves when we fail to be the solution to our children’s problems.
I wish I had known back then to go easier on myself.
Let’s reconsider what we define as success. Does it mean having your child just develop some physical or intellectual skill? If so, I know we all set ourselves up for disappointment. There’s always something more to achieve. It never ends.
Over time, I have learned to relax and just appreciate Jack for who he is. He is emotionally observant, affectionate, sarcastic and happy. And I can’t measure that by how many blocks Jack puts in a box. Or whether he can use a fork.
Of course I obtain whatever services needed to help him, but I do not become his therapist. He has many therapists, but only one mother. I remind myself to simply love him, not “fix” him. I’m grateful he understands and feels love. And that’s more important that any S.M.A.R.T. goal.
Terrified that your child must accomplish every skill before Kindergarten like I once was? I hope you can find comfort from these quotes in The Atlantic article, “Extreme Parenting”:
“William Greenough, whose much-publicized studies of brain development in rats in the eighties helped pave the way for the current obsessions with sensory stimulus in infants, is a vehement critic of the new overemphasis on early learning. His research supports the idea that the brain continues to be plastic—still developing—after infancy. Indeed, many neuroscientists now deny that even adult brains lose plasticity.”
“It’s important to point out that windows of development do not slam shut, as the earliest versions of [Parents’ Action for Children] and the Birth to Three movement suggested,” says Bradley Schlaggar, a pediatric neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis. One implication of that claim, he says, is that “when the development windows are thought to slam shut, parents may feel that the case is closed, and must try again with the next child.”
I’m the mom of 2 great teens, Jack (16) and Megan (14), as well as of a very spoiled plott hound named Bubba Sue. I grew up in New Jersey, but have lived in the Cincinnati, OH area for the past 13 years. My husband Mike and I have been married for long enough not to look like our wedding pictures, but even after all these years, he still makes me laugh. After 15 years of questions and no answers, Jack got a diagnosis of Smith-Kingsmore Syndrome. I wanted to write this blog to help special needs families know they are not alone.