Divorce and little ones: Assume strength, not fragility

Me and my tiger hawk.

I heard a thing on NPR the other day, a book review of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” It's been making the internet rounds and lots of bloggers have jumped on it.  This isn't a post about how she's right or wrong.  Her book is a memoir, about the journey she took as a mother, and I'm not one to judge her choices.  I want to talk about what struck me most about her book: the idea that Chinese parents assume strength, not fragility, in their children's psyches and persons; that the harder they are on their little ones the stronger they will become; that they'll rise to the challenge, grow emotional and intellectual muscle.

In the counseling world, we call it resilience.  It's what we console ourselves with when we come across horrific stories about abuse, neglect and pain: People are resilient.  They'll be ok.  And it's true.  Wars, disasters, epic genocides, they all happen every day and the human spirit rises up and marches on.  We find the beauty in the little things, the happiness in a lover's eye, the joy on a baby's face, a dog wagging its tail.

So, in that sense, I agree with Amy Chua and the Chinese assumption about children.  They are strong because we are all strong and it's exactly what I've been assuming of Hawk these last few months, and especially the last week and a half now that he's at school.

When we assume excellence or strength of our children -- and back it up with confident actions such as patience, understanding and a willingness to let our kids "get it wrong" -- we are planting the seeds of courage and confidence.  I know that having his parents suddenly in two completely different places has shattered Hawk's understanding of his universe, but I also know that he can adapt and not be a broken kid because of it.

It kills me that "this is his life now" (as my mother likes to point out), but it's true.  It is.  He has a mommy in one place and a daddy in the other.  Occasionally we're all together.  But mostly we're not.  Hawk's emotions run high whenever there's a transition or even when we're together.  Rooster and I have had long discussions on how to handle the raw energy Hawk exudes during these times and instead of squelching it, we redirect it, let it run its course, or simply make sure he feels plugged in to us.

Hawk's strength is borne out of the fact that he has no buffer, no façade.  What he feels begs to come out and if I, or Rooster, tell him it's wrong I wholeheartedly believe that at that point we will be harming him.  Teaching a child to deny his feelings is a one-way ticket to Shitsville as an adolescent or young adult.

It's not easy to let a 3 year old run circles around your ankles when your sister calls or when you're trying to have a grown-up chat with his father, but rather than yell at him and scare him into submission I remember that he's upset: none of this is normal for him, yet; and: he's 3.  I set consistent boundaries.  I tell him to chill out in his room with his blankie and his paci while Mommy finishes chatting with Daddy.  I don't let him sneak out of his room instead insisting he stay within the bounds of his room.

I feel like a hard ass when I do this, but giving him solid fence-lines will make him feel safer than buying into (and losing) the little battles he so loves to engage me in, particularly because his life (our lives) are so helter skelter right now.  So when I heard about Amy Chua I related, though on a very distant level.  I am the hard ass in this whole process of rebuilding our lives.  I demand strength from everyone and insist on firm boundaries, believing in the end that I am laying the foundation for a strength of will and self in my little boy.

And it seems to be working.

He is open, loving and trusting.  He likes people.  He's cautious of, but not put off by new situations.  He tells me he wants to be alone to cry.  He tells me he'd like company while he cries.  He knows he is the master of his body and who gets to touch him and when.  He understands what it means to be loved and to love.  He likes to be in a bad mood occasionally.  He relishes his freedom but easily acquiesces to the rules.

I am not perfect -- oh fucking God am I not perfect, let me be very frank about that -- but I am trying to build a human being who doesn't hate himself, who believes in himself, and who loves others.  And I am going to fight tooth and nail to get that job done.

I got one out of those three when I left adolescence and I paid the price for all my self-loathing and nonacceptance and I can see clearly what I needed from my parents as I grew up: 1) a sense of self-worth born out of trusting myself, that what I felt was indeed acceptable; and 2) that I was not responsible for my parents and their feelings.  Hawk has two parents who are hurting and stumbling right now, but if we start to doubt his resilience, his strength in all these matters, I believe we'll be tripping him up later.

When the life of a family breaks apart it is the duty of the parents to protect the emotional worlds of their children.  The kids had no part in the break up of the marriage, it's not their responsibility to hold it together, to make the parents feel better, to not react.  So I'll do my part to protect Hawk from me and my own emotional spills, but I will also expect him to be as strong as his little 3 year old self can handle.  I will be sensitive to his limits and to his capabilities, but I will always shelter him from me and the other adults in our lives.

It surprises me that I expect so much from him, much like Chua's "tiger mother," but I feel I am doing him a service.  We all need someone to expect something from us lest we expect nothing from ourselves.

I am my own version of a natural/attachment parenting tiger mother, and Hawk is my little tiger hawk: brave, strong, and real.  And later he will reap the rewards of his own strengths and successes.


  1. A beautiful post. I've found parenting a lot harder than I previously thought. Every day is a balancing act, and I constantly question myself. However, I'm doing my best to treat my children with respect and raise them to become responsible, loving people, setting the bar high because I know they can reach it.

    You're doing a good job, and Hawk is lucky to have a mother who values his feelings.

  2. Beautiful. Children certainly are resilient when they need to be. No matter the heartache, there's always something there bouncing back.

  3. He is lucky to have you. It is so awesome that you are trying to be concious of him and careful of him as you navigate through your new life. As someone who went through divorce badly as a child, you should be proud of yourself.

  4. I think I need to read that book.