Friday, January 28, 2011

Brahms Lullaby of the Otter Mother

This blog is a response to the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which of course makes me lame because I haven’t actually read the book. What I did read (while sitting at the doctor’s office) was the Time Magazine article using this book to question the effectiveness of American child rearing. Like the Tiger Mother, I made the decision to raise my children traditionally. My children are half Native American (Assiniboine). In choosing to raise them in this culture I chose to value freedom and agency over ambition and competition.

And now to make me doubly lame I’m going to paraphrase a book leant to me by a friend with a title I can’t remember. In fact, I recall not particularly liking the book, except for the first chapter which explains what causes American men to envy Native American men. It’s not strength, or rugged good looks. It’s not even spirituality or a perceived connection to the land. It’s freedom. Native American men will do what they do, hang the consequences. They are not boxed in by a societal list of should do’s and honey do’s, duty do’s and oughtta do’s. They simply do what they want to do. Freedom.

To those of you who think this sounds anarchist, let me explain. Yes, this can hurt others, but it can also build others. What if a person wanted to do good? A good example of this is a long summer on the reservation. Factor in unemployment, lack of money, lack of entertainment, lack of variety, lack of activity. What do you get? Boredom. While some people will turn to substance abuse, soap operas and card playing. Others learn to fix, create, and help. In one situation, I saw my brother-in-law repair the potholes in the neighborhood’s streets. He spent days on this activity. Not for pay or praise, but because if he didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done.

As children, traditional Native Americans are allowed to make decisions for themselves. As often as not these decisions will have negative consequences. One mother whose son ran cross country told me the following. Her son woke up feeling so confident before a race; he decided to jog to his meet. His mother watched him leave without a word of counsel. Later she was there to comfort his defeat. She allowed him the freedom to learn.

In the case of the Tiger Mother, I admire her ferocity. It takes great strength and energy to make children do what they don’t want to do. As a teacher, I know it takes even greater strength and energy to convince kids that they want to and will do what they don’t want to do. There have been days that I have looked at my seven children and felt unequal to the task. Luckily I did not set out to be a Tiger Mother. I set out to be a Sea Otter mother.

A Sea Otter mother knows that she only has four months to teach her child everything that child will need in order to survive in the wild. Side by side the sea otters gather food. Mother shows baby where the good gathering spots are, what kind of rocks (or man-made surfaces) will break shells open. The mother shows her child the beds of kelp where they can anchor and avoid being washed out to sea. Baby otters are allowed to experiment, discovering what food they like and what tools suit them. They adapt to their environment whether wild and formidable or man-made and ominous.

I have created an environment in my home designed to provide my children with opportunities and choice. I celebrate their creations. I give them freedom to make decisions. I allow them the opportunity to help our family unit survive. I listen to and respect their counsel. I give as much precedence to their hopes and desires as I do my own.
Have I raised couch potatoes (what my children refer to as fats)? Last night I arrived home to find that my boys had picked up the living room and kitchen and my 12 year old was doing the dishes. When, I noted the rooms were not to my standard, I grabbed the vacuum and helped the boys identify what more could be done. We got the house clean just in time for band practice.

After a great band practice (JoJo helped us out), and a wonderful sit down dinner, I had a moment to look around and reflect. My 3rd grader was snuggling next to me working on his homework. My 12 year old had brought her homework into the living room as well and was asking periodic questions. My 24 year old was writing an essay for her college class. In the midst of all this quiet, I could hear my 17 year old at his computer, composing a new musical piece. None of this was forced. They were all doing what they wanted to do. Let it be noted that less and less of what they want to do is watch tv. We go days without its mind numbing noise.

I think there was a time that I thought I could live through others. I thought I could teach my children to learn to do all the things I couldn’t do. It has been a great “aha” moment for me to realize, not only can I learn and do what I want to do, my kids teach me.

And to celebrate my kids’ “scribbles” I am posting some more of their creations.

Below is the composition JoJo wrote for SUPAF last year. It earned him a first place award in the original composition category


  1. Wow! This is beautifully written. What an powerful perspective you have!

  2. Jojo's composition is beautiful, which proves you're a good mother! On a more serious note, I often think our parenting skills can only make their childhood happy or sad. The do little to change the nature of the child. Is that fatalistic? I take no credit for the good parts of my children. I believe they are innate. On the same note, I would not like to be blamed for their failings, which I believe are also a part of their nature. I can only take credit for providing them opportunities to grow. They capitalized on some of them, and others lay fallow along the wayside. I loved the otter mother story. It's like teaching them to fish rather than giving them food. That does sound like something you can do for your children. You can only hope that they have the maturity to understand what the rod and reel are for when you introduce it to them. I enjoyed your post.

  3. Can you ad a subscription gadget to your blog? Then I can subscribe, and it will show updates on my google home page. I had Verlene add one to her blog, and I like it. I also have one on my blog.