Attack of the Tiger Mom

I haven’t posted for a while. We’ve had a lot going on. Many snow days, which means no sitter, which means cramming work in during nap time and bed time. I’ve also been preparing for Johanna’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), itself a huge production. I’ve been pretty worried about Johanna’s IEP. First, there was the fact that she wigged out during her speech evaluation and started banging herself in the head with various objects. Then the pre school’s speech pathologist came to evaluate her at the Mommy and Me twos program she attends once a week. Johanna was having a bad day that day. Let’s just say a reeally bad day. She threw a massive temper tantrum at the beginning, and as I frantically tried to get her to stop throwing random puzzle pieces around the room or shoving gobs of Play Doh into her mouth, I watched out of the corner of my eye as the speech pathologist scribbled away in her notebook.

I cringed imagining what she was writing, and I was right. The evaluations are pretty cringe worthy. Basically, the woman is under the impression that Johanna is at about a nine-twelve month level when it comes to language and communication. My daughter, who has about 40 words in her reporitare, knows all her body parts, sings (most of) the alphabet, and can count to ten, comes across in the assessments as incredibly low functioning: grunting, drooling, the whole works. It’s all the stereotypes about kids with Down Syndrome that you read in antiquated 1950s textbooks, except this time I can’t just slam the book shut and laugh at the ignorance. This evaluation is real, and it’s about my daughter.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the assessments, asking myself if maybe I do have unrealistic expectations about Johanna. Maybe I do think she’s more capable than she is, maybe I do have illusions about her potential. But I don’t think so. I’m fully aware of the fact that Teddy is quickly catching up to her developmentally, and by the time he reaches his second birthday may pass her entirely. But Johanna, despite her disability, is still a smart little girl. She’s clever enough to have realized that if she refuses to do something she so clearly can do—like feed herself or put her toys away—others will give up and do it for her. Johanna didn’t refuse to interact with the therapists because, as they claim, she didn’t understand what they were asking of her. My daughter got it, all right. She just figured if she ignored them and refused to participate, they’d give up and leave her alone. Or, as my husband said dryly after he read the assessments, “she just didn’t feel like talking to anyone who wasn’t on her intellectual level.”

Sure, Jamie and I can laugh at some of the absurdity of the evaluations, but that’s how the preschool team sees her right now. I don’t necessarily fault them, either: they’re assessing her the only way they’ve been taught to assess, which is through a bunch of standardized checklists. It’s how I would have thought you’d measure a child’s capabilities, before I had Johanna, before I became the mother of a child with a disability.

Yet the bottom line is these educators have my little girl all wrong, and if I let them keep their assumptions—and write them into my child’s IEP—then her potential will never be realized. Sure, if they think she’s lower functioning than she is, it may work in our favor because perhaps they’ll offer her more therapy. But they’ll also have lower expectations of her, much lower. And after having spent almost three years with Johanna, I can tell you one thing: if you don’t expect her to do something, she won’t do it, period.   

Last Thursday, the Stamford Board of Education held a public hearing about the budget. I was one of about 40 parents who spoke against the cuts in special education. “I’m the consummate tiger mother,” I said, to cheers and applause. “If I feel that my daughter’s needs aren’t being met, I’m going to growl and claw and bite until they are.”

It might have been a cheesy reference to Amy Chua’s new memoir, but it’s true. As much as some of her ideas about motherhood freaked me out (threatening to burn your daughter’s stuffed animals? Refusing to let your children ever go to sleepovers?) , I do agree with one central tenet of her book: you can’t ever underestimate what your child is capable of. Interestingly enough, Chau has a younger sister, Cindy, who has Down Syndrome, and in an interview with the Wall Street Journal recalls her mother spending hours and hours with Cindy teaching her to tie her shoelaces, drilling her on her multiplication tables, and practicing piano with her. There are people who would shake their head and question why a mother would spend so much time pushing her poor disabled child, but I got it. The woman knew her daughter well enough to know that she could do those things. Just like I know my daughter well enough to know that expecting her to string simple three word sentences together is a reasonable speech goal.

Johanna’s second IEP meeting is tomorrow morning. I know I will be told my goals for her are too ambitious, that I have too high expectations, that I’m dooming her to fail. I can understand why the Stamford public school system will balk at my IEP goals (especially her speech goals, since four speech and language pathologists are already on the budget chopping block). But I have to believe in my daughter because if I don’t, no one else will.

So, this very pregnant tiger mom is ready. Let the fang baring begin.