Behind the Eagle Huntress, A Parenting Hero

Clair Ward
[From remarks delivered on Back to School Night, September 28, 2017]

Often we identify heroes on the basis of strong character, or bravery, or ethics. And these are worthy traits. But tonight, on Back to School Night, I want to suggest another kind of hero for us—a parenting hero.  

The story was first publicized by National Geographic back in 2014. A photographer had captured stunning images of the Mongolian eagle hunters. In this mountainous region, 13-year-old boys begin their training when they are strong enough to hold and carry the eagle. It is said that there are over 1,000 ways to train an eagle, and each Kazakh family has its own signature methods that are passed down from generation to generation—much like a recipe. It is a beautiful partnership between humans and animals that allows the eagle to determine how long it remains before returning to the wild to raise more young. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the fact that over 70% of the educated population is female, the eagle hunters are traditionally male.  

What made this story so famous was that it featured a child who was the first female eagle huntress to compete in the region's Golden Eagle Festival. Her name is Ashol-Pan Nurgaiv. In addition to her National Geographic fame, this young woman has established herself in this tradition so thoroughly that when she uses her skill for competition, she easily beats male competitors with more experience. The photographer had this to say about watching Ashol-Pan as she began her training, “She was perfect. I was amazed by her comfort and ease as she began handling the grand eagle for the first time in her life. She was fearlessly carrying it on her hand and caressing it somewhat joyfully.”

As you look at the images, there is no question. It gives you a sense that you are witnessing something special, something otherworldly, something from another time or era. To me, it even appears magical since I myself have no concept of what it must be like to partner with an animal this wild and this spectacular. I am not sure about you, but this is not a skill I can claim to have mastered.

So what on earth does this have to do with Back to School Night? Here it is. This entire article features the extremely accomplished young woman, perhaps as it should. But, as a parent, I found myself asking questions: How did this happen? Who is responsible? How will I know if I have a strong eagle huntress, or mathematician, or soccer player, or violinist living in my house? Is it my job as a parent to evaluate my child so that I know where and how much to train her in the areas that her acumen lives?  

Enter my parenting hero: Ashol-Pan's father. Do you know that as famous as she became following the National Geographic feature, few if any of the stories actually even mentioned her father’s name? And yet, I would assert that his was the most important job of all. True, Ashol-Pan is brave, gifted, and hard working. But getting her to this point in her eagle-hunting career had everything to with him as a parent. Here is what he said during an interview: “Up until two years ago my eldest son was the successor of the eagle hunting tradition in our family. Alas, two years ago he was drafted to the army ... so he probably won’t be back with the tradition. It’s been a while since I started thinking about training her instead of him, but I wouldn’t dare do it unless she asks me to do it and if she will.”

Did you hear it? There are two significant lessons he teaches us as parents with his words. First, it is our job not to limit our children based on any pre-conceived notion about what they can or cannot accomplish. Anything is possible with any child. Our job is to support and guide. Our job is to be realistic, but not judgmental. This is about our children, not about us.

Second and most important: it is not our job to diagnose their acumen. It is our job to nourish their passion and wait for them to lead the way. Acumen can be developed from passion, but the reverse is not always true. No matter how easily my daughter has learned the violin, she does not have the passion for the instrument that I once had at her age. No amount of leaning on her, requiring her, or coaxing her will change that. It is my job to be disciplined enough as a parent to allow her the space to dream her own dreams and to pursue her own passions. I have to stop worrying about whether or not at the age of 12, she has found her “thing.”  Because, once again, this is about our children and not about us.

Tonight, as you meet your child’s teachers and hear about how we spend our days at Shore, I urge you to consider each moment as a stop on a longer journey of educating hearts and minds. No one math test, or reading assessment, or grade level is a destination in and of itself. These are all snapshots on a very long journey. Perhaps you have your own parenting hero. Tonight, I am going to take my parenting inspiration from a humble eagle hunter in Mongolia, who had the courage to wait for and follow his daughter’s cues and rhythms. Tonight, I am going to celebrate the fact that my child is at Shore, the very best place for her to learn from teachers who are eager to partner with my husband and me to raise her according to her own passions.
    • Ashol-Pan with her father

    • With her golden eagle

    • Hunting

    • Ashol-Pan