The Soapbox: Forget Being A Tiger Mother, I Want To Make “Sloth Mom” Happen

There’s a tai kwon do place that I pass daily while driving my five-year-old to and from school, where I can see through the huge plate-glass window tiny people in bright white, slightly-too-large uniforms, kicking avidly.

That looks like a good time, I think. I should sign the kid up for a class. The next day, I pass it again. Yeah, I really should look that up, I remind myself. The next day: Well, it’s not going anywhere. If imaginary looks could kill, Amy Chua — the self-described Tiger Mom and author of the new book The Triple Package — would have set my head ablaze with one disapproving glare.

My kid doesn’t know how to swim. He doesn’t go to Kumon. We have peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for dinner pretty regularly. And when people ask if I’m entering the lottery to send him to a Japanese- or mathematics-immersion school, I shrug and say that our neighborhood school seems like just as solid an option.

Yep, I’m a sloth mom.

Amy Chua isn’t the only one who’d judge me for it. Kids may be a reflection of their parents, but let’s be real — mothers almost always shoulder the weight of reproach. To admit out loud that you could be trying a lot harder can be, in this ever-more hyperparented culture, tantamount to abuse. (You let your child eat something with high-fructose corn syrup? My god, why don’t you shoot her up with heroin while you’re at it?)

I will freely admit that some of my slothful parenting style is purely selfish: My husband and I quite consciously avoided signing the little one up for Soccer Shots, for instance, because neither of us has any interest in getting up at 6 a.m. and standing in the rain watching a bunch of kids trip over their feet trying to kick a ball. And some of it is a result of my temperament: As a lifelong introvert, I’ve just never been great as reaching out to other parents to schedule playdates or outings to farms or other edifying pursuits. I’m not against them; if someone else wants to make the plans, I’ll be there. Otherwise, I’m more than happy to take the kid to the library for the morning.

But there’s something else at play here — and, not surprisingly, it’s my own sense of what was missing from my own childhood. I was a highly scheduled kid with ballet lessons, ice- skating lessons, art lessons, piano and cello lessons, soccer and softball teams, tennis and swimming, and about a dozen other activities on the docket in any given year. It’s not that I disliked any of these activities; many of them I loved. When I threw myself into competitive figure skating for a time my own mother was a trouper about getting up at 6 a.m. to shuttle me to the rink.

But I get the sense, in retrospect, that my parents weren’t particularly invested in whether I succeeded or not. No one stood over me demanding to hear that Bach étude one more time with no errant notes; no one was telling me that my ability to land a double salchow was going to be my ticket into a top-tier college. From a Tiger Mom perspective, my childhood wasn’t nearly rigorous enough. From mine, I was fulfilling my parents’ interest in having a well-rounded kid, but doing too much varied stuff to ever get more than passably good at any one thing.

This, of course, makes it sound like I have a carefully thought-out parenting plan unfolding in opposition to my own upbringing. I don’t. But I do have goals: I want my son to have the freedom and the space to discover his own passions, and for him, not me, to be the engine of their pursuit. And then I’ll do everything I can to encourage him. Right now, for instance, basketball is his obsession, so I spend much of my weekends and evenings shooting hoops in the driveway, encouraging his reading by giving him basketball cards, and answering questions like “Mom, why do you hate the Lakers?”

Because despite satires like this one, sloth mothering isn’t the antithesis of Tiger Momming. There’s a whole lot of gray area between the hard-charging, no-bathroom breaks style of supposedly “ethnic” parenting that Chua maintains is a recipe for success, and the “American” brand of touchy-feely permissiveness that we’ve decided breeds bumbling whiners.

Not overpraising your kids doesn’t have to mean bringing them to tears with harsh judgment; falling of short of being the best at something doesn’t shunt you to the bottom of the heap. When the kid gets sloppy with his basketball shots, I advise him to stop, breathe, and focus; when he gets frustrated, I remind him that LeBron and Dirk don’t quit just because they miss a few shots. It’s more than possible to nudge rather than propel, love steadily rather than instilling fear and withholding affection, and give kids enough space to both learn from their failures and want to do better for their own sake, not because they fear your wrath.

I’d love for the sloth moms out there to rise up as one to espouse this approach, to make the case that good learning is more important than good testing, that regular doses of television aren’t going to liquefy your kid’s brain, and that sometimes it’s simply more satisfying to kick back with a beer and a copy of Entertainment Weekly than it is to drill your small fry on their state capitals for the 50th time.

But of course, we’re too busy to organize — busy, that is, just hanging out, letting our kids make nonrepresentational shapes out of Play-doh, and slapping together some sandwiches for dinner. It’s okay. Our unheralded, unpublicized non-movement of a movement? It’s not going anywhere.

Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch: A Feminist Response To Pop Culture and the editorial/creative director of the magazine. Follow her on Twitter.

[Image of a sloth via Shutterstock]