Confessions of a Laissez-Faire Mother

When I first heard the uproar about
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I did what I usually do when yet another mothering storm breaks.  I went for a walk with my friend, Betsy, around Lady Bird Lake, both of us semi-gloating, semi-thank-the-gods relieved that our own kids are pretty much grown and it’s too late for us to do anything or berate ourselves for our obvious shortcomings.

In case you haven’t heard about Tiger Mother, it’s basically the story of a mother who mercilessly drives her two daughters to perfection in the academic and classical music worlds.  She doesn’t praise them, she looms over them like a beacon of perfectionism, she won’t let them do sleepovers or take up sports.  An A-minus is unacceptable, as was the homemade birthday card one of her kids gave her, which Tiger Mom labeled as “garbage.”

Neither Betsy nor I had read the book, but since when was that a prerequisite to mouthing off about it as we took one of our loud walks.  Tiger Mom would have gotten apoplectic just looking at us (badly dressed, as usual) as we screamed our way along the hike and bike trail.

“If we’re not Tiger Moms, what are we?”


“Roll over and play dead and hope it will all pass Moms?”

Personally, I preferred the term laissez-faire moms, since it’s always better to stick in a gratuitous foreign phrase in the hopes no one will know what you’re talking about.  Besides, it sounded better than other alternatives like Deadbeat Moms.

The point is there’s always some new tsunami of mother thought designed to send you into a shame spiral about what you’ve failed to do or have done irremediably wrong.  (It used to be that, once you gave birth, you became immediately guilty; these days, all you have to do is think about getting pregnant and you’re already failing your future kid in some hopeless way.  That is not my idea of progress.)

I read about or listen to the latest mantras of Mom Perfectionism — the organic diets, the endless intellectual and cultural stimulation, the constantly hovering protectionism — and I go into a swivet thinking about my husband’s and my kids’ deplorably haphazard childhoods.  We ate junk food sometimes!  We watched The Sopranos together!   They went to day care!  We sometimes reacted inappropriately!  (Told our middle-school age son had dialed 1-800-SPANKME on a school phone and was now cooling his heels in the principal’s office, I struggled to keep a straight face, all the while twitching unattractively.  My husband and I spent the rest of the evening overcome by hysterical laughter.)

Oh, God, I don’t know.  My main complaint is that there’s no one perfect way to bring up kids that assures success (assuming we could agree, in the first place, what “success” is; my own definition would include spawning kids with a great sense of humor — and I can tell you we succeeded on that one just fine).  We all do our best, we’re all well-meaning, even if some of us like Betsy and me are total, unapologetic slobs.

I’m sick and tired of the neverending Mom Guilt Trip.  Hasn’t it occurred to some people that — now and then and whenever you can manage it — you’re supposed to have a little fun with your kids?

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read another post about asserting myself through birthday cake

29 comments… add one
  • Tonight we went to Friendly’s for ice cream, per my 13yo’s request as a birthday treat. My middle son ordered the giant “make your own sundae” minibar and after he’d dumped all the sprinkles possible, he then said, “I think it’s missing something….” and poured a sugar packet on top. The pictures I took don’t do it justice (nor does the current running/screaming they’re doing now. Who says sugar doesn’t make kids hyper??)

  • Yes! We are supposed to have F-U-N with our kids. Why else would we have them? Why would we bring them home to live with us? My standard response to all this Tiger Mom debate is “I’m too old for this crap.” That seems to sum up most of the stuff going on about motherhood nowadays. Brava for taking a decidedly refreshing look at this, may I say it again?, crap. 😉

  • 1-800-SPANKME! I am laughing so hard right now, and that would be a proud mom moment for sure.

    I used to worry about doing everything perfectly, but now I just aim for not having the house catch on fire.

  • Susan Link

    I agree with Patti – gotta love your refreshingly relaxed take on this. Tiger Moms scare me, though I sort of understand why they would want the very best for their kids.

  • I have a photo of my completely nude, then 3-year-old son painted head to toe in purple paint. He decided skin was a better place to use that brush and paint than the paper I’d given him. It never even occurred to me to reprimand him. I laughed, he laughed, and I like to think I bolstered his sense of creativity a bit in the process. To hell with perfection – let’s live for laughs!

  • Please go to our Tiger Moms Parenting Battle Hymn blog site at for CDC and WHO charts.

    Misconception: Tiger Cubs raised under hard work and discipline have no critical thinking and creativity but the highest proficiency with precision.

    A typical misconception by millions of American parents in the Tiger Mother debate: Tiger Cubs under hard practice will have no critical thinking and creativity but the highest proficiency with precision. Really? In fact, Tiger Cubs raised under hard work and discipline have been thinking more independent, more focused, more passionate and of more leadership potential, which has been supported by cognitive theories.

    Some may argue that the typical laissez-faire American parenting method can make kids more creative while all Tiger Cubs are cookie-cutters, robots, which means they will no doubt lack critical thinking and creativity but the highest proficiency with precision. This point of view can not hold water, and in fact a misconception by most people, including some elites in famous think tanks, columnists, educators, consultants and even psychologists. For instance, at three years old, Mozart’s Tiger Dad forced him to play piano very hard and until age 5, he could compose his own tones at will. And Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang, who has been invited by President Obama to play piano at White House many times, started his piano learning journey at age 3 insisted by his tiger father and at age 4 he was tutored intensely by a famous piano professor in China and at age 5 to 7, he won many #1 trophoies statewide and even nationwide. Now he has been thought world’s youngest, most-achieved and most promising pianist. Too many such cases lead to a conclusion that Tiger Cubs have been thinking more independent-minded, more mature, more self-confident, more passionate, more focused and thus more competitive while showing more leadership potential. Without so much down-to-earth boring practice day in and day out, year in and year out by following others strictly, you have nothing to borrow to form your own creativity later on.

    From the above learning curve insight model – Bloom’s Taxonomy for Thinking chart, you can see if you want creativity in a specific area, which typically occurs after the synthesis stage, and critical thinking, which typically occurs after the analysis stage, you need to wade through a typical learning curve after thousands of trials/boring practice step by step from knowledge stage to comprehension to application to analysis to synthesis to the top evaluation stage, de facto turning you from a novice into an expert in that area. In this 6-stage hierarchical learning process, nobody can shortcut any stage in the middle directly jumping to critical thinking/analysis and creativity/synthesis stages. It’s very embarrassing and very misleading that so many people have put intense practice and creativity/critical thinking as two sides of a coin: you cannot have both simultaneously, but only have either enough practice to a silly robot of the highest proficiency without your own thinking or have your creative thinking without enough number of trials, which is totally a misconception. In fact, the reality is no practice no creativity and critical thinking, and no lower-level accumulation stage like the slow beginning at knowledge and comprehension and application, no upper-level outbreak stage at analysis and synthesis and evaluation. One can only make progress step by step, no shortcut at all. And as one steps higher on this hierarchy, more and more creativity shows up. It’s a shame that even so many doctors who are versed in education and psychology are holding this misconception while misleading millions of others via our major media like Wall Street Journal.

    Mastery at a state of conscious competence equals proficiency and speed, and on a very professional proficiency level, one can have much higher level of creativity than others. In fact, most of times, creativity comes from a wide range of knowledge base kids have devoured from the outside world. Discipline can make kids learn much more than normal. And keep practicing hard can make kids dig much deeper into some specific fields, thereby finally turning them into specialists and even experts. In this long-winding learning journey, one needs both passion and perseverance. Unfortunately, some American kids lack both discipline and practice, aka, breadth and depth of knowledge, thereby lacking passion and tenacity and thus competitiveness in their later career.

  • Marijke Link

    I’m sitting here chuckling and agreeing with the blog post and really laughing at the “tiger mom” comment. How ridiculous.

    I wasn’t a laissez-faire mom (and, being in Montreal, I use that term without it being a foreign language!), but I absolutely wan’t a helicopter mom or anything close to a feline mom. My kids made mistakes. I watched them fall flat on their face sometimes. Did it hurt to watch that? Hell yes. But sometimes that is when you learn the best – when you have to pick yourself up rather than having mom stop you from having the experience to begin with.

    My 3 “kids” are in adulthood now and studying hard to end up where they think they’d like to be and they’re doing pretty darned well, scrapes and all.

  • Best line? <<>>

    That made me laugh.

  • Kitten Son Link

    This comment is mainly directed towards Tiger Moms (friendly advice: the name closely resembles Mama Grizzlies… you might want to look into getting a new term), and I certainly mean no ill will towards the commenter. However, I think your long, rambling, meticulous argument sort of proves Ruth’s point. You’ve taken the time to build up what appears to be a solid argument with statistical facts, and adding more arguments to arguments, with arguments on top of the original argument. Sub point after sub point is almost robotic (although I have been assured that a Tiger Mom’s teachings are anything but).

    I made the mistake of going to the Tiger Mom blog and was completely overwhelmed with posts merely created in order to seek validation of their practices. Everything simply oozes “Don’t judge me! Be like us! We’re not that crazy!” and it’s a little sad.

    I’m not the one to judge, okay, maybe that’s a lie since I’m obviously doing so, but it is nice having a life outside of school, and being socially un-inept (that should be a word). One thing we can all agree on is that we should probably raise our kids as to how we think they will benefit the most. But what would I know? I’m just a guy who called 1-800-SPANKME.

  • Merr Link

    A great piece, Ruth! I’m putting this one up on my FB wall!

  • Both my daughters are in therapy right now, as adults, and they asked me to attend a few sessions with them this winter with a family therapist.

    I’m amazed at some of the parenting concepts their therapists advance, not at all what we were doing in the laissez-faire 1970s.

  • Shoot! I was trying to quote my fav line, but it didn’t show up (maybe because I used these things . Trying again … “Personally, I preferred the term laissez-faire moms, since it’s always better to stick in a gratuitous foreign phrase in the hopes no one will know what you’re talking about.”

  • I agree with you Ruth. You can’t be perfect and you’re just better off being who you are and raising kids to be who they are. I’m tired of the requirement for perfection too.

  • I guess I’m “guilty” too of being a laissez-faire mom; wanting my kids to have fun; not taking everything so seriously; giving my kids freedom to be themselves and not telling them who/what/where they should be. And you know what? They turned out pretty good. So there, tiger moms.

  • I think some of the difference lies in our goals for our kids. I just want my kid to have the tools she needs to be happy–whatever that means for her. I could care not if she’s happy as a garbage worker or a lawyer or a strip dancer. As long as she knows how to cope with the inevitable struggles of life, I will have considered my momming a success.

  • Oh, and I think this was one of your best posts ever. I read it with a Southern accent for best effect. Wonderful lines!

  • I think I swing from Tiger Mom to Laissez-Faire Mom, depending upon the day. Or is it hour. 🙂

  • Cindy A Link

    Interesting post, Ruth.

    I must be laissez-faire. I couldn’t suffer through all of Tiger Mom’s self validation.

    That said, my daughter is an accidental tiger kid. She pushes herself and is extremely competitive. No earthly idea where she gets it, but it didn’t come from me.

  • I’ve never heard of anyone who, after their children had grown, regretted spending time with and having fun with their kids! Enjoy them! Make memories with them! It will be good practice for that inevitable day when we become grandparents.

  • Please go to our Tiger Moms Parenting Battle Hymn blog site at for the Bureau of Labor Statistics charts.

    Why has the creativity index of American youth been declining for decades?

    Why is American kids’ creativity index decreasing sharply starting from 1990s while Asian kids have developed a balanced and advanced brain functions between left and right sides, which means Asian Americans have not only advanced skills in reasoning, logics, math, science and languages but also advanced expertise in creativity, imagination and music like China’s young pianist Lang Lang?

    In the Chinese Tiger Moms debate, most Americans have argued that it was creativity that had boosted up US to its current monopolistic glory while Tiger Cubs under Tiger Moms’ extreme pushes may have practiced a lot but lack creativity overall. Also, IBM recently polled 1500 Wall Street business leaders who have been managing the largest firms in the world and led to a conclusion that the first priority in developing leadership is creativity, otherwise one business would not be able to handle ever-increasingly fierce competition due to deeper and deeper globalization. In the meantime, a country’s overall creativity can finally translate into job opportunities and thereby contribute to the fast growth of its economy. In the past, US has held an unbeatable position in creativity in almost any area from patents to technology innovations to business operations to everything that people need or businesses operate. Unfortunately, per Newsweek, “For the first time, research shows that American creativity is declining based on tests on 300,000 American children yearly.” What went wrong and how can we fix it? Will Chinese Tiger Moms’ tough discipline be a possible solution to stop bleeding of US creativity among our youth?

    Tiger Mother Professor Amy L. Chua on a daily basis forced her daughters to practice piano and violin for 3~6 hours and most American parents regard Chua as in violation of her children’s personal interests, wills and choices, thereby leading only to a mechanically passive repletion and thus contributing almost nothing to their own creativity development. However, brain cognitive development theories prove those American parents wrong in this regard. Based on the working devision of human brain, the left brain is mainly for developing verbal and language, reasoning and logics, and math and science while the right brain is in charge of imagination and creativity, insight and intuition, and arts and music. Since Asian Tiger Cubs have an unbeatably monopolistic position in academics supported by all factual data in all college admissions offices or testing arenas like ETS SAT across the board, which is mainly controlled by the left brain. If Asian kids were to quit enough volume of practice in music and arts, then their right brain’s functionality would be diminishing over time, dubbed as “Left Brain Geeks” whose personality traits show stubborn, reasoningly logical, mechanical and less compromising, and high performing in math, science and logics. Smarter than others, Tiger Mother Chua forced her two daughters to practice 3~6 hours music either on piano or violin by denying their overall accesses to TV shows, video-games and social media networking like Facebook friending. This, ironically to their benefits, Tiger cubs have struck a balanced development in their brain, thereby de facto rendering them better-adjusted, more creative and more holistic.

    There’re other games (not video games) especially designed for developing the right brain as well as the left brain. For example, for young kids, Bakugan balls and battle gears can help to develop kids’ capabilities in 3-D structures observation, working sequence, perception and imagination dramatically, which will mostly contribute to the fast development in the right brain. Sure, Bakugan cards can also increase calculation and comparison of numbers for preschollers exponentially on a daily basis because almost all little kids who are crazy about Bakugan toys would like to focus 5x~10x times longer than normal on playing those innovative toys. And Ben 10 aliens combination toys set can also train your kids spatial and imaginative abilities very well as long as you buy enough aliens while spending time to play with them regularly. I guess all engaging Tiger Moms have done those for their kids since spending less than a grand dollar in buying a couple of hundred of Bakugan balls and battle gears or Ben 10 aliens combination sets is not a big deal for almost all American families.

    However, in stark contrast, most Americans didn’t follow Tiger Cubs balanced development between their left and right side of brain. Then what have they done on a daily basis? From the above chart by Bureau of Labor Statistics, in a typical American family on a daily basis a teenager in the age group of 15~19 on average spends 2.3 hours on watching TV shows, 0.9 hours in playing video games and 0.8 hours in being social with friends that has mostly shifted to Facebook-like social networking behavior over time. If deducting little time consumption on TV, videogaming and Facebook socializing by top 20% of academic performers, then an American kid on average would spend around 5 hours a day, rain or shine, weekdays or weekends, on dealing with machines including TV sets, gaming machines, iPods, computers and even smartphones, in fact crowding out precious time for creative trainings or even face-to-face people-skills practices, which Tiger Mother Amy Chua has called a huge waste of life.

    Fellow American parents, PLEASE DO NOT NEGLECT YOUR KIDS ANY MORE by letting themselves develop freely, which will no doubt make them boil down to mostly watching hours of TV shows, playing numerous video games, listening to iPod songs, and making tons of friends on Facebook on a daily basis, thereby leading to an addiction to TV shows, video games, iPod songs and computer uses like Facebook social networking. It’s TIME to RECLAIM our responsibility as engaging parents. If you don’t know how to achieve this grand goal, our Tiger Moms Parenting Battle Hymn blog site at will teach you step by step about HOW-TOS in far greater detail free of charge than addressed in real Tiger Mother Amy Chua’s memoir. And all our daily editorial pieces are absolutly a-must-read classic for any parent, which has been supporting by all sorts of factual data, trends, charts, teaching experiments and cognitive learning theories and most importantly been practiced successfully by thousands of top elites in Global Elites Network alumni community from Ivy League schools like Harvard, not taking anything for granted as most others did. Tiger Moms Network presented by Global Elites Network has been built for this very purpose of ratcheting up US competitiveness over the long haul on the global stage, especially in the faster learning area of world’s educational arena. Try to think, if our Xpeed Learning Platform Knowledge Management System just like McKinsey’s KMS can shoot your kids learning speed to the sky by 2x~5x times, then your kids would be able to enjoy a much happier life while having enough time learning all sorts of knowledge several times more, applied subjects for later career improvements or basic math and science skills, both in breadth and depth. The answer is very certain: yes, we can make it happen to your kids so that you don’t have to abuse your kids like Tiger Mother did to her children.

  • Christine Link

    Whoa! What’s going on with the Tiger Mom blog comments? I have been trying to reply here a few times and then keep getting sidelined by those incredibly verbose ramblings.
    I am still in the thick of things, parenting-wise, but one of the gifts of progressing in my mothering career is being able to better distinguish what are real issues and what are wheel-spinners, so to speak. I think the things that I used to think were so vitally important have changed over time, and I’m glad about that. One thing that really jumped out at me after we lived abroad for many years (in Asia, no less!) was that there are many laissez-faire parents over there, many more than you’d think. Coming back to all this has felt somewhat exhausting.

  • Ruth – this post made me laugh (okay your posts always made me laugh). In praise of the pussy cat mom. Maybe that should be your next book dear? It’s true about the guilt thing, though, and sadly. The minute you THINK about getting pregnant invariably you’ve already messed up somehow. Sigh.

    That said, I think if you read the book (I haven’t either), you’ll see that Tiger Mom is a lot more real and down-to-earth than she’s been portrayed in the media…


  • Thought I had had enough of all of these blog posts in response to the Tiger Mother book furor until I read yours today, Ruth. Thanks for bringing some plain old common sense to this debate or whatever we should call it. Is it really a debate about mothering or simply a debate about Amy Chua’s over-intense form of parenting?

    I’m a 40-something Mom of a 3-year-old and simply cannot understand all of this pressure so many parents put on themselves to be perfect and put on their children to be perfect. Maybe, as one friend of mine said, I’ll somehow feel this pressure more when my child gets older and I began to worry about colleges. I doubt it. I don’t think I’ll ever truly “worry” about colleges. I want what my Mom – a very wise soul – wanted for her children – happiness. It’s not something we can force upon our children. But an ease with themselves and life might happen if parents learn to ease up.

    Because I could make the choice, I made the decision to stop working full-time after my son was born. I spend three days a week with him and work the other two days. I know I’m lucky. I am so treasuring these early years with my little guy – as is my husband.

  • Wow, that last comment was a long one. How to raise your kids is always a hot-button issue isn’t it? I’m looking forward to the day I can talk long walks with a good friend and talk/laugh about the latest parenting craze (when my kids are grown and successful–my definition: content).

  • Slacker mom here, and proud of it. I’m Lorelai Gilmore and my daughter is Rory. We’re fine with it. And she gets straight A’s, by the way.

  • Cindy A Link

    Man, if I were Tiger Mom’s kid, I’d run away.

  • I’m with you, Ruth, the mama guilt trip drives me crazy. Most of us are just trying to do the best we can, know we’re not perfect, and hope our kids turn out OK anyway.

    As for the SPANKME incident: Too funny. And a priceless parenting memory. Bet you all still have a good laugh whenever that story does the rounds.

  • Twitter@TigerMomsNet FACTS/DATA prove US high school education has deteriorated into 3rd WORLD and US higher education is decaying to 2nd-tier. WAKEUP Fellow Americans Do something to change the US derailing trek!

  • You are one of my inspirations, Ruth, truly. In so many ways. Thank you for writing this. The Mommy Guilt trend is unnerving and vile.

    Boy Tiger Moms Network is on to you, girlfriend!

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