We have all heard about helicopter parents. They are the moms and dads who hover over their children like benevolent overlords or, at the very least, guardian angels. Climbing a jungle gym, exploring in the backyard, playing with friends, these are all activities that sound safe enough and most parents will just keep an eye on the proceedings from a distance.
A helicopter parent hangs closely by in order to catch their kid if they fall, stop them from getting pricked by a thorn on a rose bush or settle a disagreement if one arises, respectively. This doesn’t sound that bad on the surface. This parent could just be trying to keep a trip to the emergency room from ruining their entire afternoon. On the other hand, it could also be a sign of the supreme anxiety they have about the health and safety of their child. I would posit that this is not completely unreasonable, but if left unchecked, it could be the gateway that leads to something far worse: snowplow parenting.
Snowplow parents are next level. A snowplow parent clears all obstacles that are in the path of their children. They see the rose bush and instead of teaching their kids where to touch the stems to avoid the thorns, they just remove the bush by the roots. Instead of teaching their kids to look both ways while crossing the street, they go to a city council meeting to petition to have speed bumps and stops signs added to their street to make it safer. They are parents who pay people to fake college applications for their kids to guarantee their acceptance into the best universities. I think you get the picture.
This style of parenting is also known as lawnmower parenting or bulldozer parenting. But I prefer the image of a snowplow. In the wake of a lawnmower, what you get is a nicely manicured yard. After a bulldozer does its job, the project ends with a nice veneer. But a snowplow just barrels through the snow leaving piles of mud-infused slush on both sides of the road, often blocking other people’s driveways. A snowplow has no time to look back and inspect the havoc it may have wreaked on the cars parked on the side of the road. It has a singular focus: Clear the road.
This is a more apt description for these parental nightmares, because their only goal, much like a snowplow, is to remove all obstacles from the path ahead to make the road smooth and even for their kids no matter what collateral damage they leave behind.
Signs that you might be a snowplow parent
Are you a snowplow parent? You might be!
Case in point: I’m a rational person. I can see things clearly…now that I have a 10 year old. But when my son was anywhere from 0 to 7, I definitely dipped my toe into the icy waters of snowplowing. It took many other, even more rational, parents to pull me aside and say, “Hey, let him scrape his knee. It’ll be ok.” So if it happened to me, it’s possible that you too could be inadvertently looking at the looming snow clouds and preparing your plow and salt for a long winter. Here are some questions to help you learn how close you might be:
- Your kid wants to learn how to ride a bike. Do you:
- Take them out to a parking lot with a helmet and a prayer?
- Strap them into the car and say, “Why do you need a bike when I can drive you wherever you want to go?”
- Your kid hates spinach but you want them to eat it. Do you:
- Tell them they can’t leave the table until they eat it all?
- Eat the spinach for them and give them dessert anyway?
- Your kid has a diorama due at school. Do you:
- Make them do it all by themselves?
- Look on Pinterest and stay up all night doing the project yourself so that your kid gets an amazing grade?
If you answered “b” for any of these questions, you might be a snowplow parent. But don’t panic! You still have time to step on the brakes.
Why snowplow parenting is bad
We all love our kids. That should go without saying. None of us want to see them fail. But here’s the truth: Fail they must. Failure breeds success. In failure, they will find strength.
If a kid avoids the trail and runs straight through the trees in the forest, he will trip on a root and scrape his knee. The next time he goes into the woods, he will either stick to the trail or he’ll watch out for roots. Action, result, consequence, second attempt. This is how kids learn. As much as we want to believe that they just listen to what we tell them and adhere to our sage advice at every turn, that’s just not true. They learn by failing.
If you are a snowplow parent, you may say, “let’s just walk all the way around the park so we don’t have to deal with any nature.” Sure, ok, they’ll be safe for now. But they won’t be 5 years old forever. They will find themselves in situations when you aren’t there. They will be alone in the woods with no knowledge of the pitfalls that lie in wait because they have never experienced them. They won’t remember that you told them to never run straight through the brambles when they want to chase a rabbit. But they would remember the scrapes they got the last time they had tried it.
Snowplow parents want the playing field leveled every time
My son got a trophy for playing baseball. Cool. Everyone got one, both the winning and losing teams. It’s meaningless. But, on his shelf next to his trophy is a game ball. He was given this ball to commemorate the first time he ever picked up a ground ball and threw it to first base to record an out. It was a big moment in his T-Ball career. He talked about getting that game ball more than the trophy. It stuck in his mind. And he knew that if he tried hard, he could get another. The trophy sits and collects dust and he can’t even remember which team it came from.
How does this relate? The snowplow parent is the one who insists that everyone gets a trophy. Instead of making the kids put in hard work to feel what it’s like to try and fail and then try again and succeed, they just give everyone a trophy so that all the kids are successful no matter what. This helps no one but themselves and their parental ego.
If life worked like that then we’d all get raises every month whether we did our job well or not. It doesn’t happen, although I wish it did!
(Editors note: Sorry Jason, we practice what we preach here at Genes2Teens. If this article gets a lot of clicks, we might give you a bonus, but otherwise you are pushing your luck.)
A disappointed kid becomes a successful one
We need to build up true confidence in our children, not false accomplishments. They need to learn to problem solve. They need to be disappointed so that they know what that feels like.
There’s an art contest and your kid really wants to win. But when it comes time to create the art, they rush through it so they can watch Bob’s Burgers. You tell them that they can do better but they say, “No, that’s good enough.” The art contest winners are announced and your kid is supremely disappointed. What will happen the next time they enter an art contest? They will remember the sting and they will either put a lot more time and effort into their project or they’ll just decide that they like science better. But either choice is directly related to the result of their previous experience.
Put away the plow and give your kids a shovel instead
Let’s focus on practicing some anti-snowplow behavior, or what I am now going to call snow shovel parenting. Instead of clearing the road, wouldn’t it be better to give your child a snow shovel so they can move the snow themselves? See what I’m doing here? (Am I beating this analogy into the ground? You have no idea. I just erased a whole paragraph on how every snowflake is unique…You’re welcome.)
Listen, none of us want to be jerks. None of us want to see the face of a disappointed kid. But guess what? No, still has to mean no. This is fundamental in child rearing. I always want my kid to be happy. I want to give him everything. But a simple “no” can go a long way. Saying no teaches them consequences. Setting consequences for your kids is key. It teaches them disappointment, frustration, and it helps them begin to problem solve, on their own.
Let’s look at the power of a cookie. Your child asks for a cookie. You say no. He asks why. You say because they haven’t eaten their dinner, they pulled their sister’s hair, or haven’t cleaned their room, etc. Whatever the reason is, it will immediately give them a direct correlation to their brain that says, “If I want a cookie, I have to be good.”
Not getting a cookie is a consequence of their bad behavior. This may take a few attempts, but eventually the promise of a cookie will change their behavior, which becomes their shovel. They figured out a way to get the cookie. Now, if they figure out how to secretly get into the cookie jar behind your back, that’s a darker path, but I would still argue that it exhibits good problem solving skills.
Another lesson they need to learn from the cookie is: “You can’t always get what you want.” Play them some Rolling Stones and they’ll also learn that, “if you try sometimes, you just might find, you’ll get what you need.” I’ll save my how to teach your children life lessons through rock and roll music speech for a different time, but, just to put a fine point on it: In this case, they want a cookie, but what they got was a lesson that they need.
Why this matters
Don’t get me wrong. Snowplow parents love their children. They are not bad people. I would even go so far as to say that they are some of the best people, if just a little misguided. They focus on the wrong things. They want their children to succeed and be happy, right? What’s wrong with that? Nothing at all! But if they looked further down the road, they would see that this short-term success would only lead to failure in the long run because their children will grow up with no foundation of failure to build on.
Don’t clear the path. Put obstacles in their path. Teach them what snow is and how to deal with it. Do some problem solving with your kids.
When we have an issue in our house, after the screaming and crying subsides, I try and sit my son down so we can focus together on what the real problem is. You cannot solve anything until you figure out what is actually wrong. If he comes in with a knee covered in blood, we wash the carnage away to reveal the cut, which we treat, kiss, and put a Band-Aid on. Problem solved. When you problem solve together, they learn. When you problem solve for them, they can continue to float along, oblivious.
Children need to fail. Let them fall, let them get scrapes, let them miss a rung, and let them fail, because the next time, they won’t make the same mistake.
It’s going to be a mild winter. Put the plows away. You might be surprised how well your child adapts and learns to navigate their way through snowy roads by themselves…with their own shovel.