As parents, we naturally want the best for our children in every aspect of life. But where is the line drawn between wanting the best and needing to guarantee the best? That line is what differentiates one parent from another, setting average run-of-the-mill parenting aside from the latest parenting trend: “snowplow parenting.”
“Parents have the best intentions,” says Lauren Nichols, an assistant professor at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago. “But children need both positive and negative experiences to build positive self-esteem. By eliminating failure and even minor negative moments, parents are doing their children a disservice.”
While the term itself is creating new buzz, the “snowplow parenting“ style, actually, is nothing new. According to Nichols, it is merely an extension of the more widely recognized “helicopter parenting,” where parents tend to be overly involved in (or “hovering” over) their child’s experiences and conflicts. The snowplow parent, particularly as the child matures, makes it their mission to continue interceding on behalf on their child in ways that mitigate negative circumstances instead of allowing that child to experience and resolve problems on their own.
We’ve all encountered the snowplow parent: The mom who hounds her high school child’s algebra teacher about changing an unflattering grade. Or how about the dad who schmoozes up to the soccer coach to make sure that his son gets more time on the field? Basically, a snowplow parent goes above and beyond to smooth the way for their child’s success, whether it’s in school, sports or any other arena in which they’re determined to see their child excel. And, according to Nichols, this is harmful to that child’s personal development.
“One of the unintended consequences of snowplow parenting is that you’re not building any sort of belief within your child of their own ability to handle stressors,” says Nichols. “The development process during early adulthood is about solidifying a sense of self. When parents unnecessarily intervene, the young adult begins to think, ‘I can’t handle this.’ Parents need their children to feel confident in their decisions and their approaches, especially as they get older and the stakes get higher.
“If you ask parents what they want most for their child, many will say, ‘I just want my child to be happy.’ But ‘happy’ is fleeting. There is nothing wrong with children feeling disappointment. It allows him to know that, ‘Whatever this is, I can handle it.’”
If the concept of snowplow parenting is hitting a little close to home, here are some easy steps to help you “get out of the way”:
Let him work out his own disagreements. It might seem easier to step in and immediately intervene when your child is at odds with someone else, but conflict resolution is a necessary skill for navigating life. You can help by talking with your child about different scenarios that might arise and maybe even use a bit of role-playing on how to handle similar situations without your help. “Instead of jumping right in and working out their problems for them, teach your children how to do so on their own while still being respectful of the other party’s experiences,” Nichols suggests. “Teach your older child to handle his own stressors by allowing him some time to sit with his feelings, evaluate the circumstances and come to a resolution on his own.”
Allow bad grades to happen. Instead of stepping in when your child has missed an assignment or blown a test, use these as teachable moments on accountability. Talk with him about what went wrong, and discuss ways he can prevent such things from happening in the future. When poor grades come home, enlist the help of his teacher to develop a teamwork approach to getting your child focused and back on track, resisting the urge to campaign to have the grade changed. A healthy balance of failure and success builds character. According to Nichols, this is a great opportunity to teach your child how to advocate on his own behalf. “Even when you must get involved, such as when an unfair grade is given, model for your child how best to resolve such problems in a way that’s respectful.”
Give him responsibilities at home. Regardless of age, every child should be required to contribute to the upkeep of the home. Assign age-appropriate chores such as loading and unloading the dishwasher, vacuuming or meal preparation, and make sure that he follows through. “This is incredibly important as children develop,” Nichols explains. “Let them know what your expectations are, keeping in mind that the most important thing about expectations is the consequences. As with expectations, consequences should be clearly explained, making sure that you stick to what you say.”
Teach him the importance of organizing his own life. Instead of stepping in to check backpacks for homework or his sports bags to make sure he has equipment needed for practice, help your child develop a schedule and checklists to do these things for himself. If he drops the ball, let him face the consequences on his own and learn from his mistakes. Take the opportunity to discuss ways to prevent this from happening again. Self-correcting behavior goes a long way in building a responsible and fully capable adult. “Again, modeling for your child is important, particularly for the adolescent child,” says Nichols. “As parents, you should pay attention to the organizational structure of your own life. This way, the child has successful models to pull from.”