Snowplow Parenting

. October 1, 2019.
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Some never let kids experience failure

You have likely heard of the “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal that rocked the news cycle this past March. It involved several rich and famous people, including Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, who paid-off admissions consultant, William Singer, to gain their children admittance into prestigious universities. Though these parents are extreme examples, their particular style of over-parenting is more prevalent than you might think. In the past few years, it has gained enough notoriety to have garnered its own name: “snowplow parenting.”

What is it, and what’s the harm?

In snowplow parenting, the adults “plow through” obstacles for their child so that he or she can obtain a reward without experiencing struggle or failure.

For most snowplow parents, it does not look like paying off admissions counselors; it may look like pressuring a teacher to give their child a higher grade, or delivering a forgotten lunch to school for the fifth time in a row.

Dr. Karen Paciorek, Professor of Early Childhood Education & Children and Families at Eastern Michigan University, states that “[snowplow parents] want the child’s life to go smoothly, but they are robbing the child of valuable learning experiences.” She adds that, without experiencing struggle or failure “[they] don’t have the opportunity to develop perseverance, stick-to-it-iveness, independence, respect, or responsibility.” Dr. Smita Nagpal, psychologist and Director of Program Development at Still Waters Counseling in Saline, adds that this parenting-model can prevent kids from finding their place in the world. “It can lower self-esteem and self-confidence. It can get in the way of them building their own identity because you get a sense of who you are from the things you accomplish,” Nagpal says.

Local parent perspective

Janet, a writer based in Ann Arbor and mother of two college-student daughters, explains that during her own childhood, she was not handed anything: “[t]he first two years of high school,” she says, “I took two buses across Detroit to get home from school everyday. Then I would clean the house, set the table and make dinner everyday.

At 20 years-old, I was completely on my own.” Janet has raised her daughters to be “independent, resourceful, compassionate people,” but admits that avoiding the snowplow route has not always been easy. During their middle and high school years, her daughter’s peers were treated to tremendous privileges and few responsibilities, which pressured Janet to do the same. Also, sometimes there is the impulse to intervene in their decisions when a lot is on the line. For example, one of her daughters recently received bad academic advising at her university, and Janet struggled with how to help without crossing the line into snowplow parenting. The line is not always so clear-cut, especially in Janet’s case, considering the exorbitant cost of college and the importance of a good education.

Contributing factors

Snowplow parenting exists for many reasons. According to Dr. Paciorek, nowadays, with families having fewer children and people living longer, it is easier for parents and grandparents to be heavily involved in a child’s life.

She adds that parents “see their children as a reflection of themselves to a much greater extent than they did years ago” and that it “becomes somewhat of a status symbol” to have your children experience prestige and success.

Another perspective, held by Dr. Nagpal, is that this phenomenon is no more prevalent than in previous generations. To her, this issue is an example of “instinct gone awry.” She explains that the motivation to protect a child from harm or stress is wired into parents. This instinct crosses the line “when the parents get in the way of a child’s own sense of accomplishment.” She finds that parents often snowplow for their kids when they themselves were snowplowed for, or when they had a negative or difficult upbringing and vowed to make life easier for their kids.

All parents rightly strive to protect their children and provide opportunities for them. The important thing is to think about whether the kids will be ready when it’s time for them to be on their own. In Janet’s words: “are we really thinking clearly what’s best for the kids long-term? It may feel good in the moment [to snowplow for them], but how will they develop resilience if they never have to deal with adversity?”

Tools for Avoiding Snowplow Parenting

Snowplow parenting can be difficult to resist. If you are interested in learning how to avoid it, the following tools offered by Drs. Paciorek and Nagpal might help.

From Dr. Paciorek

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Mental checklist. Instead of bailing them out in a time of struggle or challenge, you can teach them to plan and reflect on their choices by helping them make a mental checklist on a piece of paper.

Before they tackle a problem, ask them to write what they need to do to succeed. After they are finished with the problem, ask them to write what they did well and what they can improve on.

Overall. Trust your ability to provide challenging experiences for your child and trust your child’s ability to rise to the occasion.

From Dr. Nagpal

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Seek out resources. Seeing a counselor, reading a good parenting book (such as Parenting From the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel), or joining a structured parenting program can better help you see the pattern of snowplow parenting in your life and how that impacts your child negatively. They can also help bring your focus to a different parenting-approach where you can help your kids learn how to gain resilience.