The term “snowplow parent” is creeping into our feeds and conversations, and like its predecessor, “helicopter parent” the phrase paints an unflattering portrait of the type of parents it tries to define.
The phrase has been floating around the internet for years but was popularized by writers Claire Cain Miller and Jonah Engel Bromwichba, who, in a New York Times article, defined snowplow parents as “machines chugging ahead, clearing any obstacles in their child’s path to success, so they don’t have to encounter failure, frustration or lost opportunities.”
All of us want our children to be happy, successful and have opportunities, but the college admissions scandal involving actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin showed what can happen when so-called snowplow parents take things too far.
Most of us don’t have $500,000 to spend clearing an effortless path to college for our children, but plowing obstacles out of their childhoods can cost us even more. When we take all the hard bits out of the road to adulthood, our kids have no idea what to do once they arrive.
If we do everything for our kids, we rob them of the resiliency that children develop when they overcome obstacles, and of the important life skills they develop when they pick themselves up after a fall and pick up more responsibilities. And we also rob ourselves of a future in which we’re not parenting an adult.
A poll by The New York Times and Morning Consult found that three-quarters of parents with children between 18 and 28 are doing things like reminding kids of deadlines at college and making appointments for their haircuts and doctors visits. A shocking 11% said they would contact their child’s employer if they had a problem at work.
Most of us do not want to be booking haircuts for a 20-year-old or calling our child’s boss when they’re old enough to vote and legally drink. Instead of vilifying snowplow parents (most of whom likely had the best intentions) let’s learn some lessons from them so that we can raise a generation that grows up ready for #adulting.
Here are five lessons we can learn from snowplow parents:
1. We need to let our kids fail so that they can overcome
It is hard to see our children disappointed, hurt or sad when a choice they made backfires, but as one mama, Tunde Wackman, once wrote for Motherly, “I have to remind myself that consequences are gifts in disguise, though, not a dereliction of my motherly ‘duty’ to protect my children from challenges.”
If we pick up the blocks when they tumble, or correct their homework before they hand it in, or rush home to grab the book report they forgot, our kids don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, and more importantly, they lose an opportunity to learn that they can bounce back from one.
2. We need to say ‘no’ to our kids and let them feel their feelings
It can be hard to look at your crying child and tell them “no” knowing that a “yes” would protect them from feeling bad, but sometimes we’ve got to let them feel their emotions, even when it is hard.
“If we never take off the bubble wrap and rarely say no, our children may become incapable of tolerating or managing the inconveniences of life—they’ll demand instant gratification and, over time, develop impulse control issues,” Ilene S. Cohen, Ph.D., a psychotherapist, previously wrote for Motherly.
According to Cohen, “Research shows that children who have been overly protected from their own emotions lack a sense of agency over their own lives and are more prone to develop unfulfilling relationships in the future.”
When our child breaks their toy or drops their ice cream, rushing to buy a new one can numb the pain temporarily, but letting them feel the disappointment or frustration and teaching them that it is okay to feel that way also teaches them that these are feelings that they have the power to overcome.
3. We need to praise effort as much as results
Our children need to know that trying is important. We need to praise our children for doing things that are hard and tell them often that they can do hard things. This promotes a growth mindset, where kids know their abilities and skills aren’t fixed and can grow with practice, and helps kids feel confident in their ability to overcome challenges. When a child is praised for not giving up, they’re more likely to keep going when times get tough.
4. We need to give our children increasing levels of responsibility
When it comes to household chores, like making the bed or loading this dishwasher, sometimes it feels like it would be more efficient if we just did it ourselves rather than letting a 3-year-old try, but we have to let them try. Even very young kids are capable of taking on small responsibilities, and it’s so much easier to start when they’re three than when they’re 22.
5. We need to get our kids thinking proactively
As Dr. Laura Markham previously wrote for Motherly, it’s not enough to tell our children to do something, we’ve got to train them to be thinking about what they need to do. “For instance, to the dallying child in the morning, instead of barking ‘Brush your teeth! Is your backpack packed? Don’t forget your lunch!’ you could ask, ‘What’s the next thing you need to do to get ready for school?’ The goal is to keep them focused on their list, morning after morning until they internalize it and begin managing their own morning tasks,” Markham writes.
If we don’t want to be calling a college senior to remind them their essay is due, we should stop reminding our children about their responsibilities and instead ask them which one comes next.