Are you a Snowplow Parent?

First we had helicopter parents — the types who anxiously “hover” over their children’s every move. Now, we have snowplow parents (also referred to as “bulldozer” or “lawnmower” parents). These mothers and fathers try to clear the path for their children by removing obstacles or challenges to what they want their children to achieve or to ensure their success. An extreme example of this type of parenting is the recent college admissions scandal where dozens of parents bribed and/or cheated so that their children would be guaranteed admission into prestigious universities. But there are plenty of smaller variations of snowplow parenting. For example:

  • Your teen fails to complete a school project, so you let them stay home from school to work on it and tell the school that your teen is sick.
  • Your teen gets a grade lower than you expected, and you contact the teacher to try to get extra credit opportunities or other special allowances for your child.
  • You pull whatever strings necessary to get your teen on the sports team of their choice.
  • You don’t agree with a teacher’s approach, so you write notes to excuse your teen from their homework.
  • Your teen forgets his instrument at home, and you drop it off at school before band class so that your child doesn’t have to face the consequences.

While individually, none of these examples is harmful, developing a habit of removing obstacles for your teens can be detrimental in the long run.

These parents have the best of intentions! The problem is that removing obstacles for a teen deprives them of the life skills necessary to find their own way in the world. It’s ironic because these parents are trying to ensure their child’s current success, but in fact they are undermining their future success. The only way teens can become resilient is to experience disappointment and pick themselves back up again and look for a different path forward. They must practice dealing with challenges and learn from mistakes.

The other unintended result of snowplow parenting is reducing your teen’s self-confidence. When you step in to fix problems and/or remove challenges, you are unintentionally giving your teen the message that you don’t believe they can be trusted to make good choices or find their own paths to success.

Results of Snowplow Parenting

Teens with snowplow parents will struggle in adulthood when trying to cope with the inevitable challenges of life. Snowplow parents have created a role for themselves of always being there to handle things for their child, so it gets worse because their young adult will be unable to manage the basic tasks of life. In a recent poll by The New York Times and Morning Consult of a nationally representative group of parents of children ages 18 to 28:

  • 75% of parents had made appointments for their adult children, like for doctor visits or haircuts.
  • 75% had reminded their adult child of deadlines for college.
  • 16% had texted or called their adult children to wake them up so they didn’t sleep through a class or test.
  • 8% had contacted a college professor about their child’s grades or a problem they were having.
  • 11% said they would contact their child’s employer if their child had an issue at work.

Learning to solve problems, take risks and overcome frustration are crucial life skills that cannot be developed without experience, challenges, disappointments, and failure. When children don’t acquire these skills, they experience high amounts of anxiety and low self-esteem. Overprotecting kids only fuels their anxiety.

Break the Snowplow Habit

If you are a parent with snowplow tendencies, rest assured that you are not alone! So many of us can fall into a habit of wanting to protect our children or help them overcome the difficulties of life. Now that you recognize that your teen will actually become more successful in their future if you allow them to experience life’s challenges, take these steps to break the snowplow habit:

Redefine success. Every parent wants their child to succeed in life, but you may need to redefine what you consider success. Rather than measure success in terms of grades or achievements, you might want to shift your energy to help your teen develop resilience or independence. Rather than worry about failures or mistakes, you can celebrate your teen’s inner strength and the milestones that demonstrate that they will be able to handle adulthood. Ultimately, we want our adult children to thrive on their own instead of depending on us.

Be a coach. Recognize that you don’t have to let your teen fail or flounder through life just so they can develop resilience. Your teen absolutely needs your guidance and support; they just don’t need you to do things for them. When your teen faces a problem, discuss their options. Once your teen chooses an option, coach them on how to implement it. For example, if your teen gets a bad grade, help your teen figure out how to talk to their teacher, rather than calling the teacher yourself.

Praise effort. If you only cheer your teen on when they win or achieve something great, they will develop a fear of failure and will avoid taking risks. Instead, praise them for trying something hard or for practicing a skill to improve it. When your teen is complimented for not giving up, they feel more confident that they can overcome challenges.

Identify their strengths. Let’s face it – many of us are much more likely to notice our teen’s weaknesses than their strengths. Unfortunately, when we are focused on their flaws, teens get the message that there is always something wrong about them that needs fixing. Instead, when your teen faces a new challenge, you can remind them of their strengths and encourage them to use those attributes to overcome the obstacle. When you notice and support your teens’ interests and strengths, your teen will show an improvement in confidence, cooperation and motivation.

Increase responsibility. Teens need to be given more responsibility as they grow up, so that by the time they leave for college or to live on their own, they feel confident in their ability to take care of themselves.

Teach problem-solving. Avoid jumping in too quickly to fix your teens’ problems or give them all the answers, which robs them of the chance to use their intuition and analytical skills. Teens need to exercise their own ability to go through the temporarily painful, but ultimately satisfying process of fixing their own problems or dealing with uncertainty. Encourage your teen to solve their own problems by asking open-ended questions, such as, “What’s your plan?” “How do you think you should solve this?” or “How have you approached a similar problem before?” If they feel uncertain, help your teen break the problems down into steps, brainstorm options, write pros and cons lists, but then allow them to implement their chosen solution regardless of whether you think it will work or not.

Expect mistakes. Failure is not the end of the world, and your teen must learn that lesson in order to handle adulthood. You should allow your teen the chance to experience and learn from their mistakes now, while you are available to help, rather than protect them through adolescence only to have their first real failure occur when they are out on their own. Teens must see and feel the consequences of their actions in order to gain the wisdom to make better choices in the future.

Final Thoughts…

As a parent, it’s difficult to watch your child struggle. You hurt for them, and you want to help – but there comes a point when helping can be harmful. Removing obstacles from your child’s path, or ‘snowplowing’, may make their life easier in the short term, but it could be setting them up for bigger problems in the future.

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