The recent scandal over college admission, with wealthy and famous parents allegedly using bribery, cheating on tests, and false claims of athletic skills and disabilities to get their children into elite schools, has provoked understandable outrage. The underlying messages in these parents’ actions are: “Only the best will do for me and my child” and “I will get exactly what I want, when I want it.”
But there are over-involved and over-indulgent parents at all levels of society. Parents don’t have to be wealthy and famous to be controlling.
Still, there’s a line between being involved and supportive and trying to control your children or engineer positive outcomes for them. Those who do the latter – who try to clear a path to success for their children – are termed “snowplow parents.” While “helicopter parents” hover, snowplow parents eliminate obstacles. The average snowplow parent may not commit fraud or bribery, but uses influence in other ways, by doing homework for a child, pleading with teachers to improve a child’s bad grade, or pushing for undeserved admission to an honor society. A snowplow parent may complain about a child’s lack of playing time in a sport or a child not making the team.
When snowplow parents do this, they create an expectation that the child deserves something they didn’t earn. How does this make the child feel? The message being sent is: if you can’t be the best, you’re failing. And if a child feels being a “failure” is anything short of making the starting team, getting straight As, or being the lead in the school play, he may feel tremendous pressure and anxiety -- or give up altogether.
Snowplow parents, in trying to give their children all they need or want, are setting up a false reality for children as they mature. Children of snowplow parents will expect to have every need and desire met without much effort on their part. Instant gratification denies kids the chance to acquire the skills to enable them to work towards goals, such as saving money to buy something, practicing sensible eating and exercise habits to stay healthy, or studying hard to get good grades.
It’s an important life-lesson for children to experience struggle, work hard for what they desire, and have desires that go unfulfilled. Otherwise they can end up as adults who put in the minimal effort and complain when they don't get the results they want, such as getting into a top-tier school, landing a high-profile job, or getting a well-paid promotion. The children of snowplow parents may see others as obstacles to their success, rather than making productive connections and putting in the necessary work and energy to be successful.
What can parents do to avoid being a snowplow?
Slow down and be realistic. A six-year-old needn’t be drilled on multiplication tables. For a young child, choose planned activities sparingly. There is so much benefit to free play and down time.
Let your child experience failures. They are important life lessons that build resilience.
Show empathy and understanding when your child has a little setback. Talk about what could have been done differently and what a backup plan might look like. “So you didn’t make the basketball team. You can try again next season if you put in the hard work and practice between now and then. How can I help?”
If your child forgets her homework, don’t jump to bail her out by calling her teacher or rushing to school with the forgotten papers. Don’t constantly intervene. Don’t berate the child. Let her cope with the small failures and work with her on how to improve her organizing skills.
For older kids, try not to micromanage the child’s high-school career with the single-minded goal of getting into a dream school. Be supportive and realistic about achievements and ambitions.
If your child truly has a goal of getting into a certain college, support him in ways that don’t cross the snowplow line, such as providing private tutoring or coaching. But let him put in the hard work to achieve his goals.