Snowplow Parenting

4 tips for how to avoid it
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The college admissions scandal has focused attention on a popularly criticized mode of raising children referred to as “snowplow parenting.” The snowplow parent pushes aside any and all obstacles facing their child in an effort to guarantee their child’s success in life.

While it’s unlikely that many of us resort to lying, bribing and cheating, we likely all recognize aspects of our own parenting style within this broad definition. We want our children to succeed, but there is a fine line between encouraging and controlling. Here are four tips for navigating that line and, ultimately, helping our children develop independence and confidence, rather than clearing their path.

1. Don’t Feel Guilty

Chances are, you have done something snowplow-ish. This doesn’t make you a Snowplow Parent.

“Labels are not super helpful,” says Colleen Hamilton, a clinical and child psychologist with Lepage Associates in Durham. “There’s a judgmental quality to calling someone a helicopter parent, or a tiger mom, or a snowplow parent.”

Indeed, parents are quick to judge their own behavior and feel guilty. Hamilton says they shouldn’t.

“Parenting is a continuum,” she says. “There are times when easing a situation or strongly advocating for your child is exactly the right thing to do.”

Snowplow-style parenting is a natural reaction to our increasingly competitive society. Stefan Waldschmidt, a college counselor at Carolina Friends School in Durham, notes that this is especially clear with the pressure surrounding college applications.

“The stakes have gotten higher,” he says. “Many jobs look for higher level degrees, and the most competitive colleges, those with a disproportionate amount of resources, are getting tougher on admissions. Of course that is going to lead to anxiety.”

As a result, the application process can start as early as kindergarten, when many parents want to make sure their child is in the “right” school. Then, they over-schedule their child’s free time with extra lessons.

“There’s an impetus to get kids more and more involved because the whole world is telling you to get them involved,” Waldschmidt says.

This social pressure can cloud the truth. “There is a spot at a college for every kid who wants to go,” he says, adding that kids are typically happy with their options as long as they believe their parents are satisfied. “You think that if your kid gets into a ‘good’ college then you did a good job as a parent. Try not to fall into that trap.”

2. Examine Your Behavior and Motivation

While it’s not helpful to judge or feel guilty about your snowplow tendencies, it can be helpful to examine your behavior. There is a key distinction between “helping and protecting” versus “controlling,” says Jason Bird, a psychologist with Southeast Psych in Charlotte.

“You should 100% protect the physical and mental health of your child,” Bird says. “Definitely help your kid get over a hurdle, just be aware that stepping in more often, especially for older kids, becomes unhealthy.”

Examine how much pressure you may be putting on your child. Hamilton says, “it is totally appropriate to push your child to be their best,” but it becomes problematic if your definition of success is rigid; i.e., “If you don’t make the varsity team then you are a failure.”

Pressure to meet specific goals will eventually strain the parent/child relationship, Hamilton cautions. “A child’s desire to please a parent starts at a young age,” she says. “If they repeatedly fall short of your goals, they will withdraw from the relationship.”

A parent should provide emotional support, but take cues from their child.

“If your math-whiz child brings home a B- on a test, rather than reacting, find out how they feel about it,” suggests Laura Markham, best-selling author and creator of “Keep it child-focused rather than implying by your action that your child should be upset. Look to see if they’re upset, then offer empathy.”

Also, consider your motivation. Parental self-worth has become wrapped up in the relative “success” of the parent’s child, Bird says. Make sure you are working to help your child achieve his dreams rather than your own. Do this by listening to your child. He loves baseball? Find out if he hopes to play for the New York Yankees, for a Division III college, for his high school team or for the local recreation league. Or maybe he wanted to play for the Yankees when he was 8, but now he’s more interested in computer science. Maybe your 9-year-old daughter takes five hours to do her math homework — not because she’s lazy and dreamy — but because she has a learning disability and needs a different kind of help. Maybe your 18-year-old isn’t ready to go away to a four-year-college.

Think outside the expected, Waldschmidt recommends.

“Some kids love knitting ugly sweaters,” he says. “Be open to that.”

In terms of colleges, Waldschmidt points out that community college can be a great option. “Your child can attend for two years and then transfer to a strong four-year program,” he says. “It takes pressure off the application process and reduces worries about college costs.”

Consider your child’s strengths — and play to them. It is important not only to understand your child, but to accept and love her as she is. “They might not be the math whiz you were, and that’s fine,” Markham says. “Love and appreciate their unique strengths.”

If your child is anxious about school and college applications, make sure she has access to an outlet she can feel good about, like sports, music, entertainment or exercise. This can help ease a child’s anxiety and can also provide a safe place for the two of you to interact.

“By the time a child is in high school, parents tend to focus on school and kids can shut down,” Bird says. “Especially if they feel they’re not meeting their parents’ expectations. It can help to have an outside interest.”

3. Let Your Kid be the Driver.

Real or imagined, pressure from parents, school and social media is increasing rates of anxiety among today’s kids and teens. By reigning in your snowplow tendencies and letting your child take some responsibility for clearing his own path, you could dramatically reduce his anxiety.

“Once you’ve met your child’s physical needs, and their emotional needs for connection, the next step is to address their need for autonomy,” Markham says. “Kids who feel they can navigate the world and meet challenges on their own are more confident and resilient.” She likens it to being in a car: When you’re the driver you don’t get carsick. “Having a sense of control makes a child less anxious,” she says.  

Let your child do the talking. By the time your child is mid-elementary, she should be making attempts to solve her friend problems on her own. Rather than call her friend’s parents, encourage her to talk the issue through with her friend. By the time she is in high school, she should be taking the first shot at solving academic problems. Encourage her to talk with teachers before rather than after a big test. Once she feels comfortable asking for help, she’s well on the path to a successful education.

Let your child make decisions. When your 14-year-old is starting to plan her summer, set out some rules, but allow her to make the ultimate decision about what she’ll do. “Provide tips for making smart decisions,” Hamilton says. “Talk through the issue, ask her to list the possibilities and the pros and cons of each. Brainstorm potential outcomes. And then follow up.”

Let your child make mistakes. As much as you want to save your child from mistakes, it’s vital to let her start navigating the world on her own. If your child has practiced climbing and feels ready to tackle the tall structure at the park, let her go for it. 

“It’s never graceful, and sometimes they will fall flat on their face,” Markham says. “The child who succeeds gets a wonderful feeling of confidence and pride, while research shows that the child who falls, even if he breaks his arm, tends to be the one who has no fear of heights when he’s older,”

 Failure — and recovery with your support — breeds resilience.

Show your child how to learn from failure. “Talk about your own shortcomings,” Hamilton says. “Look at the language you’re using, saying ‘I’m a failure’ is derogatory, whereas, ‘I sometimes fail’ — that’s just human. Everyone fails. The key is to learn from it — take information and move forward.

4. Protect ‘the Margin’

Finally, if you’re having trouble giving up snowplowing, Waldschmidt says that you can always step in to help your child protect his or her “margin.”

“College applications can be overwhelming, especially when everyone is asking how it’s going and offering advice,” he says. “A parent can provide a huge service by insulating their child from some of this.”

Remember, Hamilton says, there are multiple paths to success and the journey — the development of social intelligence and emotional independence — is more important than the name of the college a student attends.


Caitlin Wheeler is a Parenting Magazine Association award-winning writer who lives in Durham.


Categories: Family, Health and Development, Parenting