Are you a “Snowplow Parent”?

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

A recent article in the NYTimes introduced a new term: the Snowplow parent. Historically, there has been discussion about helicopter parents who “hovered” over their kids, trying to protect them in a hypervigilant way. Then we had free-range parents who let the reins go in an attempt to give kids space to navigate on their own. Now we have moved on to “snowplow parents” who literally try to “snowplow” obstacles out of their kids way to make their lives easy. Witness the latest college scandals where parents will do anything to get their kids into the right colleges, whether they deserve it or not. The reports are quite frightening, including a recent one about parents who spent six million dollars to get their kids into the right college.

Jonathan Haidt in his book The Coddling of the American Mind suggests that the goal of parenting is to prepare your child for the road, not prepare the road for your child! Snowplow parents do the opposite: they try to prepare the road for the child, which often only serves to set them up for failure later in life. Healthy parents, on the other hand, carefully prepare their child for the road. While we all think our children are special, the world will not necessarily agree. We need to prepare our children for the real world and the challenges they will face.

So what do healthy parents do?

First, healthy parents parent toward autonomy. We have our children for a brief period of their lives and then, hopefully, they will launch to college or a career. At that point, there will be little we can do for our kids. We can’t make sure they can get to 8 am classes in college and we can’t follow them to frat parties and protect them from poor choices. We can’t talk to their professors or bosses to ask for accommodations… and no matter how hard we try, they will make mistakes. The only thing that we can hold onto as parents is the hope that we have instilled enough values and resilience in them so they will make good decisions for themselves, or know how to recover from missteps. All healthy parents parent with an end in mind: to make sure their children can successfully launch, cope with the obstacles they face, and find meaningful lives.

Second, healthy parents don’t project their own fantasies or their unresolved issues on their kids. They are careful not to pressure their children to live out the dreams that they never accomplished. Think of the obnoxious little league parents who pressure coaches to give their kids more play time, or parents who are driving their kid to get into the “right college” to live out their own fantasies, or to help them feel successful as a parent. Healthy parents do not live through their children. We know that, unfortunately, unresolved trauma in a parent is one of the leading causes of attachment issues in children. Healthy parents, then, explore their multigenerational histories so as not to project their own unresolved issues or trauma on their children.

Third, healthy parents provide their children with accurate mirroring so they have a clear picture of who they are and what their abilities are. Mirroring is very different from validation: telling your child they are awesome or brilliant is not helpful as it is not specific and says very little about the child. In fact, validation can lead to increased anxiety. Mirroring that is accurate, on the other hand, reinforces specific skills and strengths, as well as helping children understand their limitations. Done well, it helps children grow up with healthy and realistic self-esteem. On the other hand, unhealthy parents mirror only the things they want to reinforce, unconsciously encouraging their child to only develop qualities that the parent appreciates. For example, a parent may only reinforce a child’s math skills and not their artistic abilities because they think that the math skills will make their child successful and art will get in the way. Healthy parents see and reflect their whole child.

Fourth, healthy parents provide optimal frustration for their children. Snowplow parents ensure their kids get everything they want, and “snowplow” obstacles out of their way. Not only does this create entitled kids who will encounter a world not so eager to meet all their needs, it actually makes them more anxious in the end. Developmental psychologists are clear that children need “optimal frustration”. That is, they need limits, they need to hear “no”, and they need to learn to solve their own problems. The late family therapist, Murray Bowen, suggested that people must always move towards anxiety. Moving away from anxiety always makes it worse. Parents who solve all their children’s problems are blocking their children from learning to handle anxiety appropriately, leading to more problems later in life. It’s no wonder that there is so much focus on adolescent anxiety. One theory suggests that kids are not being encouraged to face anxiety, and have parents who are taking care of the anxiety for them, meaning that they never learn to solve problems on their own and feel constantly overwhelmed by life.

Finally, healthy parents provide their children with a sense of something transcendent. “Snowplow” parents remove obstacles in the interest of helping their children achieve whatever they want. Healthy parents, on the other hand, want their children to be part of something bigger than them; this could be social justice efforts, a religious community, an environmental cause, etc. Healthy parents help children understand that success can’t be the only goal of life. Finding meaning through participation in something greater is key to a meaningful life.

Clearly, all of these suggestions are difficult for parents for a number of reasons, not limited to:

  1. We love our kids and want to protect them from the rejections and pains of life;
  2. We want to keep our children safe in a sometimes dangerous world;
  3. We long for our children to have better lives than we did.

It is clear that our own anxieties and unresolved issues get in the way if we do not address them. While we know all too well what can go wrong - all parents know those sleepless nights! - we will only serve our children well if we can parent them in the healthy ways touched on above. So, second guess yourself (my wife and I still lament that we could have done better), get help on the journey, and contact one of our family therapists if you feel like you’re stuck on your own issues or on decisions about how to best parent through whatever stage you’re currently in.

(PS - True confessions: It is so much easier to write this as grandparent! I don’t miss the anxiety of parenting!)