From the May 2019 issue

Failure to Launch: The Problem With Snowplow Parenting

Clearing the way hinders kids' ability to thrive in adulthood – it's the big problem with snowplow parenting. Here's how to help kids without stunting their personal growth.

Snowplow parents clearing a path for their child
Illustration by Jay Holladay

As a mom of two, Dr. Lori Warner, Ph.D., the director of the Ted Lindsay Foundation HOPE Center at Beaumont Children’s and the Center for Human Development in Southfield, is no stranger to parenting struggles.

Not just basics, but the “big picture” stuff, too – like ensuring our kids have the best opportunities possible and helping them succeed while also encouraging independence.

“Many of us as parents have to struggle with the desire to make sure that our kids will have advantages – either that we didn’t have, or the same advantages that we had,” Warner says, and “trying to make sure that their lives will be good and knowing the wisdom that we have from our years on this earth, we want to impart on them.”

Sometimes, though, those well-intentioned reasons go to an extreme.

As in the case of the recent college admissions bribery scandal known as Operation Varsity Blues involving actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman.

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Those who clear paths for their children to avoid failure or lost opportunities are known as “snowplow” parents – and their behavior can do some serious damage to their kids, often leaving them ill-prepared for their futures.

How snowplow parenting encroaches

It can start with doing a child’s science project in grade school, not assigning chores so that kids can focus on studying and, later, interfering with roommate disputes in college, Warner says.

A March 2019 New York Times survey of 1,508 young adults ages 18-28 and 1,136 parents of people in that age group found that a large number of parents across income levels report being involved in their adult children’s lives on a daily basis. The survey found that:

  • 76 percent of parents reminded their adult kids of deadlines
  • 74 percent made their appointments
  • 42 percent offered them relationship advice
  • 22 percent helped them study for a college test
  • 16 percent aided them in writing all or part of a job or internship application
  • 11 percent would contact a child’s employer if he or she had an issue at work

… and the list goes on.

“We as parents have this anxiety, and we all struggle with how best to balance our desire for our kids to do well with our knowledge that part of them developing into wonderful human beings is failing and struggling,” says Warner, whose daughter is heading to college in fall 2019.

“And I think that the parents that take this too far, unfortunately. They are robbing their kids of the very thing they want them to have.”

How can parents help their children without hindering their ability to grow?

The damage that’s done

While parents may have the best intentions, their actions can cause children to believe they are not capable. Kids become very reliant on parents to make the decisions for them, and a lot of kids rebel against that, too.

“A lot of kids don’t even realize how much is being done for them instead of with them or instead of by them,” Warner says. These kids seem entitled – demanding and expecting things be done a certain way.

“They don’t have persistence, mental resilience and grit,” she adds. “They are under a tremendous amount of stress because their parents are so anxiously hovering and clearing the way, implying that you can’t do this for yourself.”

Work and relationships could be complicated, as well, because children who face a challenge aren’t learning how to struggle and grow from it. 

Emotional issues also are common. A child is emotionally vulnerable, Warner adds, but the extra help is keeping him or her that way.

“It’s sort of a double-edged sword.”

Striking a balance

“What am I doing for my child that they really can do for themselves?”

Ask yourself this question, Warner suggests. The answer varies by age and family situation, but there are ways you can empower your kids.

  • Assign chores.Everyone in the family should have chores. Present them in a positive light, she suggests, instead of saying, “You have to do this.” As children get older, their chores should increase.
  • Let your kid fail.“We’ve got to teach them that it’s OK to not get 100 percent, it’s OK to not be picked first. It’s OK to not do well in that game,” she says. “We want to reward the effort and the persistence more than the actual outcome.”
  • Coach your children but don’t do it for them.“We want to scaffold them and give them these tools, but then we need to step back,” she says.

For additional tips, Warner suggests snagging a copy of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting by Julie Lythcott-Haims.

“I really hope to make it clear that we’re not demonizing parents, and we’re not scolding parents,” she says. “We are showing an opportunity for change.”

You can still be there for your child emotionally while giving advice and ideas.

“They are going to be able to navigate what’s in front of them much better than that bulldozer or snowplow parent just paving the way. They are going to have their own shovel or snowshoes and they are going to get through it because they are going to have those skills.” 

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