Driving your children to school whenever they miss the bus. Switching soccer teams after a disagreement with the coach. Polishing homework projects and essays. What do these scenarios have in common? They’re examples of ‘snowplow’ parenting, the increasingly common practice of removing obstacles from your child’s path. If you’ve unwittingly adopted a few of these practices, you’re not alone. Per a recent New York Times poll, up to three-quarters of parents admit to snowplow behaviors.
From ensuring that a child gets their preferred teacher/locker/class schedule each year to navigating all classroom and playground conflicts, parents who snowplow think they’re clearing the way for achievement. In fact, snowplow parents prevent a child from learning how to solve problems, resolve conflicts, and manage relationships, robbing them of the resourcefulness and resilience that breed success.
Sound familiar? Here’s how to turn your snowplow around
Early years: 0 to 5
Parents of teens and young adults aren’t the only ones who snowplow. In younger children, snowplow parenting can look like steering your child away from scenarios that stir strong feelings or going out of your way to prevent any negative experience; say, leaving work to drop off a forgotten homework project so your child has to deal with missing a deadline. But protecting children from all negative experiences - like embarrassment, regret, or frustration - prevents them from learning how to cope when these feelings arise.
“Research shows that children who have been overly-protected from their own emotions lack a sense of agency over their own lives and are more prone to develop unfulfilling relationships in the future,” says Kamini Wood, a certified life and resilience coach for girls, teens, and young women. Rather than helping your little one avoid every distressing moment, encourage an ‘I can handle it’ mindset; Laurie Wright’s Mindful Mantras books and audio books offer fast, simple messages that build resilience and emotional regulation.
Elementary years: 6 to 12
Strong self-advocacy skills - the ability to stand up for oneself - are important to master, especially for school-age kids. They’ll have plenty of opportunities for practice, from playground politics to homework dramas to sports scuffles. When snowplow parents step in to smooth over these conflicts before children can resolve them independently, they unwittingly prevent kids from learning to self-advocate, says clinical psychologist and mother of four Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D.
To effectively walk the line between snowplow parent and strong advocate, first ask yourself whether the situation in question puts your child’s physical or emotional safety at risk. When the answer is yes, as with bullying, parents should get involved. If the answer is no - for example, your child doesn’t like their assigned locker partner’s messy habits or a new teacher’s grading policies - the situation calls for parental support, rather than intervention. Helping a frustrated or disappointed child determine how to navigate a situation, then stepping back as they implement the plan, ultimately serves them better than engineering a swift resolution yourself.
Teen years: 13 to 18
While so-called ‘helicopter’ parents hover and micromanage, snowplow parents take protective parenting a step further by actively removing obstacles to their child’s success. Snowplow parents often shift into high gear during the teen years because the stakes are higher, says Maidenberg. “Our parenting is directly impacted by what’s going on in our society culturally, politically, socially, and economically,” she notes. “Today’s children are facing more volatility with higher youth suicide rates, the opioid and vaping epidemic, and increasing competition to get into university.” Well-meaning parents who want to relieve some of this pressure can easily slip into snowplow parenting, says Maidenberg.
This starts with innocuous behaviors like becoming their child’s alarm clock, repeatedly reminding them of deadlines and assignments, and using their own connections to land coveted internships or jobs for their offspring. Parents can support success without driving a snowplow, though. Establish a regular weekly check-in with your teen to touch base on homework, test prep, and work responsibilities. Give your teen the tools to stay organized, like a wall calendar, digital reminder app, or
a planner. And when problems arise, employ a simple phrase to keep the snowplow at bay. Instead of “What can I do,” ask “How can I support you?”
Malia is a nationally-published health journalist and author of Ready, Set, Sleep: 50 Ways to Help Your Child Sleep So You Can Sleep Too.
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