Monday, 25 February 2013

Are you a snow plow parent?

Jen (not her real name) was mortified. Her eight year-old daughter, Maddy (also not her real name) had burst through the front door bawling her eyes out after her first day of school. After sobbing on her mum’s shoulder for several minutes, Maddy had finally been able to explain that third grade class allocations had left her in a room without her three best friends. She only had one friend in the new class.

Jen was livid. (I laughed when she told me, until I realised she was serious.) She stormed down the street to her daughter’s school, entered the administration building and demanded her daughter be placed in the same class as her best friends.

A taxonomy of parenting types

In recent years we have experienced an explosion in clever names for various parenting-types. Helicopter parents ‘hover’ over their children, paying close attention to anything and everything that comes into their environment, keeping them safe at all costs. Tiger mums over-parent in a different way, pushing their children to be ‘all that they can be’, driving them harder and harder towards mastery in spite of protestations and developmental norms.

Snow plow parents are another type of (arguably) over-invested parent who believe it is their role to smooth the path for their kids, pushing all of the obstacles out of the way so that they don’t have to endure hardships, bumps, and other difficulties along their ‘path’ of life. It’s another form of ‘taking control’, with an emphasis on making sure we do whatever it takes to be certain our kids have successes without needing to fail.

Is there a problem with that?

All of these parents want the best for their kids, like all parents. The difficulty lies in the way they try to bring ‘the best’ about. In all three cases, the parent appears unwilling to allow the child to experience setback and failure. In fact, the parents seems unwilling to allow the child to do anything at all that they might not do perfectly.

“Can’t make your bed properly? That’s ok… I’ll do it so it’s perfect.

“Struggling with your homework project? Here, let me handle that. I’ll ‘help’.

“Your friends don’t think the phone you’ve got is cool enough? Alright, I’ll get you a touchphone.”

I’m not advocating that we should make our kids suffer. I’m not suggesting we should leave them hanging by a thread and let them figure it all out on their own… but would that be such a bad thing if they were left dangling (figuratively speaking) and had to work out how to hang on or where to land?

Snow plow parenting promotes helplessness in kids

The quicker we push obstacles out of the way, the more our children rely on us to continue to do precisely that. They stop thinking for themselves. They don’t see themselves as people with the capacity to ‘act’. Instead, they feel that life will ‘act on them’, or that we will ‘act for them.’ Neither response to challenge is helpful. Neither response leads to development.

Teaching competence to our children

What are the times you have felt most competent or felt you had achieved something worthwhile? Was it when you were better than everyone? When you were in your element and were surrounded by supportive people? When everything worked out just right and you aced it?

Or did you feel most competent – like you had achieved something great – that time where you felt entirely isolated, where you felt like you barely had a clue how to do it, but you stuck at it. You were tenacious. You dug deep and found some determination to not let that thing beat you, even though you were doing it on your own?

While both feel good, I bet I know which one felt better. It was the one where you didn’t know if you’d get through it… the one where you encountered challenge upon challenge, and setback after setback. You probably failed, made mistakes, had to start over, and maybe even had a little cry in your pillow.

But at the end, after you pushed through it, the feeling of having achieved something hard was yours to savour. It made you stronger, more independent, and left you feeling more capable.

That is what makes for successful kids. Not parents who get all the hard stuff out of the way for them.

What to do about it?

Kids having a hard time with their musical instrument of choice? Son not wanting to keep playing that sport he begged to play? Or not in the right class with their friends at school? Or failing a subject? Or fighting with a best friend?

While we don’t want to torture our children and go all ‘tiger mum’ on them, this is where we have the opportunity to teach them about challenges and failures while they are young.

What can we do about it?

  1. Teach them that anything worthwhile takes effort
  2. Teach them that everyone fails and that’s ok. What matters is what you do next.
  3. Be patient, compassionate, supportive – and firm.
  4. Promote the idea that learning and mastery matter more than results
  5. After they’ve genuinely ‘seen it through’, let them decide.

Is there ever a time that we should remove obstacles from our kids’ path? When have you wanted to, but held back?

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