Snowplow Parenting: How Well-Meaning Parents Rob Kids of the Opportunity to Thrive

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Snowplow Parenting: How Well-Meaning Parents Rob Kids of the Opportunity to Thrive

Snowplow parenting starts with the best of intentions. Because you love your child, you would do anything in your power to help them succeed … experience happiness … and to avoid discomfort. The problem is, by wielding your power, you rob them of the opportunity to develop their own.

Snowplow vs. Helicopter Parents: What’s the Difference?

The term “helicopter parenting” gained popularity in the 1990s, referring to moms and dads who hovered over their children, even through college—and beyond. Insecure about the child’s ability to perform, the parent closely monitors their every move. From making sure that their homework is done (and done correctly) to knowing—and approving of—all their friends, helicopter parents are involved in the minutiae of their child’s life, often to a fault.

Helicopter parenting can work—if done in moderation. Parental supervision is a fine line; staying on the healthy side of that line teaches your child to be accountable and responsible. Leaning too far into their life, however, breeds insecurity. If you never trust your child to do things on their own, neither will they.

In recent years, a newer phenomenon called “snowplow parenting” has become prevalent … and almost culturally acceptable in some circles. A snowplow parent removes all obstacles so that the child never has to be uncomfortable, face a challenge or suffer a consequence.

Unfortunately, it’s a bigger problem—with far-reaching implications, as we witnessed last year when the college admissions scandal hit national news headlines. While that was an extreme case, it illustrates the radical actions some parents will take in the name of helping their child “succeed.”

The truth is, snowplow parenting actually interferes with children’s ability to succeed in the real world, in the face of real challenges. Even worse, it can lead to depression and anxiety. If you’re not sure if you’re helping—or enabling—your child, here are a few telltale signs of snowplow parenting:

  • You never let your children feel emotional or physical discomfort, even if it means stepping in to manipulate a situation with a teacher, coach, camp counselor or other parents.
  • You always fix problems or situations on your child’s behalf.
  • You solve your child’s problems, well into their 20s or even 30s.
  • Your adult child lives at home, but doesn’t contribute to the family by paying rent or helping around the house. You have no expectations for your child regarding school or career, and condone or excuse their lack of direction.

The Boomerang “Epidemic”

Younger children whose parents remove all obstacles come to believe that this is the way the world operates. Through no fault of their own, they grow up shielded from—and unable to cope with—discomfort. This can create anxiety in kids of all ages.

The stakes get higher as the child grows. In adolescence, kids are just beginning to create their own identity. This developmental milestone requires an ability to deal with adversity; by removing all obstacles, snowplow parents rob their children of the opportunity to individuate. Outside of the context of their parents’ world, these kids are unable to define their own unique identity.

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The situation can escalate after college. While some families agree that it makes good sense for a child to move back home after college graduation to pay down student loans, or save money for rent or a down payment, others find themselves in a boomerang situation by default. While the former can be a prudent, proactive choice, the latter is often a result of snowplow parenting—and it’s not healthy.

These “boomerang kids” take up residence in their parents' basements after failing or dropping out of college—or graduating without any intention of launching their career. They keep busy, playing video games, binge-watching TV, shopping with their parent’s credit cards or even crafting. Their parents have welcomed them home, excusing them from any responsibility in an effort not to offend them, make waves or cause discomfort.

Imagine a life where you have all the food you could ever want to eat, you’re laundry is always done for you, you get free cable, a gaming system, and a carte blanche credit card—without ever having to face any work- or school-related anxiety. Who would want to leave?!

This “cushy” lifestyle comes at a high price to the entire family. Because discomfort has been a foreign concept, the child becomes incapable of dealing with it. They don’t develop coping skills. They can’t self-advocate. Their lack of confidence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sadly, I see many clients where this is the family’s reality. Parents who have made it their mission to help their children avoid discomfort … from early on.

Time to Park the Snowplow—and Helicopter

Because snowplow parenting interferes with your child’s ability to face challenges, your quest to shield them from discomfort ultimately causes them even greater discomfort over the long term. They suffer. You suffer. Society suffers.

Learning to cope with discomfort is a life skill, integral to developing independence. Remember when your child was a toddler, learning to walk? You guided, supported and encouraged their every step. You couldn’t do it for them nor could you prevent every fall; and yet, your child learned how to walk.

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While it makes sense to teach responsibility, coping skills and problem-solving abilities at an early age, it’s never too late to park the snowplow—or the helicopter. Guide, support and encourage your child to navigate other challenges that present themselves. Within reason, allow them to suffer natural consequences of their actions. Teach them how to manage negative emotional reactions—like frustration, rejection, disappointment and anger—in healthy ways.

Encourage your child to self-advocate, beginning with social situations. Let them make plans with their friends. Coach them through ways to communicate, resolve conflict, compromise, and set appropriate boundaries with peers and authority figures. By high school, kids should be self-advocating—other than in situations that pose a serious threat to their safety or wellbeing.

Trust yourself to know when it’s time to step in. And trust your child to use the tools you’ve given them to become responsible, accountable and independent young adults.


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