The power of failure

Learn the consequences of snowplow parenting.

Father holding hands with child

As a parent, it is very tempting to smooth the way for children, to fix their problems, prevent them from failing, and from facing adversity. Parents want the best for their children, after all, and it seems logical that the way to help them become the best is to reduce the obstacles in their path. However, we are learning that this form of parenting, often termed “snowplow parenting,” is more harmful than helpful.

The phrase snowplow parenting stems from the idea of a parent pushing everything out of the way for the child, similar to how a snowplow pushes snow out of the way. This creates a clear path to success for the child, free of all the big and little challenges children face as they grow up. Recently, the college enrollment scandal highlighted this on a much larger scale, in fact at a criminal level. This is a notable shift from the idea of “helicopter parenting,” where parents hover near and help children through life’s big and little challenges.

Where helicopter parenting arose in the 80s from a fear of a child’s safety—the risk of falling from a climber, crashing a bike or even being kidnapped—snowplow parenting is rooted in a desire to see children succeed in a highly competitive world. Most parents are not breaking laws or intending to be nefarious in anyway when they help their children. They’re trying to do their best to create a world in which their child can avoid challenges and become successful.

The problem with this, according to Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the book “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success,” is that snowplow parents have it backwards. “The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid,” says Lythcott-Haims.

When children have every obstacle cleared from their path, they do not learn how to effectively problem solve. In a recent poll from the New York Times and Morning Consult of parents of children ages 18 to 28, approximately three-quarters of parents remind their adult children of deadlines they needed to meet, including schoolwork and a similar number made appointments for their children including doctors’ appointments. Additionally, 15% of parents woke their children with calls or texts to be sure they didn’t sleep through class or work, and 11% indicated they had written their children’s essay’s or school assignments and would contact their children’s employers if they had a problem at work.

Learning to solve problems, take risks and overcome challenges are critical life skills. They’re not skills that are built in a day, week or month, but skills slowly learned throughout childhood. When a toddler falls from a chair, they begin to learn how far they can safely climb. Similarly, when a middle-schooler forgets their homework and has to talk to a teacher about it, they learn about consequences for missed assignments and begin to develop strategies to reduce the likelihood that this happens again. Every time a parent provides the solution, fixes the problem, makes an excuse or helps the child avoid consequences, they are taking away an important learning opportunity for their children.

What can parents do to avoid becoming snowplow parents? Recognize when you are solving your children’s problems and learn to be quiet. Support them in looking for solutions on their own. Be empathic to their challenges, but resist the urge to fix it for them. Work intentionally to build resilience in your children so they can bounce back from challenges. Imagine your children as adults. Are you preparing them with the skills you want to see in your spouse, friends and colleagues? Learn what chores and expectations are age appropriate and begin to expect more from your children. And finally, take a deep breath and step back.

Rachel Simmons, co-founder of Girls Leadership, in her recent New York Times article, “How Not to be a Snowplow Parent,” asks this critical question, “How would you parent if you weren’t afraid? That is, if you knew that despite whatever was happening with your child in that moment, they would turn out fine, what would you say or do differently in (that) moment? Instead of worrying so much about setting our children up to succeed, what if we spent at least as much time setting them up to fail?”

There is no greater success for our children than the one that they have truly achieved on their own. Step back, and let them lead the way.


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