hen it comes to parenting, it can feel like there are endless options for how to raise your kids right, and the same number of opportunities to make life-altering mistakes. You’ve probably heard of the different styles of parenting out there, some more destructive than others: Helicopter parenting, permissive parenting, authoritarian parenting, and tiger parenting, to name a few.
It’s a lot to keep track of, but for better or worse, one style has been getting quite a bit of attention recently: Snowplow parenting. Originally rising to popularity as a way to describe what parents like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman attempted to do for their kids—which resulted in the now-famous college admissions scandal—many parents have been left wondering if they fall into the snowplow parenting category, too.
Let’s take a closer look at what snowplow parenting is, and what to do about it if you suspect you may be one.
What is snowplow parenting?
You may be wondering: Am I a snowplow mom? As with most parenting styles, there are quite a few layers to being a snowplow parent. To break it down into simple terms, being a snowplow parent—also called a lawnmower parent—basically means you try to clear obstacles out of your kids’ way. For example, say your child comes home with a bad grade. Instead of encouraging them to study more next time or even expressing disappointment, a snowplow parent would call the school and demand the teacher change the grade or nature of the test.
“Snowplow parents clear a path, much like a snowplow clears the snow from the road, in hopes that their child will gain advantages and move ahead in life, education, and profession,” explains child psychologist Emily Gifford.
While it sounds extreme from afar, it can be hard to know if you’re a snowplow mom when you’re actually in it—especially because most parents only have the best of intentions when it comes to raising their children. While it’s of course appropriate to help your kids with certain developmental tasks, like learning to tie their shoes, cross the street safely, helping them with their homework from time to time, and letting them vent about issues they may be having with their friends, if you find yourself excessively intervening—like doing your child’s homework, or getting involved in their friend drama—that may be taking things a little far. According to child psychologist Bobbi Wegner, co-founder of Head First: A Health Club For The Head, there are a few red flags to watch out for that might indicate that you’re a snowplow parent.
“Ask yourself these questions: Am I am uncomfortable when my child is sad, angry, or distressed? If so, do I regularly intervene to prevent these emotions? Does my child often look to me to solve his or her problems or emotions as their first line of defense?” she says. “If the answer to these is ‘yes,’ a little self-exploration might help illuminate why you do this, and some thought around the short and long term impact of your snowplowing is worth consideration.”
Suspecting you may be a snowplow mom after all? Then you may be wondering where the urge to parent children who live an obstacle-free life comes from. Madeline Levine, PhD and author of Teach Your Children Well, says snowplow parenting is often wrapped up in our own anxiety.
“If you think you’re a snowplow parent, take a closer look at your own anxiety,” she suggests. “Maybe you struggle with separation. If so, examine that. All of these interventions in parenting typically have to do with anxiety: Your anxiety, your child’s anxiety. Get familiar with the things that make you anxious, because you don’t want this to pass from generation to generation.”
The difference between helicopter parents and snowplow parents
If you feel like the concept of snowplow parenting sounds familiar, you’re not wrong—it does bear similarities to what’s known as helicopter parenting, with a few clear differences.
“With helicopter parenting, parents will not only intervene to minimize obstacles for the child but they also take an excessive interest in all parts of the child’s life,” explains Wegner. “Helicopter parenting is much like the snowplow approach, but they’re not exclusively focused on challenges in the way snowplow parents are.”
According to Levine, helicopter parenting also isn’t as much of an active intervention as snowplow parenting is. “Helicopter parenting is more about parents who are paying a great deal of attention and always worried,” she says. “A snowplow parent takes it one step further and intervenes.” Back to the bad great example: A helicopter parent would get upset and worried if their child came home with a bad grade, while a snowplow parent would take it one step further and call the school to yell at the teacher.
How to break the pattern of snowplow parenting
If you’ve been a snowplow parent for as long as you’ve been a parent, it can be tough to know exactly how to break free of this. Wegner encourages snowplow moms and dads to consider how they may be negatively impacting their kids’ lives, both in short and long term ways.
“This behavior impacts coping, self-efficacy, resilience, and mental fitness,” she says. “It’s crucial for these parents to understand the importance of allowing their child to experience both success and failure, as it teaches critical social-emotional skills for a healthy life, now and as an adult. Clearing obstacles deprives the child of social-emotional learning.”
While being emotionally present is an incredibly important part of being a parent and you should never shy away from that, every time you feel the urge to get involved and clear an obstacle, Gifford suggests asking yourself a specific set of questions before actually taking action: “Questions you want to ask yourself might start with, ‘Can my child do this task on their own? If not, to what degree do I need to support them to build a sense of competence and efficacy so that the next time, they can do more?’”
The more you ask yourself these questions, it will become more and more natural to stop intervening altogether, or only in extreme cases.
Levine’s advice? Just start talking to people. “Talk to your girlfriends, talk to your pediatrician,” she says. “A lot of it has to do with introspection, and being aware that every time you intervene, it’s a missed opportunity for development.”
Between advances in technology, the prevalence of bullying, and just how tough the world can be for kids these, it’s certainly tempting to try to make things as easy as possible for them. But you heard it from three parenting experts: For the most part, it’s best to let them work things out on their own.