In the wake of the recent college admissions scandal, much has been written about the new term given to parents who are all but living their child’s life for them: Snow Plow Parents. In case you missed it, The New York Times painted a vivid picture of it last week in a March 16th article titled How Parents Are Robbing Their Children of Adulthood.
“Some affluent mothers and fathers now are more like snow plows: machines chugging ahead, clearing any obstacles in their child’s path to success, so they don’t have to encounter failure, frustration or lost opportunities.” This adjective comes on the heels of other lively descriptive and oft written about terms used to describe overly involved parents of Gen Z, including helicopters (hover above taking all the air), submarines (attacking from below) and saran wrap (smothering).
The growing concern is wondering how widespread this style of parenting has become. A recent poll by the New York Times and Morning Consult “found that three-quarters of parents of children between the ages of 18 and 28 had made their children appointments for doctor visits or haircuts, and 11% said they would call their kid’s boss if their child was having an issue at work.”
Still, being a concerned parent does not just start with college admissions. In Southern California, I listen to young mom’s lament over their child’s prospects for elite preschools and how important it is to get into the “right one.” Then if you take a drive through Los Angeles, you’ll see billboards of Kardashians undulating before your eyes, reinforcing messages that looking good and being in the right place with the right people is the holy grail of what parents want for their children.
This culminates in throwing personal ethics out the window to ensure their child’s success. Though the college admissions scandal is an extreme case, if you look closely one can see the shadow of snow plow parents operating behind the scenes. Less toxic examples and with murkier ethical boundaries are the ways parents help write their children’s papers, let them rule their homes, where everything is a yes and compassionate directness (i.e. boundaries) are nonexistent.
Moreover, there is not a school in this country that does not rely on fundraising and friendraising to supplement goods and services, programs and research. Nearly every school in the country – college and university – has a large army of fund and friendraisers. It is prestigious for parents and good for their businesses also to be invited to the Dean’s house or President’s box, to have one’s name associated with a university or college.
Nonetheless, the effect of snow plow, helicopter, saran wrap or submarine parents on their children can be crippling. “Here are parents who have spent 18 years grooming their kids with what they perceive as advantages, but they’re not,” says Madeline Levine, a psychologist and the author of “Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies or ‘Fat Envelopes.’” Children come hard-wired for struggle and must wrestle with life’s challenges so they can be successful in the long-term.
As a clinician, I have the privilege of working with high wealth families and discussing and unpacking the issues unique to this group of people. As such, I have identified 6 common fears that would motivate parents to morph into snow plows for their children:
- Fear of not fitting in. In a world of digital confusion and hyperconnectivity, fear for your child not finding the right group is immense. The parents, due to their wealth, seek out elite status and exclusive groups and in turn do the same for their children. The fear is that if their child isn’t welcomed into these same exclusive groups, they won’t be afforded the best opportunities for success and it will diminish their status.
- Fear of Competition. Affluent parents see their wealth as a sign of accomplishment, hard work paying off, beating the odds, a win over others. As such, they may see the world in terms of winners and losers and they want their children to take the gold in every aspect of life. And not winning, not coming in first place is the worst-case scenario and fear drives them to do everything in their power to stay on top.
- Fear of Failure. Fear of failure in a day and age where every child gets a trophy and comes in first place muddies a parent’s ability to be discerning and honest about their child’s abilities. Ask the tutors, mentors and trainers to gauge where the child’s abilities lie.
- Fear of Not Having Their Best Life. Every parent wants a better life for their child than what they had. This is rooted in their own past, which create wounds that manifest in their child rearing . If 1 out of 5 families in the US has a loved one who has experienced a substance abuse or mental health problem – and teen anxiety and depression is at an all-time high – while these parents want their child to have their best life they often overcompensate and bail out when it is better to leave alone.
- Fear of Violence. We live in a world where gunman open fire on preschoolers, middle and high school students, malls and places of worship. Parents want their children safe and the notion of getting into the right school is on the road to creating a safe world for their offspring.
- Fear of Acting with Compassionate Directness (i.e. Setting Healthy Boundaries). Saying no and allowing children, teens, young adults to learn what it means to have chores, to have an allowance (not daddy’s or mommy’s credit card) to write their own papers, to clean their rooms, train their own dog to volunteer and, yes, even work as a way of developing self is optimal.
The college admissions scandal is a yet one more tragic example of the dangers of all-consuming parenting. As a society, we must reevaluate our ethics, strengthen our communities, and ease into the unknown of how our children will turn out. We must allow them to grow and experience the consequences of their behaviors, knowing to fall, even fail, are good learning experiences. When you learn to ride a bike you often fall and yet getting back up and mastering that bicycle is affirming. Being successful on your own is liberating and freeing and allows one to own their own skills
Though these fears are common to any parent, the underlying truth is parents want what is best for their kids. And if parents stop to reflect the how and why to that goal, they may take 5, stop and allow their loved ones to experience their own joy of mastery.