National Edition

Parents who 'snowplow' deprive kids of learning to clear their own paths

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 11 2014 4:00 a.m. MST

Jessica and Matthew Daitch of Charlotte, N.C., have tried hard not to overparent Logan, 11, and Ivy, 9.

Family photo

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When Logan Daitch said he wanted to try out for the grade-school production of "Beauty and the Beast Jr.," his mom and dad were delighted. And like most parents, they wanted to help him do well at auditions.

So Jessica Daitch made sure he had time to practice. And just once, during his piano lessons, she asked the teacher if she would work with him on a song. The teacher ran through it and offered advice. Whether he would use that advice or practice effectively both teacher and parents left to the 11-year-old boy.

Jessica wants to parent well, but she's antsy about the possibility of overdoing it in ways that will harm the development of Logan and his sister, Ivy, 9.

That's not always the case. Teachers, psychologists, bosses, sociologists and others are beginning to talk about "snowplow" parents: mothers and fathers who move ahead of their children, trying to clear all obstacles and problems out of their way. They are similar to helicopter parents, who hover to "help" their kids do homework, figure out relationships and manage other tasks. Snowplows, though, may eliminate the child's or young adult's involvement entirely, plowing on ahead and sometimes flattening anything in their path.

That plowed road that was supposed to reduce the child's pain and prevent failure may instead stifle victories and opportunities to learn. Experts say parents who are trying to help their kids may instead undermine their confidence, slow their development and keep them from mastering skills they'll need to become competent adults.

Supposed to help

“Parents have the best intentions,” said Lauren Nichols, assistant professor of clinical psychology at The Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago. “But children need both positive and negative experiences to build positive self-esteem. By eliminating failure and even minor negative moments, parents are doing their children a great disservice.”

When parents intervene in ways that most say is not appropriate for that stage of life, they make it harder for their children.

"Children throughout development should experience failure," Nichols said. "And it's also important to know you have someone to turn to when failure happens. It needs a good balance so children learn how to deal to a point, then how to reach out for help."

Tales of parental overreach are not hard to find on college campuses, said clinical psychologist Meg Jay, author of "The Defining Decade" and an assistant clinical professor at the University of Virginia.

"You can have a flat tire, a boss who yells, a class that's harder than expected," Jay said. "Things go wrong that parents can't control, and they are worse if you haven't learned skills gradually."

That means letting kids tackle manageable challenges and allowing difficulties to grow alongside children, she said. "It's OK to let a child face consequences, have problems, get stuck. That's how they learn."

Snowplow parents may go to great lengths to see children get perfect grades, from helping with homework to browbeating teachers. Jay warns that a 4.0 GPA gained by snowplowing "is a sham that won't stand up to what it's going to get them. I have clients with jobs who are really in over their heads. Their grades got them there, but the amount of scaffolding and parental support, etc., put in place where it really doesn't belong — it's setting the kids up to fail."

Delaying development

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