Snowplow Parenting: Why A Little Unhappiness Might Actually Be Good For Children

Move over helicopter parents — the “snowplow” parents are here, and their style takes obsessive parenting one step further, sadly to the detriment of their children.

By Hayley Lewis3 min read
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Helicopter parenting paved the way for the modern, more intense snowplow parents. Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D. and director of the Center for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders, says helicopter parents "are over focused on their children" and "typically take too much responsibility for their children's experiences and, specifically, their successes or failures.” 

In an article for Parents, Cheryl Maguire says that snowplow parenting “takes things a step further and describes parents who not only over focus, but overprotect their kids by fighting their battles for them.” While both styles of parenting do, to a certain extent, come from a place of love, the good intentions don’t outweigh the negative effects on children and society as a whole.

Snowplow parents overprotect their kids by fighting their battles for them.

Preparing the Road Instead of Preparing the Kid

The recent college admissions scandal accused more than 40 different people and highlighted the extremes snowplow parents are willing to go to in their attempt to remove obstacles for their children. A New York Times piece on the topic quotes psychologist and author Madeline Levine, who says, “the bribery scandal has ‘just highlighted an incredibly dark side of what has become normative, which is making sure that your kid has the best, is exposed to the best, has every advantage — without understanding how disabling that can be’.” 

These drastic measures often begin with minor parenting decisions early on in childhood. Complaints to teachers over small grievances, unwillingness to acknowledge defeat, excuses and justifications for poor behavior, and easy outs when problems arise are only a few practices that snowball over time. Parents extend these practices into the adult lives of their children, calling colleges to complain about the unfairness of grades or having too much sauce on cafeteria food. 11% of parents say they would even go so far as to call their adult child’s job if their child were having trouble. 

11% of parents say they would call their adult child’s job if their child were having trouble. 

Former Dean of Freshman at Stanford Julie Lythcott-Haims “saw students rely on their parents to set up play dates with people in their dorm or complain to their child’s employers when an internship didn’t lead to a job. The root cause...was parents who had never let their children make mistakes or face challenges.” She highlights the critical error made by snowplow parents who don’t recognize that “the point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid.”

Good Parenting Requires Sacrifice from Parents

Parents believe that they’re acting in the best interest of their child, and while this may contribute to their style of snowplow parenting, it isn’t always the only factor. As a teacher, I know firsthand how time-consuming it is to teach a child how to complete a task independently. It takes extreme patience and a willingness to put yourself aside — something that our natural human tendencies tell us to shy away from. Furthermore, discipline and the follow-through of expectations and consequences require great effort on the part of the adult, in addition to the often-needed example from the adult themselves. 

The time it takes to teach a child to complete a task independently tests a parent’s generosity. 

Beyond the immediate ease that often accompanies doing something for a child or giving in to their demands, these actions have much broader implications. An article in Fatherly details a few of the detriments of this style of parenting, including the expensive cost, extensive time commitment, broader cultural implications, and ultimately ineffectiveness. Maguire expands on these issues by reiterating the long-term effects snowplow parenting has on children, including the inability to deal with frustrations, solve problems, a lack of self-efficacy, and increased anxiety. 

It would be one thing if this type of parenting had minor repercussions, but these are serious, lasting consequences that could greatly alter a child’s ability to function well in the adult world. 

Is Love Really Driving Your Parenting Philosophy?

Parenting is hard, and to be fair the world has changed in many ways since the days when kids roamed freely on cul-de-sacs with the only instruction of being home by dinner. Most parents immediately justify their actions as coming from a place of love or concern, often neglecting to reflect on the ease, pride, or personal benefits snowplow parenting may buy them. 

The long-term effects of snowplow parenting on children include a lack of self-efficacy and increased anxiety.

True love is willing the good of another, and if parents are really desirous of the ultimate good of their children, then they need to take an honest look at their parenting practices and question not just their motives, but the likely outcome of their choices that reach far beyond childhood. 

Closing Thoughts

The role of the parent is to prepare your child to live healthily, competently, and independently in the world as an adult. Snowplow parents fail to do that by acting more like enablers than parents.