Snowplow Parenting: What It Means & How It Affects Your Kids In The Long Run
Parenting styles, it seems, are always evolving and adjusting to the times in which they develop—and perhaps as a reaction to the previous iterations of parenting styles. Lately, too, they've been dubbed some choice names (helicopter parenting comes to mind). Snowplow is right up there: A parenting style we've seen bubble up in the last handful of years.
Here, we explain what it is, what it looks like, and what it means for your kids.
What is snowplow parenting?
Basically, it's when parents push out obstacles in their kid's way toward a clear future—a la a snowplow. "Parents' feeling like it's their job to make sure their kids do not experience any obstacles and therefore do not experience any unhappiness or negative emotion," says licensed psychologist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS. "It's tangible about parents removing any negative experience, but what we're really dealing with is parents having a hard time seeing their kid experience uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings."
It's also deeply instinctual that parents feel this way—so if you find you have issues with overstepping, there's good reason for it. "It's a natural instinct for parents to help and try to 'fix' things for our kids. For the first year at least, they need us for every moment of their day, so it takes effort to adjust that as kids grow. And it hurts to watch them struggle, so we are inclined to take over," says Sarah Cohen, M.D., child, adolescent, and family psychiatrist at Westmed Medical Group. "It is also easier to just do things for them so when parents are harried, their patience goes down, and they tend to jump in. This is particularly challenging for a child who is developing on an atypical path as these moments may occur repeatedly throughout the day."
We should note that it's not a stark contrast between helicopter parenting—or what people describe as constantly hovering around your kid, monitoring their day-to-day activities—and, in fact, many experts agree it's just another version of that. However, snowplow parenting is more associated with affluent families where parents have the means, time, and connections to deal with whatever issue their kid is facing.
What are the signs of snowplow parenting?
So, how do you know you're doing it? It's not always easy to tell if you've slipped into this behavior. Nor is it an all-or-nothing-sum game: You can exhibit characteristics here and there, without going full-blown Operation Varsity Blues.
"We see it a lot in school—Oh, I'm going to go talk to the principal or I'll figure out why you got this grade," says Beurkens. "But it also can be that the parent is volunteering at the school, so the parent can jump in at any point. It's under the guise of helping the teacher, but the real motivation is that they want to be there to step in and solve problems."
But it also shows up in peer relationships, like relationships between young friends. "Parents over-involve themselves in their kids' relationships; you see parents go and comfort each other about their kids' behavior," she says.
What are the effects on the kids?
Kids, we know, need to face challenges in their own life to become responsible, well-adjusted adults. Snowplow parenting essentially limits these instances of growth and potentially stunts their maturity and ability to handle difficulty.
"There are many repercussions: They do not figure out how to solve their own problems, tolerate negative feelings, and do not develop the resilience that is needed in life," says Beurkens. "And ultimately, they do not grow to see themselves as capable and competent."
The effect on kids may manifest itself in a plethora of ways, but here are a few:
- Performance anxiety
- Pressure to achieve
- Taking failures personally
- Easily frustrated or angered
- Reduced problem-solving skills
How can parents do better?
Let kids fail. Not being a snowplow parent allows kids to see the consequences of not trying hard enough studying, skipping practice for a team, getting in an argument with a friend, or simply making mistakes. "One of the most important ways kids become responsible adults is when they learn that they can overcome and manage challenges," says Beurkens. "No good parent would look at their kid and say, 'You're incompetent,' but that is the message that's sent and internalized when you step in."
And ultimately, the way to solve this problem is the parents need to learn to sit with their own discomfort. "I know it doesn't feel good to watch your kid go through things, but you are not a bad, neglectful, or mean parent if you allow your kid to deal with things on their own," she says. "And some parents honestly don't know that or don't realize that. So we need to teach parents that lesson: You are not a bad parent, and, in fact, you are helping your kid by letting them deal with it."
So when can you step in?
This, of course, is not to say never step in to help your kids—be there for them, listen to them, care for them, and offer advice. But then let them take the reins and be independent; then watch them figure it out on the sidelines. "A good thing to say to kids in those moments is, 'I understand you are going through a really tough thing, and I get it, it must feel bad, but I know you are going to be able to handle it,'" she says.
"If your kid has tried to resolve or wrestle with the problem, put in their best effort, and still they can't improve the situation, then you can step in a bit more," she says. "Bullying is a great example of this; let them deal with it first, but ultimately you may need to step in."
This is also a great way to encourage and teach kids when and how to go to someone when they need assistance: "Teach your child to ask for help because that's the best time to step in," says Cohen. "This means setting the tone that although you expect them to try things themselves first, you will always be close by and readily available to help as needed."
Parenting is hard; no one's arguing that. And no one is arguing there's a "perfect" way to parent either. However, there are certain behaviors that come with the times that may affect your kid's development: That's exactly what these parenting "trends" are. Snowplow parenting is just one where the parent takes the front seat of the kids life and pushes hardship out the way. Born of the best intentions, it may, however, have unintended consequences. Experts remind us time and again: Kids should fail and learn how to deal with their failures.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.