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Reflecting on the College Scandal, and 4 Ways To Not Be A Snowplow Parent

College Scandal: Snowplow parent

After the college admissions scandal heard ‘round the world—which I’m still processing, BTW—The New York Times wrote an article galvanizing the parenting style that can lead to this kind immoral and illegal fiasco. They identified parents that commit acts along the lines of Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman as “the snowplow parent.”

What is it? In a nutshell, a snowplow parent is a term assigned to more affluent mothers and fathers who “[chug] ahead, clearing any obstacles in their child’s path to success, so they don’t have to encounter failure, frustration or lost opportunities,” per The Times.

But while what happened with this handful of criminal parents is an extreme (and horrifying) example, the road to becoming a snowplow parent is a slippery slope. In fact, another article in The New York Times shared that, “a significant share of parents, across income levels, say they’re involved in their adult children’s daily lives. That includes making doctor’s appointments, reminding them of school and other deadlines, and offering advice on romantic life.”

The same article also pointed out that while research shows that kids of hyper-involved parents are less self-reliant, less confident in their own agency, and more likely to experience anxiety depression. Yikes.

All this got me to evaluate my own parenting style—and all the ways I steer clear of acting as the “fixer” for my kids’ lives. I am definitely not a perfect mom, but I do believe that I have steered clear of being any kind of helicopter, tiger or, relevant to this case, snowplow. Here are some tips:

1. Don’t Solve Their Problems

On the contrary, I think it’s critical for kids to know that they have agency when it comes to the obstacles they face throughout their lives. As parents, we have experience in the areas they’re facing for the first time. We know (or we think we know) the right chess move to make, which makes it easy—and tempting—to step in to “fix” or tell your child toward what to do every time. I know what this is— I have the answers.

But every time you step in, you’re not allowing them to build that muscle or advocate for themselves in a variety of situations. You’re also teaching them that they can’t live life— or solve problems— without you.

My approach: 1. Empathy (Sounds like you’re having a tough time communicating with that teacher); 2. Listening (Tell me more about why that’s frustrating); and 3. Questions that prompt them to problem solve (What’s one way you could resolve this issue?).

Of course, I’m there to offer feedback, coaching, and guidance, but I try to wait until they’ve had a chance to give it a try on their own. Rarely do I do the heavy lifting myself. As I see it, my job isn’t to be their “fixers”, but rather to help them build the muscle of dealing with conflict, problems, and situations in the future.

I cured my son’s “lunchbox forgetfulness” after weeks of rescuing him by NOT bringing him his lunch one day: I called the school and told them to give him some crackers and water… he never forgot his lunchbox again. One year my daughter broke her arm and missed 3 weeks of summer camp. It sucked, but we talked a lot about her feelings. She was a trooper, and I was so proud of her.

Also, when someone tries to solve your problems for you and things don’t go well, that’s a recipe for major resentment if things don’t go well. Kids need to get comfortable with how it works when they make their own decisions, and deal with their own failures and mistakes, AKA, resilience.  

2. Pain and Disappointment Are Part of Life

Suffering and pain is a part of life. Buddha made that The First Truth of his doctrine. And yet you wouldn’t know it when you watch parents try and make sure their kids never feel bored, bummed out, excluded, or any kind of discomfort.

When my kids are sick and miss a birthday party they were looking forward to attending, when a big game gets rained out, when they lose something they really care about or when they bomb the test… those are all opportunities to remind kids that this is how life works. I tell them: Your job isn’t to always be perfect (or have a perfect day)— it’s how you handle yourself in these situations that matters. Did you do the best you could? Did you learn from it? Will you handle things differently in the future? That’s what’s important to me.

Over the years, I heard a lot of moms in the schoolyard talk about ensuring that their kid didn’t get “the bad teacher,” as if that would derail their entire education. Aside from the fact that I think it’s rude to imply that this or that teacher is “the bad one,” I actually think that there are many ways a teacher can challenge a student… and sometimes if they’re not the easiest to understand or the best communicator, it can teach you how to speak up, ask for questions and clarification. (Hello, life skills they’ll need in college.)

3. Insist They Can Handle Things (in Age-Appropriate Doses)

My son—who’s college-bound—schedules his own appointments, budgets his money, and sends out his own networking emails. Both my kids have also been making their own lunches forever, know how to do laundry, make themselves dinner and more. I also don’t look over their homework, or tell them to study. Spoiler alert: They’re organized, disciplined and keep up with their schoolwork on their own. Oh, and last thing: I don’t wake them up in the morning. If they want to be on time, they need to get themselves up with an alarm clock.

They built these skills over time, but now they’re both teenagers and can navigate all of this on their own. And because they can, they do.

4. Let Your Kids Fail—and Don’t Wear Their Failures As Part of Your Identity

OK, this one is a tough one. And, to me, it seems most directly related to the college scandal. I think it was best articulated by Amanda Hess in her New York Times Article: People bribe and cheat their kids into college not to help their children, but to help themselves feel like better parents. To correct for your bad parenting, you want your kids to have the right school on their resume, whether they have the skills or intelligence to get into that college on their own merit.

Over here, we handled things differently: We let our son take the reins with his own college process. It was a journey that he shared mostly with his college counsellor— my husband and I (and our opinions) stayed mostly on the sidelines while he dove into self-inquiry, self-discovery, extensive research and soul-searching. I didn’t even read his personal essay until after he had submitted it! Sure, he had a fabulous college counsellor that could help him put his best foot forward—but to insert myself would send the wrong message. He was on the cusp of being an adult— it was his decision to make and his goal to achieve, not his mom’s or dad’s.

Most parents I speak to are horrified by my hands-off approach— they feel that college is simply too important to leave to chance. As someone who didn’t go to a brand-name school (and did just fine, thankyouverymuch!), I simply felt that I didn’t want the college he attended to be “our choice,” but rather 100% “his choice”.

Epilogue: My son is going to a great school in the fall. It was his number one choice, and he got into the highly-selective, audition-based program based on his own talent, his great grades, and the connections that he made with the head of the program the summer before. He can walk into college feeling proud that he got there on his own hard work, and I am even prouder, in the shadow of this scandal, that he got himself into school with little assistance from his parents.

That is, until the tuition bills start coming in…

What do you think? Do you have any ways you’ve steered clear of the “snowplow” approach?

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