‘Snowplow Parents’ Are The New 'Helicopter Parents' -- But Worse

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
_Inti St Clair / Getty Images

Growing up with a hard-working single mom, I had to learn fast how to get things done on my own. My mom was there for me, but there wasn’t a ton of hand-holding. And although—as mom to two young girls—she was overprotective in her way, she wasn’t as much a helicopter mom as a fierce mama-bear.

When I watched the celebrity-studded college admissions scandal unfold recently, I thought back to my college application process. Thanks to my mom’s parents, who wanted to make sure their grandkids went to good, safe schools, we lived in a humble apartment in an affluent Long Island town during my high school years.

While the other kids were enrolled in every expensive extracurricular activity under the sun, and received college-exam tutoring for all subjects, none of those were options for us. I remember doing poorly on the math section of the SAT, and begging my mom for a tutor. She was able to pay for about two tutoring sessions for me, but it was a stretch.

When it came time to fill out college applications, I resented the fact that I essentially had to do it alone. I had no freaking clue what I was doing and made a ton of mistakes. However, things did work out well in the end. I worked my way through college, and feel proud of the choices I made, and the accolades I earned. I don’t know that I would have the strength or life-skills I do now if my mom had done it all for me back then.

Now a mother of two boys, one of whom is in middle school and will be a high schooler before I know it, I think often about how much hand-holding I want to give my kids as they move closer to their “adulting” years. In many ways, I “baby” them more than my own mom did. Maybe it’s the fact that I want to make my kids’ lives a little easier than mine was. But perhaps it’s a generational thing—after all, our generation is the ultimate example of helicopter parents, aren’t we?

However, as I make my way through the pre-teen and teen years with my kids, I’m realizing that I have a whole lot more to contend with than I previously thought. The shocking thing these days is that it’s not so much a matter of how much hand-holding or helicoptering we each feel comfortable doing. Now we have to contend with a much more aggressive and all-encompassing parenting style than our parents did, or even than other parents did just a decade or so ago.

Enter “snowplow” parenting. Snowplow parents are willing to do everything in their power to remove every single obstacle in their kids’ way, no matter what it takes. The New York Times describes snowplow parents as parents who are just like their namesake: “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.”

Celebrities like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman are basically the epitome of snowplow parents. And although bribing your way into college, or paying someone to take an exam for your kids are extreme examples of snowplow parents—and realities that can only be attained by affluent parents willing to break the law—the principle can hold true even if you don’t meet those requirements.

According to a recent poll by The New York Times and Morning Consult, snowplow parenting is rampant, and not just among parents of high schoolers, either. Ready to be totally shocked?

The poll found that among parents of young adults, aged 18-28, about 75% had made doctor or haircut appointments for their kids, or reminded them of upcoming school deadlines. 16% had texted or called their kids to wake them so they wouldn’t miss a college exam. 8% had contacted their kids’ college professor to fix a grade or other problem.

And get this: 11% of parents said they would not hesitate to contact their kids’ employer if there was an issue. I mean, wow. It has never ever occurred to me to ask my parents to help me deal with my freaking boss. Just…wow.

I am not sure what to make of all this, or where this puts my generation of parents. It’s hard to even get your head around the snowplow brand of parenting. I can understand wanting your child to succeed and wanting them not to experience too much turmoil or heartache. But my goodness, learning to deal with mistakes or failure is an important part of life–not to mention the fact that teaching basic life-skills to our kids, like waking up for class on time and making doctor appointments, should be a no-brainer.

If anything else, it helps me put my own parenting decisions into perspective. Yes, I’ll likely help my kids out a little more with their college applications than my own mom did, but honestly, that’s in large part because I have a committed partner to pick up the slack around here. And maybe I will hire a tutor for my kids at some point, but only if we can afford it, and if it seems like something my kids would benefit from.

I think the truth is that most of us aren’t as extreme as these snowplow parents we keep hearing about in the media. We are just parents trying to make the best choices for our kids—trying to give them proper scaffolding, while also figuring out how much they need to be challenged, how much we need to step back and let go.

And I think maybe, for most of us, we just need to step back, trust our instincts, and have faith that it will all work out right in the end.

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