The Guardian ran an interesting comic recently. “Helicopter parents,” the comic strip claims, try to warn their children of “potential disappointments” ahead and avoid them. “Snowplow parents” remove all the obstacles so their kids never experience them. Both of these types of parents make sure their kids never experience failure, which we know if an important part of children growing up. “Puddle parents,” on the other hand, let their kids veer off the regular, prescribed path and forge their own way.
We need more puddle parents in this world.
Too many parents prescribe their children’s lives for them. From pushing their kids into gifted and talented classes to an endless parade of after-school activities, helicopter and snowplow parents are all about trying to give their kids an edge over others, even at the expense of others. They believe in a world of hypercompetition where their kids need to come out on top, where their kids must go to college, where their kids need to succeed, and their definition of success is narrow.
Puddle parents, instead, let their children choose their own paths.
That means a lot of different things to families. What makes one puddle parent might not make another.
First, let’s get a working definition of “puddle parent.” Puddle parents encourage their children to veer off the path typically prescribed for them, who promote creativity and thinking outside the box, and who value things like kindness and authenticity and experiences more than academic and worldly success.
Puddle parents aren’t worried about where their kids will go to college; they worry about whether or not their kid will choose a career that will lead to personal fulfillment, be it bricklaying or academic research. They don’t tend to shuttle their kids to after school activities, unless the kids ask for it. If they do, they give their kids a range of choices based on what they seem to enjoy — not what’s popular or what they think will lead to a scholarship. They give their kids a lot of free time and probably tend more towards the free range parenting end of the spectrum. They worry more about whether or not their kids are nice to the new kid than if they earn an A on the geometry test.
As a puddle parent myself, I’ll admit bias, but I truly believe we need more puddle parents in this world.
American kids are stressed out. William Stixrud, clinical neuropsychologist and faculty member at Children’s National and the George Washington University School of Medicine, tells station WTOP, “Recent studies show that adolescents and young adults are five to eight times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression than kids who lived at the height of the Great Depression.”
Turns out the kids aren’t alright. Kids are sleeping less. Tech means they have less downtime. College admissions and the job market are both seriously frightening. We might not be able to control much of the first two (though many puddle parents try — we do, and with a good deal of success), but we can control how much our kids freak about getting into “the right” college and finding “the right” job and being “perfect”.
Because what is “the right” college and what is “the right” job? The one that leads to the most money, or the one that leads to the most fulfillment, the most happiness, and the most joy? I’ve always said that my top job choices, in order, are writer, college adjunct professor, or bricklayer. Neither adjuncts nor bricklayers have much money nor do they receive much prestige. But both make me happy (yes, I know how to lay brick and yes, I love it). Both are fulfilling. Both make me happy.
And in order to get kids into that “right” college, we’re stressing them out from a young age. Soccer practice. Lessons on obscure instruments. After-school language programs. They sit in school all day and then do another prescribed activity and then go home and do homework. They spend their weekends going from activity to activity, with little to no time for play, relaxation, or downtime. No wonder their stress levels are through the roof.
My kids are homeschooled and play with Legos and dig enormous holes in my backyard for no particular reason I can discern. My oldest does theater, and they all have an art class once a week. They chose these activities. We do this not because we’re lazy. We make a conscious choice to keep our children’s childhood low-stress. Sometimes we worry, especially when we see our relatives’ and friends’ kids involved in lots of activities. But we want our kids to learn to chill and pursue their own passions, not feel obligated to be busy to keep up appearances.
Even their out-of-the-house activities are designed not to pressure them to do things the right or wrong way. We stress that, in our house, there are generally no black and white answers. Mama says no to fart jokes in front of her; Daddy loves them. Mama will let you sing the f-word; Daddy will not.
We also want them to learn to fail, and that’s why we let them fall down, forget their jackets, mess up their letters, forget their chores and face the natural consequences of those things.
We want our kids to grow up to know soft skills, not hard ones. They can pick up the hard ones any time. The soft ones are ingrained and more difficult to learn. They include kindness, the ability to work well with others, empathy, and respect. We need more of that in the world.
Kids need to learn to persevere. They need to learn to be kind. They need to learn to face failure. They need to see other people as allies, not as competition. They need to learn to forge their own paths.
Puddle parenting tends to facilitate that. And there is no one way to achieve this, because this type of parenting is completely dependent upon the individual family and child.
After all, life is full of puddles. So we might as well teach our kids how to appreciate them.