Snowplow Parenting: Why And How To Stop Clearing The Road For Our Kids

It may be tempting to make our children’s lives easier, but doing so only makes their futures more difficult. Here’s how to stop ourselves.

Smiling boy with parents

When my 8-year-old daughter recently auditioned for a role in a local production of Annie, waiting for the decision was arguably more excruciating for me than for her. She “only” wanted to be an “orphan in the background” – but when over forty girls came to auditions and she flubbed her song, I knew her odds of getting even an ensemble role were next to none.

I spent the next couple of days obsessing over what I could do to get her a “Yes.” Should I email the producer – who I knew – and plead? Should we return to the second night of open auditions and ask for a do-over? Was there some other possibility I was missing?

During one of my 3 a.m. brainstorming sessions, I realized I was considering doing what so many articles have been calling out, most notably in the well-read New York Times piece “How Parents Are Robbing Their Children of Adulthood.”

I almost was being a snowplow parent. Yikes.

What is snowplow parenting?

There are so many labels thrown around for various types of parenting, with snowplow taking center stage in the wake of the college admissions scandal. As opposed to helicopter parents who “simply” hover and make sure everything is going okay for their kids in the moment, snowplow parents take a proactive stance, anticipating and clearing hurdles before they even arrive.

Such parents are “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,” wrote Claire Cain Miller and Jonah Engel Bromwich in The New York Times.

Why snowplow parenting is concerning

The biggest concern about clearing obstacles in front of our children is that they’ll be unable to learn to fend for themselves. The concepts of “resilience”and “grit”are of particular importance here, since both are connected to mental health, overall well-being, and a variety of other positive outcomes, including job retention and financial success.

Unfortunately, we only learn how to cope with disappointment and failure by enduring it. This is brutally painful knowledge to have as a parent. It means we must let our kids get their hopes up and have them crushed, repeatedly, so that they can gain a sense of perspective and confidence in their own ability to “rise strong,” in the language of social worker Brene Brown.

This doesn’t mean we wish failure on our kids, by any means. But it does mean that we have to let cards fall where they may, and then help our children discover and use their unique coping methods to bounce back, time and again. That way by the time they’re college age, they’re reacting intensely to big events – like the loss of a loved one – while taking smaller incidents – like a friend not wanting to sit with them in Commons – in stride.

How to stop ourselves from snowplow parenting

Rather than label some parents as “snowplow parents” and leave it at that, we can reframe snowplow parenting as a behavior. We can all name a variety of behaviors we want to curb as parents, such as being impatient, taking the fun out of life, yelling. Let’s add snowplow parenting to that list. Some days or weeks we’ll be highly successful at refraining. Other days or weeks, not so much.

Once we’ve recognized snowplow parenting as something we DO not something we ARE, we can take the following steps to change our actions:

  1. Catch our thoughts. As cognitive-behavioral psychologists say, we need to notice our thoughts before we can change them. It took me several days of Annie audition preoccupation to even recognize how I was thinking.
  2. Turn to someone else as a thought-catching partner. Step one can be difficult to do on our own. If snowplowing has become a habit for you, put a partner or friend on guard and ask them to gently nudge you when you mention plans to intervene.
  3. Question the action’s benefits and repercussions. Once we’ve caught ourselves, we don’t have to instantly dismiss all plans to intervene. At times an action is necessary for the health or safety of our child. In those cases, assuming the child is old enough, we should empower themto clear their own path. Help them identify resources and possible actions, but let them take the lead on brainstorming. This teaches them to think ahead and be proactive, which are skills their developing prefrontal cortex is not yet fully capable of doing on its own.
  4. Be self-compassionate and avoid shame. Having the idea of intervening is just an idea so don’t beat yourself up over thinking about clearing the path. If you actually took the action and now regret it, well that’s a learning moment. We all mess up. Snowplow behaviors are well intentioned and we can always change.

In the end, I didn’t intervene in the Annie auditions and my daughter didn’t get a part. “I figured I wouldn’t,” she said when I told her they’d emailed the results. “Oh well. I tried. Can we still go see it?” Then she bounded outside to ride scooters with her brother.

None of the outcomes happened that I’d anticipated: wailing and wallowing with disappointment, anger at herself and/or the audition board, swearing off auditioning “ever again.” Did these reactions occur when she was younger and newer to failing? Absolutely. But by now she’s had some practice, and – much to my exquisite pain – I’ll aim, mightily, to step back and let her have much more.