Snowplow parents

The helicopter parent is dead. Long live the snowplow parent!

We’ve all heard of helicopter parents, mothers and fathers who hovers over a child’s every decision and action. Evidently helicopter parents have evolved into the snowplow parent s “who determinedly clears a path for their child and shove aside any obstacle they perceive in the way.”

So says Craig Lambert in an article in this month’s issue of Harvard Magazine. The article, Nonstop: Today’s superhero undergraduates do 3,000 things at 150%, detailing the frenetic pace and relentless ambition of today’s undergraduates is by turns horrifying and depressing.

Students today routinely sprint through jam-packed daily schedules, tackling big servings of academic work plus giant helpings of extracurricular activity in a frenetic tizzy of commitments. They gaze at their Blackberries … to field the digital traffic: e-mail and text messages, phone calls, Web access, and their calendars. Going or gone are late-night bull sessions with roommates and leisurely two-hour lunches …

There’s a wide consensus that today’s undergraduates make up the most talented, accomplished group of polymaths ever assembled in Harvard Yard: there’s nothing surprising about meeting a first-chair cellist in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra who is also a formidable racer for the cycling club, or a student doing original research on interstellar dark matter who organized a relief effort in sub-Saharan Africa…

The paradox is that students now live in such a blur of activity that idle moments for such introspection are vanishing. The French film director Jean Renoir once declared, “The foundation of all civilization is loitering,” saluting those unstructured chunks of time that give rise to creative ideas. If Renoir is right, and if Harvard students are among the leaders of the future, then civilization is on the precipice …

What’s driving this frenetic activity? Relentless ambition that starts surprisingly early:

Busy parents book them into things constantly—violin lessons, ballet lessons, swimming teams. … Dingman [dean of freshmen] notes that, “Starting at an earlier age, students feel that their free time should be taken up with purposeful activities…

Home life has changed in ways that would seem to undercut children’s development of autonomy. There was a time when children did their own homework. Now parents routinely “help” them with assignments … Youngsters formerly played sports and games with other children on a sandlot or pickup basis, not in leagues organized, coached, and officiated by adults … Once, college applicants typically wrote their own applications, including the essays; today, an army of high-paid consultants, coaches, and editors is available to orchestrate and massage the admissions effort.

Parents have created this culture. As Lambert explains, ” The strategizing starts early; today’s parents groom their children for high achievement in ways that set in motion the culture of scheduled lives and nonstop activity… “

While “snowplow parents” seem to be a new phenomenon, I suspect that are just a variation on a phenomenon as old as recorded history: wealthy parents ensuring children’s success by paving the way with money and social connections. The prep school has been replaced by the public high school with multiple AP courses, the European grand tour has been replaced by the summer trips to far off lands, the social clubs replaced with the National Honor Society as the reward for extensive tutoring, special courses and advanced summer programs. Money, copious amounts of it, is usually required.

Sure anyone can go to public school, but very few can afford to live in the communities with the best schools; schools are usually funded by property taxes and estate sized homes for wealthy families provide an excellent tax base. Those fabulous summer trips to work on a dig in Egypt or study intensive Italian in Florence cost a fortune. And tutors, special courses and advanced study at college programs designed for high school students don’t come cheap.

It used to be that money and social connections assured a child’s success. Now actual merit is required, but money and social connections pave the way just as they always did. An outstanding athlete requires talent, but talent can honed with private coaches and exclusive leagues. To become a brilliant scientist requires brilliance, but a summer working in the award winning lab of Dad’s medical colleague gives a teen an undeniable advantage. And woe to the child who has not devoted serious time to “social action,” time that children of modest means must spend at work in order to help their families make ends meet.

Not only do parents script their children’s lives and pay for every possible advantage, they run roughshod over anyone and anything that dares to stand in the way. It’s bad enough that they will not back teachers in ensuring good behavior in schools, but it is ridiculous that they expect to be able to call a college to “check up” on their sophomore, and it is downright harmful that some come along to job negotiations or try to amend grades in law school.

Snowplow parents forget that their principle job is not to make sure that a child is successful, but to make sure that a child becomes a competent adult; the success will follow if it is merited. Any parent who is calling their child’s law school professor has no faith that the child can perform even the most basic tasks of adulthood, hardly surprising since the parents never taught them how.

Snowplow parents believe they are helping their children, but in many cases they are hurting them. They are depriving them of the opportunity of gaining competence by overcoming disappointment or by striving to reach goals instead of having the goals slid to within easy reach. How will these children make their way in the world when their parents are gone? How will these children learn to value themselves for who they are instead of what they achieve? And how will these children handle the disappointment of realizing that it may not always be possible to achieve what they desire?

Parents should be active and involved in their children’s lives. And parents sometimes have to run interference for children, particularly when children are young and vulnerable to the whims of teachers and coaches who may be cruel or unfair. But that does not require a snowplow, it doesn’t even require a shovel. It requires a more subtle tool such as a broom, one that gets smaller and smaller as the years pass until it finally fades away altogether.

A child in college should be competent enough to manage anything that comes along outside the realm of a true disaster like sexual harassment on the part of a professor, or a roommate who is mentally ill, in other words, very rare occurrences. If a parent cannot trust a child to manage on his own at college or beyond, then something is wrong, not with the child, but with the parent, who failed to ensure that the child gradually learned to handle the basic tasks of adulthood.