Parents, Remove the Snowplows

About ten years ago, when I was a head of school in New York City, a well-known, late-night-television host had wrapped up his parent-teacher conference when I happened to cross paths with him in the hallway. “How are things going for your son?” I asked. His initial response was everything I had hoped to hear. “His teachers are inspiring. He has lots of friends, and he feels completely comfortable here. He loves school.” And then he added, “But I’m not sure this is the right place for him.” “Why is that?” I asked. “It sounds as though he’s thriving.” “He is. And he’s not struggling enough. Struggling in school made me who I am today.” A few months later, this student did not reenroll and transferred to another school in the fall.  

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In recent months, we’ve heard a lot about “snowplow parents” who clear away a range of various obstacles for their children. In the most extreme cases, these parents bribe coaches, SAT monitors, or university employees to gain their child admission into elite colleges. But even with all of the negative publicity and the legal issues aside, snowplow parents are likely doing far more harm than good for their children as they prepare for adulthood. 

Madeline Levine, a psychologist and the author of Teach Your Children Well: Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More Than Grades, Trophies or ‘'Fat Envelopes," warns that when parents make certain their “kid has the best, is exposed to the best, (and) has every advantage” it can become disabling when the time comes for them to live independently and make decisions autonomously. In her book iGen, Jean Twenge’s research highlighted alarming trends in this generation of students who are growing up much more dependent on their parents and much less ready to live away from home, in part because of the ubiquitous influences of technology. What’s unclear is whether the new prominence of “snowplow parents” is a direct result of this generation’s needs or if other factors are at play such as parents’ insecurities and need to experience success by living through their children’s achievements. Regardless of the cause or motivation, it’s clear that if parents truly want to help their children thrive over the long run, they must have ample opportunities to fail, experience disappointment, and practice overcoming their own difficulties. And the best way for this to happen is to confront the obstacles life throws their way, without a plow.

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