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Look Out For 'Snowplow Parenting'

MARK BRODIE: Steve, you've probably heard the term "helicopter parenting," where parents sort of hover over their kid's every move, constantly overseeing and protecting them as they grow up.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Well, since I see you about 10 hours a day, I don't think you're one of those parents, right?

BRODIE: I'm not. Even if I wanted to be, my kids are too fast. I can't possibly keep up with them. So there's actually now a new term all of us parents are paying attention to — "snowplow parenting."

GOLDSTEIN: Wow, that sounds intense.

BRODIE: It is. Snowplow parenting has been brought into the mainstream as the Varsity Blues scandal has made headlines. That's the college admissions bribery scandal that resulted in the indictments of 50 high-profile ultra-wealthy parents this year. Our cohost Lauren Gilger dug into this one for us by speaking with Julie Lythcott-Haims. She's the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of " How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success." She and Lauren spoke via Skype.

JULIE LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: The term "snowplow parenting" has actually been around for a number of years in the lexicon of those of us who talk about helicopter parenting. It is one of the terms, along with lawnmower parenting and tiger parenting and drone parenting, etc. But I think the Varsity Blues scandal put it front and center.


LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Because people could really visualize the snowplow, kind of the parent driving this machine to just move all of the obstacles out of the way of their child so that the child would have a very smooth pass without having done any of the effort themselves.

GILGER: Right. So you mentioned this college admissions scandal with these 50 ultra-wealthy parents. Is this something that is particular to the ultra-wealthy?

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Well, let me put it to you this way. You have to have money on your hands and time on your hands in order to be a helicopter parent or a snowplow parent, okay? People who are working class don't have the means, the time or probably the sense of agency or arrogance that says, "Hey, I should try to game this system." So what we saw with the Varsity Blues scandal was the extreme end of overparenting spectrum. Parents who would lie, cheat and steal to get their kids particular outcomes. I had never seen anything remotely like it before. At the same time, if you were to have asked me, you know, hypothetically, what's the worst thing a parent could do by way of overparenting? I would probably describe something like what has happened, which is basically, you know, manufacture your kid's resume to look completely different than they are, so that they get into a college that they really have no business being in.

GILGER: So you were surprised by this. At the same time, you were not at all surprised by this, it sounds like.

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Yeah, I was surprised by the literal fact of it, but I certainly could have imagined it if you'd asked me to imagine.

GILGER: And you've talked a lot about helicopter parenting, but I want to first make sure that we talk about, you know, what effect this kind of parenting has on our kids, right?


GILGER: I mean, you talk a lot about building self-efficacy versus building self-esteem. How does this all play in?

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: So just quickly, the three different kinds of parenting behaviors that roll up to become helicopter parenting are: overprotective, fiercely directive of what they do in life or being their concierge, handling everything for them. And all of these types of parenting seem to work. Because if we're always protecting, they never get their knees skinned, they never get a bruised ego. If we're fiercely directive, we're charting a path for them and conditioning our love upon how well they execute our plans. Like, you will be a doctor, you will be a tennis star. Or for the concierge, we handle everything for them. So all of these things appear to work, right? We have helped in the short term. Long term, what happens is, we're damaging them psychologically, because this concept that you mentioned, self-efficacy, is basically the sense we all must have that we exist. And it kind of seems obvious, but psychologically, we actually know we exist when we see that when we make an action, there is an outcome. When we act, there's a result. When we overparent, we're basically helping our kids achieve a result, and psychologically, their psyche knows, I didn't do this myself. And that fact is correlated with higher rates of anxiety and depression, which I don't think I need to tell you are spiking around the country in adolescents and young adults. I'm not saying helicopter parenting is the only cause of anxiety and depression, but studies are increasingly showing a correlation between the two.

GILGER: Yeah. So let's talk about where these sorts of parenting styles come from. Like where did helicopter parenting begin? Where did, then, snowplow parenting come out of that? Like, is it something that's happening in the society that pushes these things? Is it like the generation previously, when they become parents, are a different type of parents than their parents were? What causes this?

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Well, it actually all started in the 1980s with the baby boomers as parents. Quite ironically, while the baby boom as young adults were insistent upon having their own voice, making themselves heard, when they became parents, paradoxically, they deprived their own children of having a voice by doing too much for them. So in the early 80s, the baby boom parents created the play date, the self-esteem movement, which is ribbons and trophies for just being on the soccer team rather than for being great, the stranger danger concept. Also, they helped us become more safe in cars and on bicycles with laws requiring seatbelts and car seats and bike helmets. And then there was a book published called "A Nation at Risk," saying American teenagers needed more testing and more teaching to the test in order to compete internationally. So, in the mid-80s, everything in childhood changed — from what children could do at parks and playgrounds, whether they could walk on sidewalks by themselves, whether they could play without an adult watching. And, not coincidentally, the first kids subjected to the playdate in 1984 as little ones were the first ones in the late 90s to come to college with parents who couldn't let go.

GILGER: So you saw this I'm guessing at Stanford?

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Stanford, in the late 90s — that's when we first began to see parents who were behaving bizarrely. And we kind of thought in those early days of it, like, "Wow, what's wrong with these parents?" We would laugh about them. We would giggle and point because it was so absurd. So basically when Gen X came along, everyone was already parenting this way, or a lot of people were. And again, as I said earlier, it seems to work. So how are you not going to do it if every parent is there on the sidelines of the soccer game arguing with the coach or doing their kid's homework, how are you not going to do the same? Because you want to create the same advantages, these short term advantages, for your own kid.

GILGER: Right.

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: We now know there's long term harm. We now know that it's far less important that you get your kid the right spot on the team or you get your kid a spot at a school you have in mind, and far more important that we focus on their mental health and their wellness, on their skills development. We're supposed to want to have our kids learn to do for themselves. That's how we know that when we're dead and gone, our kids are going to be fine. These overparented kids? God help them when their parents are dead and gone.

GILGER: Wow. Okay, so this is talking about Gen X-ers, then, following that path. So what about the new generation of moms and dads? What about these millennial parents who are just starting to have little kids now? Like, this, I'd imagine, must start really early, right?


GILGER: Like you're registering your kids for preschool before they're born.

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: Absolutely. It's an open question, Lauren. The millennials are having kids later than Gen X and Boomers did. So we're just starting to kind of see how they behave as parents. The minute they learn to walk, our kids are walking away. And we act like that's a terrible thing. We act like they're constantly facing danger when they're not. We're supposed to, as their parents, we're supposed to be preventing them from walking into traffic, walking into the ocean, walking off a cliff. But short of the true life or death things, were actually supposed to delight in the fact that they're getting stronger, they're getting more capable, they're getting more confident. There is inherent falling and failing in all of this, whether they're learning to walk then fall down, whether they're learning to use a stove. Ouch! They burn their finger. You know, these things happen. They're learning to tie their shoes. They mess it up and they get a big knot. All of these things have to be taught. And instead of doing everything for them, we're supposed to look constantly for that edge of, what are they about to be able to do? Let me back off, let me kind of cheer from the sidelines and encourage. But let me not put my hand on their's and tie their shoe for them repeatedly until they're nine years old.

GILGER: All right, Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of "How to Raise an Adult." Thank you so much for joining us.

LYTHCOTT-HAIMS: What a pleasure, Lauren. Thank you and hello to everyone in Phoenix. 

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.