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Ideas | Julie Scelfo

‘Helicopter parents’ are so 20th century. Say hello to the ‘snowplow parents’

(globe staff illustration/adobe)

$500,000 TO GET your kid into an elite college? Not cool. But when news about Operation Varsity Blues came out, psychologists and parenting experts who’ve been following trends recognized it for what it was: just the latest outrageous example of bad parenting they’ve been observing for decades.

While the dollar signs were supersized, experts say that the bribes reveal the excessive lengths some parents will go to protect their kids — and by extension, themselves — from the burn of failure.

Parenting in America has become an extreme sport. By comparison, the late-20th century “helicopter” version, in which moms and dads hovered around their progeny, always at the ready with a Band-Aid or a cookie, seems mild. (Remember the proverbial trophy for every child and the over-the-top fifth-grade graduation ceremonies? How quaint.)

Now in the 21st century, we’re seeing a new kind of parent, one who will go to even greater lengths not just to protect their kids, but to smash every perceived obstacle in their path to minimize failure and create the illusion of success. It’s called “snowplow parenting,” and it’s driving a lot of parents into questionable situations, some downright illegal.

Snowplow parenting was identified as a generational phenomenon as early as 2004. That’s when Jean Illsley Clarke, Connie Dawson, and David Bredehoft studied 1,195 participants and that year published the results in the book, “How Much Is Enough? Everything You Need to Know to Steer Clear of Overindulgence and Raise Likeable, Responsible and Respectful Children.” In the book, they describe three types of parenting errors: over-doing (failing to teach the concept of “enough”); over-nurturing (doing things for children that they should be doing for themselves, or allowing children to think only about themselves); and soft structure (failure to establish rules in order to shield children from the consequences of their behaviors, including their impact on family and society).

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Researchers have found that parents’ increasingly elaborate efforts to protect their children from every possible disappointment has caused more harm than good: Coddled children lack the ability to tolerate life’s normal frustrations and disappointments. (For an off-the-charts example, see Ethan Couch and the case of affluenza.)

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Later, when the victims of snowplowing — the kids — try to figure things out as adults, they discover they can’t handle even the most minor challenges. Psychologists are now dealing with an entirely new kind of patient who can’t cope with normal setbacks, like losing a job or being unable to afford the latest gadget. What’s worse, these formerly overprotected adults sometimes exhibit self-mutilation and other violent and/or anti-social behaviors. Hara Estroff Marano, a longtime editor-at-large at Psychology Today, was compelled to issue this warning: “Wake up America.” Marano’s 2008 manifesto “A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting” documented a nationwide epidemic of immaturity and emotional fragility.

Why are parents flailing? Some snowplow parents admit that their behavior is a way to address their guilt for spending too much time away from their kids. (The number of work hours among all classes has increased over the past few decades.) But snowplowing is also the natural result of greater competition for fewer resources. In America, we are experiencing reduced opportunities at all levels, even among the most affluent. According to Chapman University’s 2017 survey of fear in Americans, more than half of participants feared “not having enough money for the future,” a feeling undoubtedly exacerbated by a steady stream of messages from advertisers telling us that what we have is inadequate.

An entire industry has developed around stoking parents’ fears. Since 2004, the “Marketing to Moms” conference (known as “M2Moms”) has been held annually to train marketing professionals to pick apart new mothers’ every aspiration and fear, and then calculate how best to prey on those feelings in hopes of nabbing some of the more than $2 trillion American mothers spend annually.

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Many educators have tried to correct course. While she was a dean at Stanford, Julie Lythcott-Haims witnessed the snowplowing up close. She observed parents in near-constant cell phone contact with their offspring; parents showing up to help their adult children enroll in classes; parents contacting professors and meeting with their children’s advisers. Lythcott-Haims left the campus in 2012 to write “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success,” hoping to reach parents earlier in the parenting game. That same year, Jessica Lahey’s book, “The Gift Of Failure,” aimed at helping parents navigate the middle school years. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni tried to assuage parents caught up in the college-admissions mania with “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.”

In spite of attempts to get parents to chill, the pressure to protect, along with the rise of social media (which allows us to present a highly edited version of our lives to the world), has created a maelstrom of hyper-insecurity powered by ever more irrational ideas about “success.”

And here’s how we get to the bribing and cheating: Snowplow parents’ greatest fear is that their coddled progeny will, at some, point fail. Of course, everyone stumbles in this world. But the irrational concern of the snowplower takes us straight to the dozens of one-percenters who were indicted last week. No doubt many of them were overindulgent parents who worried that if their overprotected children received that college rejection letter — a rite of passage for most Americans — it would deal a crushing blow to their puffed-up teenage egos.

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Worse, the rejection letter would signal the incursion of the cruel world on artificially happy homes, precisely the kind of setback these snowplow parents have spent the last 17 years sheltering their kids from.

In this context, is it any wonder that the most affluent Americans have resorted to lying, cheating, and bribing to protect their kids at all costs? When you value the appearance of success rather than actual accomplishment, all’s fair in love and college admissions.


Julie Scelfo is a journalist who writes about human behavior and the author of The Women Who Made New York. She can be reached at www.juliescelfo.com.