March 7, 2020

Helicopter and Snowplow People


You are probably familiar with the term, helicopter parents. They are the ones who sweep in to fix a problem for a growing (or grown) child. While helping one's offspring is part of parenting, a helicopter parent goes overboard. Their child is protected from virtually all of life's stumbles and fall or failures and predicaments when the parents "helicopter" in to save their offspring from any inconvenient parts of growing up. The result is often delayed or insufficient maturity or the ability to make decisions and one's own way in the world.

Well, here's a new one: Snowplow parents. Think of the headlines not too long ago of parents who paid large sums of money to get their kids into prestigious colleges by having SAT scores inflated, or becoming a member of an athletic team even though the child didn't excel in that sport. Those parents face large fines and jail time; their kids risk not be accepted at those colleges even if, on their own, they would have qualified. 

A snowplow parent is one who pushes all impediments or legal niceties out of the path of their child. They plow away any problems that may lie ahead, at the risk of creating a mess for themselves and their kids anyway.

I am sure some form of these parental behaviors occurred when I was growing up, but I certainly can't remember ever hearing about them. I know my parents didn't use either in raising three boys. They were closer to: "Here is your boat, get in and we will push you forward but now it is up to you to make your way." They were incredibly supportive, loving, and deeply involved. But, they understood there is a line that parents should not cross if they want their offspring to become a fully functioning adult.

Of course, it is the parent's job to protect and nurture. Teaching a child to become a productive member of society, feeling confident and secure in his or her abilities to navigate the stuff life will throw at them. But, becoming as deeply involved as either a helicopter or snowplow parents creates many more problems that it solves.

All very interesting, Bob, but does this have anything to do with retirement? Yes, it does, on two levels.

First, if you have children and maybe grandkids, you are just one or two inappropriate interventions away from becoming a helicopter or snowplow! Those of us lucky enough to have both adult  children and rapidly growing grandkids know one of the cardinal "rules: your "kids" are not yours to control any longer, and the grandchildren are not being raised by you (unless, or course, they are due to circumstances).

Sure, you may be asked for advice, help, or to lend a hand as needed. But, there is no quicker way to build a barrier between you and the next two generations than stay stuck in the parental role. Unless someone is in physical danger, how your adult children and grandkids live and are raised is not your business. You may disagree with choices that are being made, but they are not yours to change. That is a hard lesson to accept, but it is critical to follow it.

The second way over-involvement can occur is if you are the recipient. Your grown children might be the helicopter or snowplow. With the greatest intentions in the world, your kids could decide that their involvement in how you live, where you live, or how you spend your money requires their direct intervention. Worried that you are risking life and limb, financial disaster, or being taken in by some sort of scam, your children might swoop in and decide they must become the parents. Or, they take it upon themselves to clear away all the obstacles that they perceive.

Importantly, I quickly add that there are times when such an intervention is necessary. If someone is driving who shouldn't be, medications are not being taken as directed, the house is dangerous to walk in, or any myriad of issues exist, then, yes, love requires an adult child to step in and step up to a more direct position of responsibility, even if the parent resists.


But, this causes real familial rifts when conditions are simply lifestyle or preferences, and a grown child decides he or she doesn't approve or thinks it is inappropriate. Inserting themselves into the parent's life on those conditions is no more appropriate than when done to a grandchild.

The important takeaway is a plea to monitor your behavior when you are tempted to hover or plow all obstacles away....or to understand the motivation when you are the object of such attention. Clear communication on either side of this dilemma is a must. The relationships between all family members, regardless of their place in the pecking or chronological order, is too important to plow ahead (pun intended) without considering the consequences.




14 comments:

  1. I've never heard of snowplow parenting, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that you do your kids no service to approach child rearing that way. Where is common sense these days? Kids need to fail sometimes to know the joy of accomplishment when they don't. But what do I know, never having raised kids.

    When I was growing up in the '40s the street I lived on was more like the it-takes-a-village approach, moms turned us out to play in the morning and we didn't come home until lunchtime. If you did something wrong, my mom would know about it before I even walked in the door and we'd get reprimanded by which ever mother on the street saw us doing what we shouldn't.

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    1. I read the "Snowplow" term somewhere to describe the college admission scandal and it seems to fit. Well-meaning but misguided adult children or relatives can be snowplows in our lives, too, when that type of intervention isn't needed.

      Failure has been given a bad name in that it is something to be avoided at all costs. But, as you point out, without failure there is no way to measure success or to learn from one's mistakes. All the great advances in human history have come as a result of initial failures.

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  2. Helicopter and Snowplow parents, along with a pervasive "entitlement" culture among students was one of the reasons I retired early from my university teaching position. I was increeasingly asked by parents to change grades, waive requirements, allow students to miss a final exam because of "vacation plans," and to let them review a letter of recommendation I was writing for their child's application to medical school before I submitted it. "No" was my answer to all and the resultant backlash finally contributed to my departure. Some of my students were horrified by the intervention of their parents and often told them to "butt out," but on several occasions I had a student say to me, "My Dad/Mom will be calling you." They are doing their child no service by these interventions, but our culture has clearly changed. The parental feeling of success and self-worth is now linked with that of their children.

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    1. I can't imagine my parents intervening in my success or failure at anything while I was at Syracuse University. That would have been so mortifying I would probably have left that school. But, I guess things have really changed. No wonder you got fed up. Parents attempting to influence a professor's decisions is so wrong and counterproductive.

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  3. Obviously trying to buy your way into an elite university doesn't do anyone any good. If the student can't get there on their own merits they likely aren't prepared and will fail out anyway. That probably applies to most things but I can see why super rich parents might try it. I imagine in their world money is the determining factor for just about everything and they likely have WAY more than they could ever use. For them large sums of money simply may not mean that much. Dropping a few hundred thousand or more to them is perhaps the middle class equivalent of buying a new outfit or bedroom set for your kid.

    That said, we've tried to steer our two now adult daughters with the goal of being self-sufficient and have been largely successful but I can say that one daughter struggles more than the other. Youthful decisions have largely contributed to her situation but she's living independently and we mostly leave her alone but recently when she couldn't pay her annual license fee to maintain her employment, I paid for her. It's only $150 to me but for her it meant the difference between making the rent or not. It's feels like that United Way campaign from a few years ago where the person had to decide between eating or having a place to live.

    As a parent it's a fine line between helping and enabling and we constantly struggle to walk that line. For me $150 isn't going to affect my life one way or the other, perhaps like a few hundred thousand for the super rich person, but am I helping or hurting? For someone with a lot less money and perhaps financially struggling it may look overindulgent. Sometimes it's hard for me to tell if I am doing the right thing or not.

    On another note: From time to time my wife comments to me on things she would do differently from our (more successful) daughter and husband with the grandchildren. All I say is: "Not your kid" and my wife gets the message.

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    1. We have helped out both our kids now and then, though one more than the other. She is in a business that has fluctuating income and can be hurt by economic situations or even the current flu nightmare. Being single she has no backup income help with a working husband. We are it.

      She loves what she does so we offer assistance when things out of her control affect her income and puts her in a bind. At times my wife and I wonder if we are enabling her, but have decided that no, this is what we can do to help her over bumpy patches. She always offers to pay us back when things improve. Sometimes we accept the offer and at other times we don't.

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    2. Our son and daughter are young adults, five years apart in age and in completely different career situations. Like both of you, we've had the "helping vs. enabling" discussion at our home on various occasions. Sometimes we decide to step in to help; sometimes we don't. Based on what both of you said, it seems your approach is similar to ours in that the best interests of our kids drive the decision - not how much money or influence can be thrown at a problem to make it go away.

      I have to say that I find one of the many blessings of retirement is the ability to help our kids with the gift of time. Both are working full time, and Alan and I don't mind running a vehicle to a service station appointment or driving them to a major airport two hours away so they can save money on their flight and avoid long-term parking fees. Our willingness to pitch in is a reflection of their attitudes - both ask and don't expect, and both are appreciative of our efforts.

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    3. Our "occasionally needs help" mid-30s daughter is single too and as you say Bob, there's no backup except for us. The adult world really seems built for couples and if you are single everything is a bit more difficult.

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    4. I should have said she no backup income help with a husband or partner. To imply that a husband is the only backup possibility was sexist and inappropriate.

      With that out of the way, yes, we are a society that continues to be couples-oriented. Demographic trends, however, suggest that is changing. A growing number of millennials are choosing the single life instead of marriage or even a committed relationship. That fact will be a driving force in how our society view parents helping their offspring as student and health care debt continue to spiral out of control and the economy gets reoriented.

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    5. For Mary,

      Deep down I don't think Betty and I consider some of the aid we must give our kids in terms of dependency. We can easily afford it, so why add anguish and stress to a situation that we can help. If one of our kids was constantly running to us for everyday help, or spent the day watching TV our attitude would be quite different. But, if the adult child is trying, doing everything she can to make it all work, we wouldn't think twice about pitching in.

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  4. My kids are in their 30s and they are perfectly self-sufficient and I know the "kids" are not mine to control any longer, and the grandchildren are not being raised by me . . . and I HATE that!

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    1. Honesty, Tom...yes, there are choices my daughter and son-in-law make regarding their children that I sometimes slightly cringe at...nothing that is dangerous, just a different thought process. But, Betty and I stay quiet, knowing that our two cents worth is not required.

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  5. Bob, these can be such difficult dilemmas. After finishing a university degree, my son struggled to find work in his field and ended up living with us for a year. During that time, he was mostly unemployed or working brief temp jobs. He went back to university for another diploma, and again ended up living with us for another year again while seeking career-appropriate work. There were times when I wondered whether we we enabling him, but he has been working happily in his career for nearly two years now, and living in an apartment. He loves it and is thriving. One of my daughters, who is extremely independent and who has lived on her own since high school works in the gig economy, and there have been a number of times that I’ve helped her out financially. It’s tough for young people to get started and she doesn’t expect me to bail her out. On the other hand, there are times that I see her spending money on something I think is a luxury, and I wonder if I’m being too much of a helicopter parent, rushing in to save her. And as for the other daughter, mother of my grandkids, well, I find it extremely hard to keep my lip zipped about child raising practices. Parenting and grandparenting are endless sources of challenge, I guess, no matter what age they are.

    Jude

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    1. Our current virus problems have reopened this discussion in lots of households, I imagine. One of my daughters works as an independent contractor in the travel industry. As one might imagine, her business has been devastated. She has a savings cushion, but we have started to invite her for dinner at least once a week. That helps with her grocery bill but also gives her an emotional boost to be with family.

      There are situations that really cause us to "break the rules" in terms of involvement swith our grown children; this is one of them.

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