Are We Overreacting to "Snowplow Parenting?"
We may not want to shame all snowplow parents over the admissions scandal.
Posted Mar 31, 2019
In the recent college admissions scandal, some wealthy parents allegedly bribed and lied to get their kids into certain colleges. Although we’ve known for a long time that kids from wealthy families have advantages in higher education, the criminal element of this story is new. Parents are getting arrested.
Many of us have criticized these parents for such behavior. But along the way, some of us have gone further by criticizing their general parenting style.
As a professor, I’ve had to deal with cases of student cheating, such as smuggling cell phones into tests or copying a classmate's answers. Such behaviors are wrong, but I don’t extend this judgment to other aspects of the students’ lives, such as how they study or take lecture notes. Is it different for judging parents who break the law?
Maybe. I’m definitely not trying to defend the alleged behavior. But several recent authors in The New York Times and elsewhere have gone further by using the scandal as a jumping-off point to criticize “snowplow” parents in general. In my view, everyday parents who seem to snowplow or hover get criticized enough without unfairly grouping them into a high-profile scandal.
Snowplow parents are usually described as parents who clear their child’s way of every obstacle, or shield their child from any stress or failure. Helicopter parents are similarly described as wanting to “ensure their children’s success” (Darlow, 2017). A common criticism of all these parents includes the adage that we learn and grow from our mistakes and failures.
In my profession, if I get a call from a parent demanding I change their child’s grade, does that mean this parent is a snowplow parent? If a student makes a similarly unreasonable demand, does that mean they were raised by a snowplow parent? I don’t know.
My first point is that there is an inability to see the whole at-home story based on a single behavior. This is partly to say that a particular parent might seem to fit a parenting label in one context but not another (Stalder, 2018). But even if the label fits a parent in general, I’ve observed other biases in criticizing snowplow (and helicopter) parenting. These biases include the strawman fallacy, dichotomous thinking, the converse error, and just not considering individual differences in children.
It’s easy to criticize an action if we first exaggerate it. Many recent articles define snowplow parenting as protecting against “any harm” or removing “every obstacle.” Experts say things like, “If you shield [your children] from every problem now, they’ll be ill-equipped to face bigger challenges down the road” (Simmons, 2019). But is it physically possible to protect against “every” problem? Most parents fall in between “none” and “every.”
These experts may provide advice worth considering. But in my view, exaggerating what snowplow parents do can give the illusion of making a credible argument against more reasonable parental practices that try to protect children from “some” harm. Indeed, some parents have questioned their reasonable parenting after reading an article about snowplow parents (Damour, 2019). (The admissions scandal is, of course, not reasonable parenting.)
A common argument against snowplow parents is that we need to prepare and not shield our kids. One expert said, “The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid” (Miller & Bromwich, 2019). Obviously, a parent can do both, but it might sound better to word it in either-or terms. I get the semantics of persuasion, but oversimplifying the situation can create a more negative stereotype that, again, can make reasonable parents question their parenting choices.
All ants are insects, but not all insects are ants. To assume all insects are ants is a basic example of the converse error. Similarly, taking a cholesterol-lowering drug can lead to lower cholesterol, but that doesn’t mean someone who lowered their cholesterol must be on the drug. No, there are other ways to lower cholesterol, even though the drug could help.
Although mistakes and failures can lead to learning or growth, that doesn’t mean growth requires personal blunders. That’s a cool thing about being human—we can grow in other ways such as through observational learning and listening. In other words, blunders may be sufficient for growth but not necessary. (Of course, some blunders can be traumatic and do not lead to growth.)
Don’t get me wrong—if a child makes a mistake, there is a learning opportunity. It’s okay to make mistakes. But to criticize a parent for preventing a child’s mistake because it would prevent learning seems like the converse error. Fortunately, learning does not require the pain or embarrassment of mistakes (even if mistakes can help). I didn’t have to burn my own hand on the stove to learn not to touch it when it’s hot.
Here I turn to the comment section of one of the aforementioned articles (Simmons, 2019). Some readers understand what I want to say, that our children are not all the same. Without knowing as much about the child as the parent knows, it’s hard to judge what constitutes going too far in trying to protect a child. Rose from Seattle wrote:
“Before getting all judgmental, please remember that some kids struggle with invisible neurological differences and require more hand-holding than their age-mates. People aren’t always going to disclose their kids’ challenges to you, so it’s worth bearing in mind that there may be more to the story than you know.”
Let’s talk about the admissions scandal. Let’s talk about the unequal playing field in college admissions. But why are we talking so much about snowplow parenting? One possible answer is that the scandal offers an opportunity to give well-intentioned advice on a way to parent, which some research may show can benefit the average child. Although some of these researchers fall into the traps of strawman fallacy and converse error, that doesn’t mean their advice is useless. I advise parents to be open to advice—but not to judge themselves too harshly when considering whether it applies to their own situation.
Lisa Damour, “Drawing the Line Between Helping and Helicoptering,” New York Times, March 28, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/28/well/family/helicopter-parents-teenagers.html.
Veronica Darlow et al., “The Relationship between Helicopter Parenting and Adjustment to College,” Journal of Child and Family Studies 26 (2017): 2291–98.
Claire Cain Miller and Jonah Engel Bromwich, “How Adults Are Robbing Their Children of Adulthood,” New York Times, March 16, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/16/style/snowplow-parenting-scandal.html.
Rachel Simmons, “How Not to Be a Snowplow Parent,” New York Times, March 19, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/19/well/family/college-bribery-snowplow-parenting.html.
Daniel R. Stalder, The Power of Context: How to Manage Our Bias and Improve Our Understanding of Others (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).