What Is Snowplow Parenting?Feb 18, 2023
What Is Snowplow Parenting?
You might be more familiar with snowplow parents who have made the news in recent years with slightly older children. In March 2019, dozens of parents, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud. They were accused of paying bribes to get their children into elite universities, with some parents spending up to $500,000 to guarantee their children's admission. Both Loughlin and Huffman plead guilty to their charges and were sentenced to prison time, with Loughlin spending 2 months and Huffman only 11 days.
These two actresses weren't going to let insignificant little things like not being smart enough or ambitious enough get in the way of what is best for that child. Just as a snowplow removes snow and ice from the road, the snowplow parent removes obstacles that get in the way of their child’s success.
How Do I Know If I Am A Snowplow Parent?
I suppose the ultimate test of whether you're a snowplow parent is to ask yourself if you would do the same thing... If you happened to have won $500,000 on the lottery and there was a way that you could ensure your child got into some Ivy League school or just the school of their choice would you take that opportunity?
What it I could guarantee that we get caught? Does that change anything for you?
If your answer was an immediate, 'yes', then you might want to look to check to see if your desire to help, fix or set your child up for the best is coming from an anxious, reactive mindset, which would be more like a snowplow parent - or a more calm, thought-out and reflective position which might be more balanced and like a lighthouse parent. In My People PAttern’s world, the lighthouse parent is the ideal parenting style that we are all striving for,
The Psychology Of A Snowplow Parent
What follows is a psychological conceptualization of the snowplow parent from an Object Relations and Family Systems theoretical perspective.
If you don't know me, my name is Oliver, and I'm a family systems therapist, and I work with parents, adults and families as a therapist and I’m the clinical director of My People Patterns. The snowplow parent has what I call a Self And Other situation going on, this is a very common people pattern that I see in parents.
We all have an internalized sense of Self, which helps us remember who we are, and gives us an identity. When it comes to our loved ones, we carry an internalized sense of them too - I call that Other. This is very convenient for us a species because it allows us to remember our relationships when the other person isn’t around. So when you’re at the grocery store can buy ingredients for a delicious dinner that your partner might like, because you can imagine and recall aspects of them in your head that make you confident that your delicious Spaghetti Bolognaise will be a hit at dinner tonight.
When we’re at work the OTHER that represents your partner will probably fade to the background and the OTHER that is your boss will be more prevalent because the boss is the one that’s demanding things of you. Hopefully, when you leave home, the boss will take up less space and perhaps your partner’s OTHER will re-emerge and you can focus on them rather than your boss.
Overall we want Self and Other to be able to shrink and grow as the situation we’re in demands, you probably don’t want your therapist to be thinking about their dog while they’re in a session with you.
We also want Self and Other to be separate, when they’re not separate we feel responsible and connected to the Other’s feelings and experiences. When this doesn’t happen, we take on too much responsibility for the other person’s feelings and experiences
That’s what happens in a Self and Other Situation, most often this is a parent who is anxiously thinking and anxiously preoccupied with their child. Snowplow parents aren’t quite able to let their child fail because Self and Other are merged so the parent feels or imagines feeling the same disappointment as their child does.
In essence, the snow plow parent doesn’t want their child to fail, not only because they love their child as any parent does, but also, a bit selfishly because if the child fails, it means they will fail too.
This is an entire module of FORTified Relationships Course on My People Patterns and the introductory level is totally free right now - I’ll put a link down there and highly encourage you to check it out - it’s totally free and you can learn more about self and other situations and many more people patterns there.
Different Examples Of Snowplow Parenting
Just to be clear, Snow Plow parenting isn’t restricted to early years and college admissions, variations of this happen at any stage of a child’s life
- it could be calling in favors and using contacts to get children into a certain summer camp
-or calling a coach to see if they can convince them to let their child into the swim team.
This micromanaging or hovering over results is similar to the helicopter parent and there’s some similarities between the two types of parent, both remain close to their child, monitoring and managing and swooping in when needed.
Other examples I’ve come across in my career as a therapist is parents writing notes on behalf of their children to excuse them from taking a test that the child hasn’t prepared for,or going head-to-head with a teacher about a grade that they thought was unfair.
Most of the examples I can think of are to do with academic success - and this is part of a snowplow parent that is not dissimilar from a Tiger Parent. Intensive or Tiger parents value education above all else and believe at their core that their child will have the best possible life if they apply themselves fully to achievement in the world of academics or sports.
Snowplow parents believe the same thing, it’s just that they don’t mind cutting corners or using some of their privilege or authority to give the illusion of success.
The Metaphor Of The Snowplow Parent
All of these recent parenting names are a metaphor and I like to really understand the imagery involved.
The metaphor comes from the snowplow, which clears the roads of snow and ice, making it easier for cars to travel. But can we be sure that removing obstacles from your child’s path is going to make their life easier in the long run?
Snowplows weigh four times more than the average car, and a collision with one can be deadly, and I think that’s a warning to anyone who tries to get in the way of a snowplow parent on a mission to help their child - they will mow you down!
If you live in a cold part of the world where snowplows operate, you probably know that you should never pass a Snowplow on the road - they have many blind spots and don’t maneuver easily or stop quickly, and in the same way,as we’re about to see, snow plow parents have a pretty big blindspot in this approach that’s tied into the long term success of their child
CONSEQUENCES / GIVING AND TAKING
If you put aside the morally ambiguous nature of pulling strings on behalf of your kid, there’s a more significant issue that snow plow parent often don’t consider -and it’s to do with failure and natural consequences
All parents want what is best for their children, and if you were to assume that getting into an Ivy League school was best for your child I can see how it would make sense that you might do anything to make that a possibility.
I have a philosophy however that one of my mentors instilled in me about therapeutic work with clients that sort of applies or parents and children. This idea is that if you are to give something to a client you might also be depriving them of something. If I guess what a client is feeling, I'm taking away the opportunity for my clients to go inside identify and then articulate what they are feeling to me which is actually what some clients are coming to therapy to learn or experience for the first time. So I’m always cautious in my work not to immediately answer questions, or make assumptions - it might be faster or easier, but there also might be a cost.
If you were a parent who instinctively gave the toys to that baby in the experiment above, there would be some instant gratification in pleasing your baby in the moment perhaps seeing them smile or getting a positive reaction from them. you would be taking away the opportunity for that baby to learn something about frustration balance, and ultimately a developmental milestone of crawling. Now obviously there are a million different ways that the baby learns to crawl, and this is a hypothetical situation tell a straight point.
So if you were to buy your child's way into an Ivy League school it sounds to me as if it would be a quick fix could be giving the child what they wanted in the short run some gratification about an acceptance letter but in the long run I will this impact that teenagers self-esteem knowing that they didn't really work as hard as everyone else.
What about the natural consequences and learning experiences that you gain from failing? No one I know has gone through life never failing at something because failure builds resilience. Failure at not getting the toy as a baby means they might try something new the next time they cant reach something - which could be a crawl - or failing to get into a school you want, might mean that you learn that you do actually have to study and work hard to get to where you want to go,
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