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How to Avoid Being a Snowplow Parent

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Hansa Bhargava, MD - Blogs
By Hansa D. Bhargava, MDBoard-certified pediatricianMarch 22, 2019

As a parent, it’s difficult to watch your child struggle. You hurt for them, and you want to help – but there comes a point when helping can be harmful. Removing obstacles from your child’s path, or ‘snowplowing’, may make their life easier in the short term, but it could be setting them up for bigger problems down the road.

One of the most glaring examples of snowplowing is the recent college admissions scandal. As you’ve probably heard, some celebrity parents, as well as other wealthy moms and dads, cheated to get their kids into college. Some paid off college coaches to vouch for their child; others submitted SAT results that were taken by another person.

While most of us can agree that this is misguided parenting, I suspect we’ve all over-helped our kids at certain points. We’ve all experienced occasions when our children’s stress became our stress too. It’s hard to hear that your son was picked last for a team in gym class, or that other girls chastised your daughter for her outfit. It sometimes seems tempting to deal with adversity by taking an easier road. Remove the child from that ‘awful’ school or buy the trendy outfit. A parent spoke to me recently about her daughter not wanting to change in front of the other girls in gym class who were body shaming her. Instead of talking this through with her child, she wrote false excuses for her daughter to avoid gym. She didn’t want her child to deal with a situation that was stressful, and it caused her stress too.

And sometimes we don’t want to see our kids fail. We call the child’s high school teacher about a bad grade, or we keep track of the college student’s exams and doctors’ appointments because it may be overwhelming for them.

But, how can a child or teen learn how to navigate life’s obstacles if we keep taking them out of their way?

Instead of helping our kids avoid difficulties, we need to help them get through difficulties.

To do this, try to think of difficult circumstances as ‘teachable moments’ for your child. For example, if your daughter is being teased at school, take the opportunity to talk to your child about how to deal with troublesome personalities. Should she stand up for herself? Or perhaps, depending on the behavior, walk away? When is it the right time to report to an authority? Help her understand the options, come to a conclusion and then if she is old enough, and it is safe to do so, have her advocate for herself. I instruct my children to speak up for themselves if someone is mean. If the mean behavior continues or they feel unsafe, it is time to tell the teacher or school representative.

This ‘middle way’ or supportive coaching can also work in other situations. Coach your child on how to talk to their teacher about a bad grade rather than doing it yourself. Encourage college kids to make their own appointments, and to remember their own schedule. They may miss appointments or classes, but that creates a learning  opportunity. We know that in real life, if we miss an important meeting at work, there are usually consequences. Learning about this as a student is better than learning how to manage life and cope with difficulty as an adult.

The biggest gift we can give our children is the freedom to fall, dust themselves off, and get back up again. This does not mean that we never extend a helping hand. It just means that we need to let them learn how to navigate and adapt through bumpy roads so that they’ll be prepared for the hills and valleys of life.

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About the Author
Hansa D. Bhargava, MD

Hansa Bhargava, MD, is a medical editor and WebMD's expert pediatrician. She oversees the team of medical experts responsible for ensuring the accuracy and credibility of the pediatric content on the site.

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