The psychology profession has never been shy about shaming parents who have children who struggle with behavior. Pithy, judgmental terms are the frequent weapon of choice in communicating blame. We are all familiar with the “Helicopter Parent,” i.e., the parent who swoops in from on high to rescue their child at the slightest hint of struggle (or so these judgmental coiners of the phrase tell us.). Parents of struggling children already feel bad enough without having to endure a succinct term to throw at them under times of frequent stress.
Well now there is a new term with which to shame parents – The Snowplow Parent. The notion is that much like its real-life counterpart, the snowplow parent pushes ahead in front of their children removing any and all obstacles so that their child does not have to face any hardships or barriers in their lives. The argument goes that in removing these obstacles, the parents are depriving their children of the opportunity to learn how to overcome hurdles on the road to becoming independent, responsible adults. But here is the interesting thing; snowplows are actually pretty helpful. How many of you during a blizzard have said “No thanks, Mr. Plow. I would rather trudge through this dangerous, snow-laden road on my own, because what I am most interested in doing is building my character?”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I do believe it is helpful to learn how to navigate obstacles and overcome adversity. But as we frequently see in this kind of situation, people often fall victim to an all-or-none type of thinking that ends up actually preventing that exact goal to which we are striving. Yes, it is helpful for children to learn how to deal with obstacles, but some obstacles may be too difficult for them to handle at times and there may be situations in which it is absolutely appropriate to remove them. Do I need the snowplow to drive down my street when there is an inch or two of snow? Certainly not. Do I need the snowplow to drive down my street when there is a foot of snow? Yes, please! Making things more complicated is the fact that if I am an inexperienced or poor driver, I may need the snowplow when there is less snow than an amount faced by a more experienced driver. The degree of difficulty that a situation presents is not absolute, but rather is determined by the level of cognitive and social emotional skill required by the situation relative to the particular person’s skill set.
It is this relativity that we must always keep in mind. We must constantly assess the degree of difficulty of a situation relative to the level of skill which the child possesses. And if the difference is too great, we must accommodate accordingly. One example of this is a child who has very poor frustration tolerance. If the child’s frustration tolerance is considerably lower than what we would expect for his or her age, then we might need to modify the environment so that this particular child does not have to encounter as many frustrations throughout their day as a another child who has a better developed ability to manage frustration. Think of it as learning how to lift weights. If your child can only currently lift 5 pounds, but is required to lift 20, you may have to spot him/her the other 15 pounds, or at least maybe 10. People get stronger incrementally. As they continue to practice, they slowly get better. Removing some of the “weight” helps them proceed and grow at a reasonable pace.
So, the next time someone accuses you of being a “Snowplow Parent,” you may want to ask them to think about the implications the next time they are facing a blizzard.