Snowplough Parenting: Clearing the way for modern parenting

“‘Snowplough parents’ do everything to clear the way and make life easy for kids – better to give them a shovel and teach them to do it themselves.”

Parenting in this day and age is a minefield in many respects. From the perceived dangers and threats of the modern world, to the analysis and judgement of society and peers of the decisions they make on behalf of their children who are born naive to the way the world works. On top of this there is the social pressure for parents to compete with one another, either within families or against other families, by providing what they believe to be best for their children, either through support, attention or materials.

These modern age pressures have cleared the way for a number of different parenting styles and approaches to be adopted, one of which is becoming more and more prevalent in the western world.

‘Snowplough parenting’ is the term used to describe parents who clear the path ahead for the children, an act that often leaves them unprepared and unwilling when the day comes for them to clear it for themselves. They may be provided with financial security, shelter, transport and have their domestic chores done for them like their cooking and cleaning. As supportive and well-meaning the parents seem in these scenarios, if the means are available for the child to do these things themselves, then it should be up to them, as a lesson in life, to get on and look after themselves.

The analogy of the snowplough comes from the argument is that it’s better to give the child the shovel to clear the path themselves, rather than having the parent to do it for them. By doing it then they will be more capable and prepared to do it for themselves on the day when the parent isn’t there or isn’t able to do it for them. Such as the first time they’re home alone and need to cook their first meal, or driving to work for the first time and there’s no one in the passenger seat to grab the wheel for them. It’s hard to argue with because there’s few, if any, examples of something that can be learnt on behalf of someone else and these are essential life skills that these children need to learn in order to be ready for adulthood.

Snowplough parenting is very much a multi-national phenomenon that has struck the western world, where welfare systems and society allows parents to be assured of their own well-being to dedicate to their parents. Holly Schriffrin, a psychology professor at The University of Mary Washington in Virginia told the Boston Globe that “Parents need to understand they’re not giving their children a chance to develop competency, a feeling of pride and well-being” and that “Children are not developing the skills they need to become fully functioning adults”.

Competency is a big part of it. Whilst independent living is a large part of the support that a child receives, it contains a large range of tasks, duties and activities that need to be done in the earlier years that become mandatory as we grow up. How easy is to ask a parent, partner, flat mate or colleague to put the kettle on than to get up and do it ourselves? It’s a simple comparison, but imagine that’s done for you from the very first drink … when the day comes you’re in the office alone, you’re not going to know what to do.

Of course, to criticise this form of over-supportive parenting is not to say that children shouldn’t be supported and protected. In a real sense, snowplough parenting can be seen as the polar opposite of neglect, so how can that possibly be a bad thing? The problem is that there’s the certainty in all of our lives that it’s not going to be easy at times and bad things will happen. Unfortunately, that’s a difficult and adult outlook on life that is difficult to want to place in the mind of an innocent child.

Talk to the animals

The animal kingdom is often an eye opener to how far humans have evolved socially. This article shows just how cruel and callous some aspects of parenting in nature can be, yet these species still thrive.

Nature lacks one main human factor in that the parents have no drives of their own in relation to impressing others in the care of their offspring. Also, the world we live in nowadays lacks a ‘sink or swim’ feel to life, and parents can often safely dedicate themselves to their children without fear of financial ruin. In centuries gone by, and in the natural world, the parents have their own lives to live, jobs to work and food to hunt. Of course security and safety’s a good thing, but is it having a detrimental effect on future generations?

Tough love

So is tough love a reasonable middle ground? History is littered with examples of success from struggling backgrounds at times when welfare systems weren’t in place to provide parents with such freedom and resources to support their offspring.

“The only source of knowledge is experience” said Albert Einstein, whose own education and upbringing were anything but supportive and glamourous. Brought up by parents who had good intentions but weren’t in a position to dedicate themselves to his future, and as a child who didn’t naturally blossom in education, his intellect and success grew independently and his own determination was the driving factor behind his achievements.

Christopher McCandless was one individual who showed a backlash against the materialism of snowplough parenting, and the comfortable life that he had provided by his family. His story of giving up his money, car and possessions and living a life on the road before attempting to live alone in the wilderness of Alaska was immortalised in the book and film, ‘Into the Wild‘. It may be an extreme example, and one that is far from a common story of people in the Midlands, but it does represent both the frustration and damage done by removing the basic need to survive that we all have to some extent.

Failure breed success

Thomas Edison is famously quoted as saying “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” in his pursuit of inventing the light bulb. Learning from mistakes is a massive part of life and one that can only truly be achieved through independence and experimentation. By removing life’s more difficult and mundane experiences, snowplough parents risk taking away their child’s desire to innovate and to better themselves and create an expectancy that things should work out for them regardless of the effort they make and work they put in.

The Huffington Post produced an article listing a number of world renown inventions that were the result of failure to invent something else. Okay, so the Slinky may not have changed the world, but in Richard James’ failure to achieve what he set out to, he made both a name for himself and the business he founded as a result.

Society’s role

Society’s ability to future-proof is something that has only really come to light fairly recently. In technological terms, problems like the Y2K bug, the maintenance and renovation of road networks and the railways show that historically we as a society have always looked for the simplest and most cost effective solution for the there-and-then. This runs similar to parenting, in that it’s easier to give in to a child’s request than to see out the tantrum to teach them the lesson they can’t have anything they want just because they shout the loudest; the ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists’ approach, if you will.

Society also seems to have embraced the sense that children should be mollycoddled, and that by not providing your children with everything they desire, you are denying them of something. This generates a lot of pressure on parents to make decisions and to give in to demands in what may ultimately be counter-productive to their development as they’re growing up.

So, what’s the solution?

First of all, snowplough parents need to realise that they are just that. It can be all too easy to over-provide for a child and not realise until trying to rationalise difficulties or behaviours at a later date. However, give or take the extremes and accounting for capabilities, it boils down to if a child can do it for themselves, they should do it for themselves. A parent can still be there to supervise or assist if needed (in the true sense of the word) in some circumstances, without removing the responsibility.

One of the hardest parts of the problem is for parents to break the illusion that just because society and peers push for a certain ways of life, they as a parent are responsible for that child’s future and when it comes to decisions it’s important to think of the next ten years rather than just the next ten minutes. Children are vulnerable people in many ways, but the vulnerabilities that run into their late teens are their misinterpretations of what they need and what makes them happy and their use and dependence of those around them. It seems natural that a child will take the easy option if offered the chance, so it’s down to the guardian to manage this and find a suitable line between expectation and reality.

“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions”, Dalai Llama. Ultimately the common ground between all people is that they ultimately want to be happy. Success, money, possessions, education and love may all contribute to this in one way or another, but are very much secondary in their individual respect. With that said, a happy person must surely be considered to have made a success of his or her life.

We also need to accept that life is difficult, it has its ups and downs and we all have to deal with the realities of life ranging from heartbreak and disappointment to illness and death. But although these are significant milestones in life, they are not what define us and our day-to-day experiences. We live to be happy, to explore, to learn and to experience and these are elements to our life and personality that cannot be embedded by anyone other than ourselves. Surely then, there’s no better time to start the journey of independence than as a child. Pass the shovel.

by Tom McBeth (October 2014)

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