How do helicopter parents affect college prep? What “lawnmower parent” behaviors should a College Prep Parent avoid? Is there an alternative to “snowplow” or “bulldozer” parenting to help kids prepare for college?
As the college admissions scandal continues to make headlines, this event seems like the ultimate example of what certain types of parenting can lead to. Labels like “helicopter parent,” “lawnmower parent”, and “bulldozer parent” or “snowplow parent” get attached to parents like these, but some of the terms have been around for years. They include many varieties of parents – not only celebrities or those who cheat on behalf of their kids.
And each of these kinds of parents can have a profound effect on kids’ college prep. Let’s look closer at each of these labels, to really understand ways we parents can either hurt or help our college-bound kids.
Helicopter Parents and College Prep
This descriptive term has been tossed around for many years. Like a hovering helicopter, this type of parent watches over their kid’s every move, ready to set down at any sign of trouble. A hovering helicopter parent is not usually watching the action from a distance. Rather, they are ready to intervene at a moment’s notice.
The offspring of a helicopter parent tends to think that immediate intervention is normal and to be expected. So when it comes time for junior to begin a college search, it can be hard to tell which person is trying to find a school – the helicopter parent or the kid! A helicopter parent may insert themselves in the college prep and college exploration processes to the point that the child regularly defers to the parent, even when asked what they are looking for in a school.
By the time they enter college, the child raised by a hovering parent lacks the confidence needed to make tough choices – or to stick with the choices they do make. College is too demanding for a student not to come equipped with the experience of fending for themselves.
Lawnmower Parents and College Prep
A lawnmower parent attempts to mow down any obstacle in their child’s way. A path maintained by a lawnmower parent is neatly trimmed and clearly outlined – so there is no mistaking the path that lies before the lawnmower parent’s student. Briars and thorns have been taken care of, so as not to cause the traveler any stress.
A child “benefitting” from a lawnmower parent’s nurturing will find it difficult to move from their childhood home on Easy Street. But college is all about “making the move” – mentally and emotionally, at the very least. So like helicopter parenting, lawnmower parenting is simply bad college prep. A kid raised by a lawnmower parent gets so used to obstacles and inconveniences being mowed down for them that their personal toolbox is empty. They may recognize problems far ahead, but soft skills like patience, persistence, ingenuity, and resourcefulness have rarely been used to solve problems. A lawnmower parent was ready to do the work for them, even when it came to college prep. These now-undeveloped skills are among those most needed to thrive at college.
Bulldozer Parents, Snowplow Parents, and College Prep
The bulldozer parent adopts an even more dramatic style of parenting, setting the student up for college prep disaster. When a bulldozer parent notices a problem in their child’s life, brute force comes to the rescue. (A more regional designation for this type of parent is the “snowplow parent.”) Problems are tackled head-on by the parent, so as to eliminate the threat. The children of bulldozer or snowplow parents are often not around to see the action, because handling problems on their behalf with brute force can get a little messy. And after the bulldozer is finished, the problem remains buried deep and out of sight, for a while.
Children brought up in this type of situation are sometimes the last ones to know there was ever a problem! If a snowplow or bulldozer cuts a kid’s trail, it seems smart to get behind and just follow. The student doesn’t even have to recognize problems that arise or think about solutions. They just follow without resisting or even thinking.
The obvious trouble with this approach is that a time will come when a child is expected to handle their own life with skill and tact. Unless they have had to learn this, going to college can provide a very rude awakening. Like the other types mentioned above, bulldozer or snowplow parenting is bad college prep.
A Better Option: The College Prep Parent
These parents have some things in common:
- They fear the consequences of their child’s mistakes or struggles.
- These parents doubt their child’s ability to handle situations on their own or with limited help.
- They feel responsible for their kid’s failures or successes.
- They feel the need to “make it right” when their child encounters obstacles.
- These parents rob their kids of valuable lessons.
- These types of parents have lost perspective on what their college-bound kid needs.
All three of these parent types – helicopter parents, lawnmower parents, and bulldozer/snowplow parents – consistently step up to “help.” But sometimes the most helpful step they can take is a step back.
Meanwhile, the College Prep Parent is all about preparing their kid for what lies ahead. This type of parent realizes that “failure and struggle” teach lessons that are every bit as important to learn as “success and accomplishments.” A College Prep Parent prepares and equips their kid to develop the emotional strength that comes from standing on their own, learning from mistakes, and working to achieve difficult things. Their college-bound kid becomes their own advocate, and grows to appreciate and develop their own capabilities. This doesn’t happen through helicopter parents’ attempts at college prep. And not with the well-meaning college prep efforts of lawnmower parents, bulldozer parents, or snowplow parents either.
Raising a child in an environment that is “practically perfect in every way” may be possible for Mary Poppins. But when a parent, in an attempt to make everything perfect for the child, takes the struggle and strain away from them, it leads to:
- lacking the ability to cope with problems… and problems will arise throughout college.
- unrealistic expectations in competitive situations… and whatever their “playing field” (athletically, academically, within student organizations, etc.), the level of competition in college is much higher.
- anxiety over the student’s personal abilities and poor self-esteem… and in college, they’ll need a healthy understanding of how God made them as they choose a career path.
- undeveloped patience… yet college calls for much patience in learning material, getting along with roommates, and watching for opportunities.
- little experience with perseverance and a lack of resilience… so that the first bad college test, health setback, or time they hear “no” might overwhelm them. (Remember, the Bible points out that experience facing hardship develops perseverance!)
It is an often-told tale with many variations, but the story of a butterfly needing to struggle coming out of its cocoon is appropriate here. If an emerging butterfly doesn’t fight and struggle to squeeze out of the little opening in the cocoon, the fluid in its body is not forced into the wings. The butterfly will never fly. One story notes that when a boy tried to help a butterfly get free from the confinement of the cocoon, it actually caused it to die because it never experienced the struggle.
In a similar way, your child needs to experience the struggle. They should face consequences, making choices, and solving problems so they can thrive on their own. (Your kid’s future professors will thank you!) Every parent is tempted to become a lawnmower parent, bulldozer parent, helicopter parent, or snowplow parent – even in college prep. But you can fight that temptation by aiming to become a true College Prep Parent.