Park the Plow

Head of WCDS, Liz Hofreuter with daughters in Wheeling alley.

You have heard the term “helicopter mom” I am sure. It certainly has worked its way into our vernacular.  Sneaking in right behind it is another term, “the snowplow mom.”  The former hovers nearby to make sure all is well. The latter clears the road ahead of obstacles that lurk.   Personally, I am not a fan of either term.   Their negative connotation puts people off and categorizes parents, so that we educators might forget to consider each student and family individually.  Nonetheless, I am seeing more and more written in the field of education about the anxiety which parents feel.  There is some degree of uncertainty about our children’s future. No one knows what the opportunities will look like when our young children mature and take on the world in 2028 and beyond.  Unlike our parents and their parents before them, we do not know what our children will need to succeed.  Our world is shrinking and technology is ever expanding, so another 16 years might find us in a very different world than we currently live.

How do we prepare our children for a world we don’t know? Predictability has been swept away. According to Rob Evans, a clinical and organizational psychologist who has served schools and families for more than 30 years, it is this unknown that is the cause for the heightened anxieties of parenting. Add to that dilemma the numerous avenues for media coverage and expert advice and you can quickly find yourself overwhelmed as a parent.  It is easy to mistranslate the research on children’s fragility, and Evans sees it happening all around him.   It comes down to this — as parents struggle to know how to prepare a child for the path ahead and worry about his/her vulnerability, they turn to the alternative – prepare the path for the child – thus the snowplow parent is born.

I do not even need to type the next sentence, but I will. We all know on some level that children need to face obstacles and make mistakes to grow. We let them fall down as they learn to walk. We let them cry rather than rush in too soon. We let them eat too much Halloween candy. They need “successful failures” that they can live with and grow from as a result. Without challenges, and subsequent failures, we deprive our children of the tools they will need as young adults and beyond.

We cannot prepare the path, and we cannot expect schools to do so either, but we can help them learn to navigate it. Our children need to develop the skills of reading, writing, and mathematics – we know that, but they also need to develop the skills of problem solving, facing defeat, peer negotiation and so much more.

Once you are accustomed to clearing the path, it is difficult to give up the snowplow driver’s license. Still, it is worth the effort. I’ve read some good (and humorous) advice lately that I will share. “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There.” This means listen to your older child. Hear him or her out and consider the larger context of the story while you give your child a chance to think through some problem solving strategies. Drink a cup of coffee. Establish a time that is for you and unless it is an emergency, do not respond to your young child’s requests. They will learn some safe problem solving skills this way. Of course, the advice that brings a smile to my face, and makes me seem like a hypocrite of sorts, comes from Calvin Trillin. “Getting advice on the best way to bring up children is like getting advice on how to breathe: sooner or later, you’re probably going to forget it and go back to your old in-and-out.” Of course when the moment has passed, you’ll remember all the advice you didn’t follow and feel anxious all over again. I guess it comes down to this… park the plow and breathe.