If you thought helicopter parents were bad, have you heard of lawnmower parents?
The term “helicopter parent” has been in the lexicon for a number of years and most people can relatively easily define what they do: these are parents who, for a variety of reasons, hover closely over their children, monitor their activities and interactions and schedule structured activities for them, from end of school to bedtime. The term has taken on a largely negative connotation, in which parents unwittingly prevent the socioemotional development of their children in the mistaken belief that they are providing help.
The dirty secret of overinvolved parenting? It is often quite effective, as detailed by researchers Matthias Doepke (Northwestern) and Fabrizio Zilibotti (Yale) in their 2019 book Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way we Raise Our Kids.
Their argument is largely based on the idea that frantic and overscheduled parenting leads to improved outcomes for kids in the present world. For some, a logical conclusion is to take this to the extreme. Perhaps, most dramatically exemplified by the recent college admissions scandal, parents committed to knocking over every challenge for their children are often very successful in doing so (at least until the FBI gets involved):
- Don’t play a sport? That’s what Photoshop is for!
- Or just bribe the coach!
- Struggling with standardized testing? Pay someone to take the test in their place!
- Extra time for exams would help? Bribe a psychologist or physician to get diagnosed with a learning disability!
The majority of the internet and media discussion in the aftermath categorized these behaviors as selfish, appalling and shameful. “Reasonable” parents, the conclusion went, would have distanced themselves from ever taking such steps. However, there is another argument here: that these are lawnmower parents, albeit with significant financial means and societal connections. More insidious, and potentially more damaging than helicopter parenting, “lawnmower parenting” describes a parenting style in which obstacles are actively removed on a child’s behalf.
In the case of those involved in Operation Varsity Blues, it is likely that their belief was that they were helping their children and not considering the consequences – on themselves, their children or other adolescents seeking college admission. As is often the case, in the right hands, rationalizations can be a powerful tool.
However, there are also a multitude of other smaller, more commonplace (and legal) methods employed by parents who “just want the best” for their children, regardless of the consequences. Often, these good intentions become distorted into parents taking control over a particular activity, interaction or skill-building opportunity and completing it on their child’s behalf. In the simplest of examples, do you tie your child’s shoes or let them/help them do it themselves? What happens when life gets more complicated or you are running behind schedule or you see your child struggling and want to fix it for them?
So-called “free-range parenting” has been one of the reactions to helicoptering/lawnmower-ing styles. Free-range parenting calls for more unstructured time and allowing children to navigate their own interpersonal, emotional and academic challenges. There is even a website with strategies, descriptions, pertinent legal statutes, crime statistics and other tools The parenting approach looks back fondly on the child-rearing styles of the 1970s and 1980s, but perhaps has a rose-colored view of the idyllic past?
As with most parenting recommendations, having a nuanced understanding of the different forces at play is essential. Who hasn’t tied their child’s shoes for them or helped with homework or negotiated a fight amongst siblings or peers? Who doesn’t want the best for their kids? Although it’s not sexy, moderation is probably the right answer: don’t let them roam completely free, but don’t fix all their problems for them (even if it “works”). You might not get arrested for it, but mowing down their problems certainly won’t help them figure out how to do it for themselves.