I kind of get the whole lawnmower parents thing (called a ‘snowplough parent’ in the US; and dubbed ‘concierge parents’ by one Sydney principal). This is where parents ‘prepare the road’, rather than the child. They mow across any obstacle in their child’s path, clearing the way for… I dunno, ‘success’. I can see how a lawnmower mum probably feels like she’s got a modicum of control over her kids. But we all know that’s a dream that ain’t never gonna happen.
The college admissions fiasco in the US is a classic lawnmower parents move. Not content with doing their child’s school projects, or paying for a top tutor, or even paying for some poor kid to write the essays for them, these parents are actually bribing colleges so their kid gets a place. It seems they start collaging their kid’s homework in Kindy and just keep right on going from there.
It’s not just a US phenomenon. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Sydney principals have seen a recent “significant change” in parenting, with more parents mowing the way.
“I think some parents are more anxious about managing their children for ongoing success than they are about ongoing learning,” said Timothy Wright, headmaster of Shore School. :the notion that ‘my child must always succeed’ is profoundly dangerous.”
One principal estimated that up to 10% of parents were lawnmower parents. This principal was from a top Sydney private school, so her opinion may be skewed, but 10% is a lot.
All for love
There’s no doubt the lawnmower parent is acting out of love. And fear. We all want ‘the best’ for our child. Every parent wants to ‘give your kid a head start’. We all know that life is a big competition and only the strong survive. At least, that’s what the marketing has been ramming down our throats since conception would have us believe. It’s little wonder that parents are so anxious their kids might ‘fail’, though personally, I’ve always asked “a head start to where?”
It seems they start collaging their kid’s homework in Kindy and just keep right on going from there.
Let’s face it, ‘love’ makes parents do strange things. A classic lawnmower parent at my kids’ primary school would email the school her teacher preferences each and every year. Basically hand-picking the teachers, so her kid wouldn’t get a ‘bad one’. Of course, I guffawed at this notion for all of a week, before sending my own email over to the school. I figured this was the kind of thing that ‘real’ loving parents do. There’s no harm in ‘advocating’ for our kids, right?
There’s harm in advocating
Except, there can definitely be harm in advocating.
The first bit of harm was to my pride. The minute that email went out, I felt ashamed that I’d officially joined the lawnmower parent club. There was good reason for this: mowing does your kid no good, and I knew it.
In this case, there’s a lot to learn from a year with a ‘bad teacher’. That is to say, a teacher whose teaching style may not suit your child. It’s a good lesson to not be spoon-fed, or even supported in the way we want. It means our kids get an introduction to how to get along with a ‘bad boss’. Plus, we learn best when we’re made to work hard at something, not when it’s handed to us on a gilt-edged platter.
As parents of a very privileged generation of children, we would be wise to remember this. (Disclaimer: there are absolutely degrees of privilege and individual results may vary.)
You are not special
“Snowplough parenting” was a term coined by David McCullough in his book You Are Not Special And Other Encouragements. The book came from his 2012 address to Wellesley College graduating class, where he advocated for living a life of meaning, rather than striving. McCullough was basically concerned that kids were too focused on being ‘the success’, and not focused enough on being the kind of person who deserved it.
Kids were too focused on being ‘the success’, and not focused enough on being the kind of person who deserved it.
“The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that fell into your lap because you’re a nice person, or Mommy ordered it from the caterer,” he reminded the class. “Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.”
Lawnmowing isn’t about protection
Back in the day, we were horrified at the helicopter parent, hovering over their kid to rescue them from any perceived danger. The parents who were far too involved in their kid’s life. The kid couldn’t move without their mum holding their hand, metaphorically, but so often literally. While it has been found to be an authoritative, nurturing, connected style of parenting, helicopter parenting has also been found to be detrimental to psychological wellbeing.
Well, helicopter mums look positively neglectful when compared to the lawnmower parent. The lawnmower parent doesn’t wait around for life to raise a hurdle for mummy to help a kid over. The lawnmower parent runs ahead and removes the hurdle altogether.
Deal with that, pushy mumma. Deal with that, entitled kid. And so, of course, we did.
Like, the way I tried to mow away a potentially bad year at school for my kid, by trying to get them the ‘better’ teacher. I’m not proud of it. I no more want to manage my kids’ lives than I want to mange my own. Luckily our school principal knows far better than I do, and just popped my kid into the sucky class anyway. Deal with that, pushy mumma. Deal with that, entitled kid. And so, of course, we did.
We dealt with it in the same way we deal with all of our kids’ tougher moments: by throwing them in there and supporting them if they ask. I’ve never been a pilot, and aside from that one errant email, I’m definitely not a lawnmower. I’ve barely got time to mow my actual lawn.
A good start: Help your kids develop their problem skills
Life is busy enough without trying to live my kids’ lives for them too. I honestly don’t know where the lawnmower parents find the time. The level of monitoring, attending, fixing and anticipating involved seems ridiculous. I feel like getting through the everyday mental load is enough as it is. To add daily mowing to the list would just about kill me.
You’re not good enough
Worse, there’s a fundamental flaw in trying to engineer our kids’ success in this way: we are basically telling them they are failures. Every time we swoop in an kick aside the obstacle, we are basically saying, “You can’t cope with that, so let me take care of it.”
Day after day, year after year, the message is received loud and clear: I’m not good enough. I can’t do this on my own. I need help from others. I don’t have the resources, resilience, responsibility or expertise I need to manage life.
This might help: 10 ways to help kids develop resilience to cope with life
These kids end up with all the outward appearance of success – the good grades, the wall of trophies and certificates – but none of the internal pride that winning at life fair and square should bring. Instead, you have a grown kid who looks like they are capable, confident and clever, with Mum phoning to ask their boss for a raise. It’s happened, I read about it! It’s actually way more common than you’d think.
Wild and free
So, here’s the thing: our kids are enough, so let’s say enough’s enough. They don’t need a ‘head start’, the don’t need us to write their essay for them, they don’t need to come #1 in the class to get an education. What they do need are parents that step back, allow them to have a go, and commiserate when they fail.
Let the grass grow wild and free. After all, if we don’t step back, our kids will never have the opportunity to truly make us proud.
‘Fess up, are you a lawnmower parent? Not even a little light whipper snipping?