The Lawnmower ParentApr 27, 2022
Nothing smells quite as great to me as freshly cut grass. I love it during the summer when neighbors are out mowing their lawns. It’s beautiful, fresh, and a sure sign of summer!
“Lawnmower parent” is a fairly new term. College professor Karen Fancher wrote a blog post June 25, 2016 that describes this style of parenting perfectly.
“It happened again this week. Several times, in fact.
I’m a professor at a well-known local university, and my office is located directly across from the elevators. Because I maintain a literal “open-door” policy for my students, visitors often mistake me for the department secretary, as I am the first person they see when the elevator doors open. At this time of year, the same scenario happens repeatedly:
I’m concentrating on something, but out of the corner of my eye I see the elevator doors slide open. It’s a teenage girl and a middle-aged woman, presumably her mother. The parent walks into my office, with the girl trailing sheepishly behind. The mother says, “My daughter will be starting here in the fall. We’ve got a problem with her class schedule.” I try to make eye contact and address the girl as I politely give them directions to the Office of Student Services down the hall, but it’s the mother who apologizes for interrupting me. They leave my office, Mom leading the way with the class schedule in her hand.
Do you see the problem here? The child has been accepted into a major university and is weeks away from starting a difficult area of study, but it’s her parent who is doing all of the talking to get her problem corrected, while she says nothing and appears to be dragged along against her will.
Professor Fancher describes a lawnmower parent as a parent who rushes ahead to intervene, “saving the child from any potential inconvenience, problem or discomfort. Other variations of this style of parenting include “Snowplow Parents,” “Bulldozer Parents,” and my personal favorite: “Curling Parents,” given the similarity to the Olympic athletes who scurry ahead of the gently thrown stone, frantically brushing a smooth path and guiding the stone towards an exact pre-determined location.”
Sound familiar to you? I have found myself doing this exact thing in raising my kids. And like other parents, I wasn’t trying to ruin my kids lives or make them incompetent adults. I was just “helping” them avoid the uncomfortable things in life.
I recognized the problem when I went with my second daughter to talk to a school advisor at a local university. She was looking to change schools and we wanted to find out what the process would look like. I walked in the office with my daughter and immediately noticed as I introduced myself and my daughter that the school advisor didn’t make eye contact with me, but with my daughter instead. She would ask my daughter direct questions as I sat there uncomfortably trying not to say anything.
It was a pivotal point in my parenting journey. I realized that my college aged daughter was capable of doing all these things on her own. I could accompany her as a companion and lunch date, but she needed to take responsibility to make this change herself.
I also started thinking about the other ways I was probably intervening too much. How would I make sure that my kids were even capable of making these big choices and accomplishing adult tasks if they didn’t start younger.
I stopped intervening when my kids needed to talk to a teacher about a missing assignment or low test score. I painfully watched how uncomfortable they were when they had to make the phone calls and have the difficult conversations that they didn’t like having.
It was not easy.
I’ve had some great meaningful conversations with teachers and administrators at our local schools, asking them what their biggest problems at their schools were. Besides the usual that I expected to hear, a couple messages stood out to me.
From a junior high administrator :
“I think the biggest struggle for the students is the lack of coping skills and always being rescued. Parents are not allowing their students to struggle; they are wanting to swoop in and fix everything for them. Parents are not allowing students to develop skills to work thru a difficult situation.”
And elementary teacher shared this:
“I also see how soft kids can be by teaching school, how how easily they give up, some have no grit.”
A relative of mine who is a professor at a University says he has parents call him all the time to ask about their student’s low grades. It drives him nuts to have a parent call and ask for a higher grade for their child.
As a parent who’s tempted to remove every uncomfortable obstacle from my own children’s life, it’s been a learning process for me to step back and observe. When I see my adult kids struggle with anxiety, finances, relationships, family issues, and parenting struggles, my first instinct is to swoop right down and solve their problems for them. Sitting back and watching my adult kids struggle is one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn to do.
My teenagers don’t expect me to email or call their teachers anymore. They know it’s expected of them to just get the work done and if they have a problem to take care if it themselves. It means they may get lower grades, assignments not turned in and absences not excused. They may miss deadlines and have unpleasant consequences from forgetting to do things or doing them late. But the consequences they have now will help them avoid the much more serious consequences of adult life.
A client recently told me that she didn’t want to ask her kids to do too much. “They’re busy in school and homework. They probably don’t have time to help out around the house.” By not asking kids to do their part, what kind of college students will they be? What kind of spouse will they become? If they think they’re busy and stressed out in high school - just wait. The earlier they learn to manage their time and resources, the more practice they’ll get.
A good friend of mine had a really valid question when we were talking about this subject. “But how do I find the balance between helping my kids so we have a good relationship and letting them learn the hard way?”
Although adjusting your tactics may cause a little frustration and stress in your teenager now, the maturity and independence they gain will be a blessing to them in the years to come. As a parent, do your best to not own your kids problems. You are their support, you are their soft place to land, but you are not their problem solver.
Professor Fancher notes:
All humor aside, this kind of parental behavior can have long-lasting, detrimental effects on your child. Some of these include:
* She becomes poorly equipped to deal with routine growing and learning experiences. This includes everything from asking for directions and dealing with an annoying roommate to much broader skills like communicating with superiors, negotiating for something she wants and coping with disappointment.
* She doesn’t develop a sense of personal motivation or drive, since she only knows how to follow the path that the Lawnmower Parent has already prepared.
* She can’t make a decision, big or small, without the guidance of others.
* She constantly receives the message that she isn’t good enough to do this herself. In essence, the Lawnmower Parent is repeatedly demonstrating to the child that she cannot be trusted to accomplish things on her own.
Life might be rough for our kids. But this, my friends, is rougher.
Here are a few tips you can practice now to help your child be the confident self-assured human they need to be.
Start practicing now! What opportunities do you see that you can give your young child to speak up and talk? Can they order their own food at a restaurant? Can they call their friend to hang out instead of you calling for them? Can they ask their teachers about a question or assignment?
Establish the expectation that teenagers make the initial effort to communicate with others first. Let them call, talk to, email and communicate with their teachers and leaders as much as possible. Allow them to make appointments on the phone. If they need to reschedule a lesson, let them do it on their own. Don’t intervene until they have given a sincere good effort. Then intervene only if necessary.
Expect and trust your kids to be able to make all these adult decisions they need to make. Trust that they are capable of working things out. Allow them to make mistakes when their mistakes are minimal. Let them feel the consequences while the consequences are smaller.
Allow your kids to make mistakes. They need to make mistakes and fail all the time. Failure is the absolute best and quickest teacher. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. The better you get at failing and rising, the more successful you’ll be in life.
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