There's a new trend at children's birthday parties these days. Some parents are banning balloons. Not because they're a potential choking hazard. And not because kids inhale the helium. And not even because balloons are really bad for the environment. These parents are nixing balloons to save the children from the disappointment of having one pop or fly away.
Trying to eliminate all grief or trauma before it has a chance to happen — or smoothing what lies ahead to keep children from facing discomfort even in things as insignificant as a popped balloon — is what's become known as lawnmower parenting. And while it may seem like saving kids from heartbreak is a kinder way to parent, removing obstacles before they face them does kids a huge disservice, says parenting expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa. She's founder of Ask Doctor G and author of "Teach Resilience – Raising Kids Who Can Launch."
She says that kids need to have lots of balloons pop to learn to cope with small and large discomfort in order to build resilience.
Lawnmower parenting — aka snowplow or bulldozer parenting — refers to parents who "clear" a path for their children so those bumps in the road, everything from popped balloons to failed exams, are removed or fixed. Their thinking is that a clear path allows their child to move smoothly forward without experiencing real hardship, disappointment or discomfort.
Don't confuse this parenting style with its older cousin, helicopter parenting. While helicopter parents react to their own anxiety and fears for kids by hovering and keeping a bird's eye view of what could happen, lawnmower parents take a more active role in "preparing the world for our kids rather than preparing our kids for the world," Gilboa says. Helicopter parents see obstacles; lawnmower parents get them out of the way.
Why Mowing a Path for Your Child Is Bad
Even when practiced with the best of intentions, lawnmower parenting does a disservice to children in multiple ways. Without learning how to face discomfort when parents are around to offer support, children are in danger of dealing with their first tragedies when parents are not involved — like during sleepovers or even in college — when they may be unable to handle them.
"[The children] are developmentally delayed in their ability to process discomfort and disappointment and pain because we didn't let them try," Gilboa explains. Children of lawnmower parents don't have positive coping strategies for managing stress because they never got any practice while growing up.
Worse, lawnmower parenting mismanages children's expectations about life. Instead of the old mantra "life isn't fair," children of lawnmower parents receive the message that any discomfort is an emergency. Unfortunately, while their parents jump in to save them, teachers, coaches, other authority figures and their peers usually won't.
"We are flipping everybody's expectations upside down," Gilboa says. "We are setting our kids up for betrayal if we lawnmower them because no one else will."
This style of parenting has negative effects on parents, too, because parents need to see their children in uncomfortable situations so they can separate physically and emotionally from them. Being OK watching your child cry over a popped balloon is an important aspect of the parent-child relationship, Gilboa says. However, many parents of adult children find it impossible to be happier than their least happy child.
From the Classroom to the Field
Long after those balloon-free parties, lawnmower parents continue to cut through as many childhood disappointments as possible, particularly when it comes to school. And parent involvement in college life and academics now extends far beyond helping children move into the dorm.
"I returned to secondary education about five years ago and have since encountered a higher rate of helicopter parents and a significant number of lawnmower parents," says Atlanta-based Dr. Greg Brooking, who started teaching and coaching high school in the mid-1990s. "I've had mothers and fathers approach me with athletic 'concerns' as well as academic ones. I've also noticed how today's parents seem to be incapable of assigning any responsibility to their children and are unable to grasp that their kids don't, by nature, deserve to be in the starting lineup."
When these parents do not receive satisfaction from the teacher directly, they mow on.
"These parents are also very comfortable with taking their 'concerns' to administration officials or athletic directors," Brooking says. "As a teacher, these trends are frustrating, requiring an additional set of psychological skills to deal with parents and their children. The kids of these parents have also learned to manipulate the situations they encounter in the classroom, knowing that they might be able to get away with a little less effort than others because their parent will cause enough of a stir to make some teachers uncomfortable."
Some schools have taken notice and have become "more focused on growth," and initial grades on early assessments can be adjusted based on the student's consistent improvement throughout the course, says Elizabeth Clark, an Atlanta-based high school teacher with more than 20 years of experience.
"When I have that kind of parent that wants a fix for things, this type of adjustment on initial grades is a nice way to pacify them," she says. However, she says she's also had to encourage parents to let their children take responsibility if they don't take initiative and improve, too. "I very often have said, 'You need to let your child fail because they never stepped up,'" she says. "It's one of the best lessons they can give their child." When a child has opportunities for improvement and does not act on them, the child needs to feel the pain of the consequences so that they will not make the same choices again. This cannot happen if the parent fixes the problem or the teacher simply bolsters a grade.
What's Next for the Next Generation?
If failure is an important lesson, lawnmower parenting mistakenly views uncomfortable situations as harmful.
"One of the big changes is that our youngest generation now conflates the idea of discomfort with being unsafe," Gilboa says. Parents have become terrified by stress and allowed kids to believe stress is always bad. However, Gilboa explains that stress is to resilience as exercise is to muscle. Facing and managing it is the only way to become resilient.
"We only learn when we are uncomfortable," she says. If children don't have chances to learn coping skills, we will have adults who have to be really countercultural just to grow. "It is essential to changing how this next generation's trajectory goes."
What's a Parent to Do?
Parents can begin by recognizing the difference between uncomfortable and unsafe. When a problem won't lead to permanent, scarring damage, allow their child to solve the problem on their own. For lawnmower parents of older children, it's not too late to pivot, says Gilboa. Explain to your child that you're doing things differently going forward. To bring the kids on board, she recommends telling them you've been treating them as too young; most kids are horrified at the thought of being babied.
But if your child's world is full of lawnmower parents — and you're not and let your child (gasp) have balloons at his party or get cut from the soccer team's starting lineup — how will they compete with the children whose parents continue to mow down their way? Gilboa says that if the goal is to get your child into a great college, it's tough. However, if your goal is to see your child graduate from college, the children of lawnmower parents won't have the edge over yours in the end.
Without coping skills, lawnmower children will likely find solo success elusive, like the student who quit college because the dining hall food had too much sauce. Because whether it's too much sauce in the college cafeteria, or a popped birthday balloon, our kids need to encounter life's little difficulties to prepare them to tackle the big ones as adults.