Give kids chance to solve own problems

  • By Carolyn O’Laughlin Special to The Washington Post
  • Friday, December 27, 2013 1:01pm
  • OpinionCommentary

A new moniker, snowplow parents, refers to those who not only hover like helicopter parents but also plow ahead to pre-emptively eliminate any obstacles from their child’s path. These are the folks who would like to hand-select their young child’s classmates, or who bribe coaches for more playing time, or who encourage teachers to pay extra attention to their child at the expense of other students. For those of us who work with college students there are tales of parent calls for notes from a missed class, daily requests for lists of salad-bar ingredients and parental involvement, via Skype, regarding a dispute between roommates over a missing jar of peanut butter.

As a student affairs administrator, I’ve worked with my share of snowplow parents. I hear the concern in their voices. Often such calls end with a better understanding — for me, of their kid; for parents, of our policies. Sometimes the calls are more frustrating and sound more like a scraping plow than an invested parent.

But I feel for these parents. The passing agonies of the everyday are shared quickly and easily — texts about a disappointing grade, photos of a roommate’s overflowing garbage, tweets about the heat in a dorm room. The instantaneous nature of the complaints can give the impression that only an immediate solution will do. And some students relying on their phones, with their parents at the other end, are losing the opportunity to stop and think, assuming that their parents are more capable. Perpetuating this belief is a disservice to their development and may contribute to the increasing amount of anxiety students experience about small inconveniences.

Some years ago as a college student in Milwaukee, I had a run-in with a more traditional type of snowplow. I’d brought a car to campus for the weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break and had parked at the end of a neighborhood street. I studied and drank beer and danced on couches as snow fell. The college grounds crew shoveled walks across campus, creating waist-high tunnels wide enough for only one person. On the day the dorms closed, two friends and I found my car encapsulated in snow and ice, plowed in under chest-high, dirty, gray snow. Orange parking tickets were frozen in layers of ice like papier-mache.

If I had access to today’s technology, I might have snapped a picture on my phone and sent it to my mom, or texted “OMG” and selected a crying emoji face. Instead, I called my mom many hours later, from a pay phone in a gas station parking lot off the highway, to announce that I’d be late. Car trouble, I told her, and she responded with the expected balance of sympathy and concern. I didn’t mention that I was completely at fault, or that it was entirely preventable, or that the number of unpaid parking tickets may have been plentiful enough to justify my arrest. I just told her, truthfully, that I’d been able to handle it. (Years later, she confessed that she’d fished parking violation notices out of the mailbox for months after and sent checks to pay them before my dad found out — a vintage snowplow parent of my very own.)

The everyday obstacles of living and learning in a college community — conflict, disappointment, discomfort — are awkward and messy but necessary. Development of a person’s identity, confidence and competence requires the ability to deal with adversity. When well-intentioned parents plow through obstacles, they often bury their child’s ability to clear the next path.

Back in Milwaukee, I had avoided the discomfort and annoyance of dealing with the accumulating snow for weeks. Busy with schoolwork, inexperienced in managing multiple responsibilities and just a little lazy, I waited, hoping that I would never have to deal with it. As a result, the tools that could have helped me — an ice scraper, snowbrush and dashboard defroster — were buried by falling and plowed snow. The inevitable task became all the more difficult, and my friends and I had to improvise — kicking at snow and batting at it with mittened hands. Someone brought a handful of kitchen utensils, and we chipped ice with wooden spoons and flipped snow with spatulas until eventually the doors opened. We looked ridiculous, and I had to buy a lot of beer and pizza the next semester to make it up to those friends, but clearing that path on our own — three college kids with tools from a kitchen junk drawer — taught me more about my capabilities than did many of my courses that term.

As the children of snowplow parents head home for winter break, let’s hope they’ll be given some opportunity to shovel the walk.

Carolyn O’Laughlin is director of residence life at Sarah Lawrence College and a student at the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute.

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