Why 'lawnmower parenting' is like robbing your kids — and how to actually help them

The recent “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal is an extreme example, but this parenting tactic is more common than you may think. Are you guilty?
Mother driving son to baseball practice
Ever run a forgotten backpack or sports equipment to school for your child? The habit is a sign that you're engaging in "lawnmower parenting."Hero Images / Getty Images
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By Nicole Spector

First we had helicopter parents — the types who “hover” over their children’s every move; now, we have lawnmower parents.

Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist defines lawnmower parenting (also referred to as “bulldozing parenting” and “snowplow parenting”) simply as: “when parents remove obstacles for their kids in hopes of setting them up to be successful.”

The “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal that recently saw dozens of parents, including recognizable actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Laughlin, charged in a $25 million college cheating scheme, may be interpreted partly as an extreme (and criminal) example of lawnmower parenting; but therapists, parenting coaches and educators say they observe lesser (and legal) variations of lawnmower parenting often.

“I see this all the time,” says Jasmine Peters, a parenting life coach and founder of Parenting Wellness Center, LLC. “Most parents don't realize what they are doing until I bring it to their attention.”

From not allowing them to quit, to ‘pulling strings’ so they get ahead

Jenny Grant Rankin, PhD, an educator, author, lecturer and writer for "Psychology Today", highlights just how subtly lawnmower parenting can operate.

“For example, if a boy forgets his violin at home, his mom races to drop it at school before band practice so the boy doesn't have to weather the consequences [that’s a variation of lawnmower parenting],” she says. “If a girl gets in a fight, her dad yells at the principal that it was the other child's fault and refuses to hand out consequences at home.”

Kelley Kitley, a licensed clinical social worker, adds that lawnmower parenting can also manifest as “pulling strings to get your child onto a certain sports team”, ”setting up a rigorous summer schedule that is all work and no play to get ahead” or “not allowing your child to choose activities they want to participate in or forcing them not to ‘quit’ if they no longer enjoy it”.

Another example, from Rankin: “If a child fails to complete a homework assignment, a mild lawnmower will say her kid is sick so the child can use the time off school to get the project done.”

‘Lawnmower’ parents usually have good intentions, but this behavior backfires later

Bringing your kid his violin because he forgot it, or defending your kid when she’s gotten into a fight, doesn’t sound so bad to me. Indeed, we see such depictions in Hollywood movies all the time and those parents can seem downright heroic. Look at that mom saving the day! Go dad — sticking up for his daughter!

This is where it gets tricky because these types of parents really do want to help, and, usually they have no idea how potentially harmful this manner of helping can be.

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So, why is bringing your kid his violin harmful? In and of itself, it’s not. But making a habit of these kinds of quick fixes for your kids can be detrimental in the long term.

Kids who receive the best of everything and don’t have opportunities to practice defeat will later struggle when coping with life's messy nature.

“These parents think they are helping their children, but [they’re] robbing kids of the chance to face obstacles, [meaning] these kids don't get practice dealing with challenges and developing healthy expectations,” Rankin says. “Kids who receive the best of everything and don’t have opportunities to practice defeat will later struggle when coping with life's messy nature. Such children are also less likely to appreciate their good fortune; gratitude is a vital ingredient for happiness.”

Kitley makes a similar conclusion: “I absolutely do believe these parents mean well for their kids, but it fails them because it sets them up to not have the skills to cope with disappointments of not getting something you want which is a fact of life,” she says. “We want to teach kids to be resilient, and the only way they can learn this is through experiencing disappointment, picking themselves back up again and looking for a different path or outcome.”

Why do we this? It usually comes down to you and not your kids

How do parents end up on this track of parenting?

Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of the new book “Joy From Fear”, points to a number of possible reasons.

“Some parents may choose to be lawnmower parents out of a sense of obligation — as if a child should be placed in bubble wrap,” she says. “Other parents may elect this given a lack of personal balance within their own lives and a resulting channeling of all energy into the child’s life.”

Lawnmower parenting sometimes occurs “when a marriage is struggling and one or both parents pour all of their love and energy into the child rather than directing necessary energy and emotion into their own relationship”, Manly says, and that “ parents may move into this style of parenting as a result of having experienced a childhood where the parents were not protective enough — thus consciously or unconsciously being overprotective in their own parenting style.”

Your personality type could also come into play.

“I’ve seen a common trend of personality types practicing lawnmower parenting styles, which are typically perfectionistic, overachieving, and/or anxious parents,” says Kitley. “It can start as early as preschool but is sometimes triggered by external circumstances such as anxiety triggered by other parents in your community whose children are achieving more.”

Some parents, Manly notes, may even “move into lawnmower parenting as a result of wanting to ‘outdo’ other parents” and be ‘the best’ at mowing obstacles out of the way”.

Your desire to help is natural, so go easy on yourself

The good news is that every parent can change if they want to, and it starts with being kind to yourself about your parenting style up to now and recognizing that yours was based on a natural desire to protect your kids.

“Parents are wired to want the best for their kids,” says Rankin. “It’s our job to keep our children safe, help them grow and set them up for a happy and successful life.”

Manly chimes in, saying, “it’s natural to want to share in a child’s success (and to opt-out of a child’s failures).”

We want to teach kids to be resilient, and the only way they can learn this is through experiencing disappointment, picking themselves back up again and looking for a different path.

What does success mean? Add ‘resilience’ to the definition

The goal of lawnmower parents generally is to help their kids succeed. But what is success to you? Think about it. Make a list. And as Lurie suggests, consider revamping it.

“Rather than being outcome-based, could that definition [of success] look like our children developing independence and resilience? Then we can shift our energies to helping them achieve that, while allowing them to have their own experiences and resisting living our lives through them.”

Recovering 'lawnmower'? Here's what to do

  • Start to change by being honest with yourself and your kids. Changing parenting styles can be not only hard on you — it can be hard on your kid, especially if they’re used to having you figure out how to handle their problems. “If you are a lawnmower parent who wants to change, be honest,” says Rankin, “Sit your child down and explain you have been too lenient. You thought you were helping your child by removing obstacles, but you realize now that consequences and struggle are an important part of growing up and learning how to deal with life. Say that things will be different from now on, explain how, and (very importantly) stick to what you said. It will be hard at first: your child will not like the change and will push you to go back to your old ways, so be strong. Good parenting will get easier. [I recommend] reading the book 'Mindset' by Carol Dweck for assistance.”
  • Give strategies for problem solving. Sharing wisdom with and lending guidance to your kids is always useful, and you should continue to be as supportive as you can when they’re dealing with a challenge (provided you don’t step in to clean up the mess). “Ask your child what they think they can do to solve the problem, which will help them consider alternatives,” says Lurie. “Make tasks more approachable by helping your child break problems down into steps. Support them and praise them as they complete each part of the process, which will allow them to lean on you for support while also allowing them to take ownership of their own decisions, regardless of outcome.”
  • Should you struggle with backing off, remember how your kid learned to walk. Just because you’ve decided to let go a bit (or, at least, resist intervention around building success) doesn’t mean you’ll immediately break your habit of wanting to control their challenges. When this happens, Lurie recommends remembering how your child learned to walk. “Letting them fall was probably difficult to tolerate as their parent, but we had to let them do it in order for them to learn to walk,” she says. “As they enter new stages of development, they will continue to ‘fall,’ and it’s just as important for us to tolerate our own reaction to it.”
  • Keep your eye on the goal: independence! Just as we want our children to be able to walk instead of crawl, we want them to be able to thrive on their own instead of depend on us. The more you can remind yourself of this, the better you’ll manage keeping boundaries in place. “Strive to focus on what is healthy for the child in the long run,” says Manly. “Imagine what is best for the child — not your own gratification or personal agenda. This takes quite a bit of insight, focused effort, consistency and patience. Don’t give up.”

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