You probably have heard of helicopter parents – who are overly involved in their children’s lives and hover over them all the time to prevent them making mistakes or experiencing anything painful. But do you know there’s another stage in this over-parenting evolution?
ALSO SEE: Helicopter parenting – how it can be harmful to your child
“Lawnmower parents” take this style of parenting one step further. These parents don’t hover, they mow down all the obstacles in their children’s paths, pre-empting and smoothing over problems their children might encounter. Whether it’s choosing a playdate with a younger, more docile friend, or refereeing and breaking up every argument between their kids, these parents actively insert themselves into their children’s lives.
Does it really matter if you are a lawnmower parent?
Most parents just want what’s best for their children, so it’s easy to think that being an overly involved parent isn’t that bad – it’s well-intentioned, so it can’t possibly be harmful to your child. But research shows that it can be detrimental to a child’s development to have a lawnmower parent smoothing the way for him all the time.
“We have this idea that we need to be perfect parents, that we shouldn’t stress our children,” says clinical psychologist Jeanine Lamusse, “when what we really need to be is imperfect. If we don’t stress our children, they’re not going to learn how to cope.” But what are healthy stressors? “These can be simple things like accidently having the milk bottle ready a bit late when your child’s a baby,” comments Jeanine. It enables your child to learn how to cope with his own stress.
Instilling confidence in your child
While it might sound threatening, some stress, whether it’s a fight with a friend or sibling, a disappointment, or making a mistake, is good for your child. “Being stressed allows room for identity formation and separation from parents. If he’s not getting a sense that he’s different from someone else, or that he has his own coping resources, then there’s no sense of confidence instilled in that child, and he’s not going to have a way of navigating the world that he feels is robust or resilient,” explains Jeanine.Importantly, research indicates that children who have overly involved and intrusive parents become overly dependent, as the process of parental intervention robs them of the power and ability to make decisions.
How involved should parents be?
No one is suggesting parents shouldn’t be involved in their children’s lives. Small children need guidance and parental input. Sharing is not an innate skill, it’s a learned one, and every parent should be active in directing their children away from activities that would prove dangerous or harmful – like tackling the monkey bars at the park before they’re ready.
But parents who control their child’s every interaction, whether preventing him from climbing that high jungle gym at the park, or intervening at the first sign of a squabble during a playdate, are inadvertently robbing their child of the opportunity to make his own mistakes, learn through his interactions, and develop the tools that will guide him through the world in the years to come. There is a key difference between an involved parent and an over-involved parent – involved parents trust their child to do things himself, even if it means making mistakes, suffering consequences and solving his own problems.
In her book, The Gift of Failure, teacher Jessica Lahey explains that “today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting style has undermined the competence, independence and academic potential of an entire generation.” Furthermore, she says, “Out of love and desire to protect our children’s self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness. Unfortunately, in doing so, we have deprived our children of the most important lessons of childhood. The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations and failures we have shoved out of our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative and resilient citizens of the world.”
Research led by Professor Chris Segrin, the head of the University of Arizona’s communication department, shows that as adults, children who are over-parented tend to have a lower rate of coping skills, an exaggerated sense of entitlement as they’re used to everything always going their way, and lower self-efficacy (the belief in your ability to succeed in a situation or at a task).
Take a look at yourself
If you’re reading this and worrying that you may be a little too overprotective, look at your own parenting, parents and beliefs about child rearing and children’s coping structures and capacities, advises Jeanine. While there are many reasons for becoming lawnmower parents, one possibility is that your own parents were overly intrusive. You may not have learnt how to cope without them, so you don’t anticipate that your own children will cope without the same intrusive parenting style.
Educational psychologist Lauren Salmon suggests asking yourself, “What am I taking on? Am I being that hovering parent or that parent who is facilitating and helping my child to tap into his own resourcefulness?” She says, “It’s easy to underestimate a toddler and not want him to get hurt. No parent wants their child to be harmed, but the odd tumble off a jungle gym or fight with a friend is something he will recover from.”
Saying and doing
“Consider what you’re teaching your child. Remember, actions speak louder than words,” says Jeanine. It’s one thing to tell your child that you think he can cope and that he is capable of tasks and actions, but if you’re saying that and still performing that task for him, or manipulating the situation in his favour, your words aren’t evident in your actions and your child will realise this.
“Children, especially young ones, need concrete affirmation. Telling them that they are wonderful doesn’t actually mean anything to them,” comments Lauren. But trusting them to climb the jungle gym by themselves and seeing their pride when they succeed, demonstrates that you believe in their ability. “You’re creating that opportunity for them where there is the possibility of success,” she explains.