When we snowplow-parent our college-age kids, we’re undermining their chance to learn how to be adults.

By Leslie Pepper
Illustration: Laura Callaghan

Rhoda, a mom in Michigan, thought for sure if she didn’t take over her daughter’s college applications they would never get done. “I orchestrated the process from start to finish. I flew with her wherever she had to go, and I made sure she got up and got out on time.” But Rhoda, who asked me to change her name for fear of public humiliation, didn’t think her administrative oversight would be needed forever. When her daughter finally got to college, surely she’d flourish, Rhoda reckoned.

Not so much. Rhoda continued to pull the puppet strings remotely, and when her daughter called in a panic to say she might fail a class, Rhoda mobilized the troops, i.e., her computer and cell phone. She emailed her daughter’s professor and the department chair and called so many people that she doesn’t even remember who, where or when. “She passed the class, but I had to move mountains to make that happen,” Rhoda says.

While you may give Rhoda’s story the side-eye, it’s not all that different from many stories I’ve heard from friends (whose names I’m also changing here). My friend Noreen calls her college-senior son every morning to make sure he’s up. (“I don’t want him to miss class,” she explains.) Before my friend Glenda’s daughter left for college, Glenda set up an in-person meeting with the parents of  her daughter’s two suitemates so they could “work out the details of who gets what room.” (Glenda’s daughter got the room with the giant closet and attached bathroom, in case you’re wondering.) I’m not gonna lie; occasionally I scratch my head and wonder, Should  I   be demanding my kids get the en suite bathroom?

I’ve never been a helicopter mom, one who hovers over her kids to monitor their every move. And now that my older two are in college, I’m not a snowplow mom either. If you haven’t heard the term du jour—made famous by a New York Times story this year—snowplow parents are those who move away any and all obstacles their kids may face so that they have a clear path in life, with absolutely zero frustrations or failures along the way.

The issue has grabbed headlines after the recent college admissions scandal, in which some rich and famous parents bribed, cheated and lied their kids’ way into elite universities.

And although these jaw-dropping spectacles have dominated newsfeeds, micromanagement of college-age children is not limited to celebrities and CEOs. Ordinary parents meddle every day, says Shahnaz Broucek, a lecturer at the University of Michigan and an executive coach in Canton, MI. “The hovering that parents have done all those years doesn’t stop when their children go to college,” she says. “They’re still trying to overfunction for their kids.”

Case in point: A recent large survey of  18- to 28-year-olds and parents found that plenty of procreators—across all economic levels—are sticking their noses where they don’t belong. Among the parents, 22% admitted they help their kids study for college tests, 42% meddle in their kids’ romantic lives, and a whopping three-quarters of all the parents admitted (hopefully sheepishly) that they still remind their college kids when papers are due to be handed in.

Betsy, the mother of a college junior, defends her position without apologies. “I understand intellectually that I should just let my daughter struggle, but emotionally it’s hard to do,” she explains. “If I can help her get a final draft of her paper done when she’s stressed-out, I feel my time is being put to good use,” she explains.

Parenting gone awry

As parents, it’s natural to want to save our children from disappointments, struggles and failures. And on the surface, this hyper-parenting does seem to have its advantages. When we call Ashley’s professors to request they re-grade her papers, or insist that university housing switch Johnny into the dorm with air conditioning, our kids may get better grades and nicer digs.

But we’re also depriving Ashley and Johnny of the power over their own lives. As hard as it may be to witness, kids need to struggle, overcome obstacles and, yes, even fail, so they can learn how to manage on their own. (Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that college students were expected to live like...college students. Not resort guests.) Cast your mind back to when little Stevie was learning how to walk. He toddled along, fell, got back up, then toddled along again. You may have gasped when he lost his footing, but you didn’t put your hands under his armpits and escort him along the kitchen floor, did you?

The same goes for Stevie (excuse me, Steve) when he’s 19 and struggling to plan his sophomore schedule. You don’t hack into his computer and create the schedule for him. (Yes, I know someone who does that every semester!)

When we constantly control our children’s lives, they become lazy, entitled adults who cannot function or solve problems on their own. Kids who’ve never had to make a decision on their own become adults who are incapable of making a decision on their own. Ain’t nobody got time for that. (Ain’t nobody want to hire or work with that, either.)

“We have lost sight of the fact that our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean at Stanford University and author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.

As a college dean, she saw more than her fair share of snowplow parenting from the front lines. “Parents wanted to register their students for classes, talk to a professor about a grade they were unhappy with, or get involved in roommate disputes,” she says. (Granted, it can be impossible to forget—and the transaction exists nowhere else in a capitalist society—that parents may pay $65,000 a year for something...and they have no say in or control over the outcome. Imagine buying a Mercedes and being told, “It might still be in working condition at the end of the semester.”)

“Snowplow parents have it back-ward,” Lythcott-Haims continues. “The point is to prepare the kid for the world instead of preparing the world for the kid.” While parents think that over-helping will make their kids’ college lives better, research says it’s simply not so. A study published in The Journal of Social Psychology found that millennials who feel their parents support their needs for autonomy and competence report less worry and adjust better in college, while kids who have overinvolved and control-ling parents report higher levels of worry and poor psychological well-being.

My friend Emily’s son exemplifies this IRL. He transferred from a small school to a big one after his freshman year. “I thought he should stick where he was, but I put the proverbial duct tape on my mouth,” Emily says. Friends thought she was crazy, but she told him only that she loved and supported him whatever he chose. He hated the new school and ended up transferring back to his original school a year later. Now he’s a college graduate, living totally on his own, teaching English halfway across the world. “The growth and maturity that came from that was more than most kids his age ever experience,” Emily says.

Are you a snowplow parent?

If you suspect you may be over-parenting, Lythcott-Haims recommends you ask yourself these three questions:

  • Do you say “we” when you actually mean “my kid”? (“Oh, I wish we could go to that awesome concert tonight, but registration starts at 7 a.m. tomorrow and we have to be up early!”)
  • Are you the one emailing your kid’s RA to ask why the construction in the dining hall still isn’t finished? (A parent reported this on the Facebook parents’ page of my son’s university.)
  • Are you doing your child’s homework? (Facetime makes this way too easy for Glenda and her daughter.)

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s not too late to change. First, you need to learn to manage your own emotions. Your child will figure it out. Even if they stumble, trust that you’ve parented them well enough that they’re not going to crumble, Broucek says. She suggests parents do three things:

  • Have a tête-à-tête. Discuss with your college-age kid how you two can shift to an “adult” relationship. From now on, how can you be supportive without overextending yourself?
  • Be ready to rah-rah-rah. Express confidence in your kid’s ability to handle the situation, rather than add-ing stress by dwelling on your own fears and doubts.
  • Keep your trap shut. Resist the urge to give unsolicited advice. Practice asking open-ended questions that support your child coming to their own solutions, for example, “What options do you see?” “What have you explored so far?” “What do you actually want?”

OK, practice round! Say your college student calls in a tizzy yelling something like, “I’ve got to declare my major. I don’t know what to do!”

Take a deep breath and count to three. Then answer with empathy, saying something like: “That must feel uncomfortable. Are you OK?” Next, ask that open-ended question: “How do you think you’re going to handle it?” Doing it this way gives kids the message that the issue is their fish to fry. And that they can fry it.

Rhoda never did that with her daughter. Now they’re all paying the price. Surprise, surprise (said no one ever?), she dropped out of college and is currently living at home. “All this has been a very hard lesson,” Rhoda says. “But we realize we set the stage for it all. Now we are learning how to set boundaries and how to let go.” Notice she said we.