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Parents and leaders: decide carefully when to be involved

One of the markers of wise parenting—and exemplary leadership —is learning when to be involved and when to be uninvolved. Many who read this column are aware of their own tendencies toward excess, both at home and at work. This column will focus on over-involved parents, but the points apply to all leaders.

Parental invasiveness has become uncontrollable to the point of being viewed as standard and natural. It’s not.

In 1990, educator Jim Fay and psychiatrist Dr. Foster Cline coined the term “helicopter parents,” describing a growing social pattern: hovering parents who are tethered to their kids. A few years later, American college administrators began using it when they observed baby-boomer parents calling their children each morning to wake them up for class and complaining to their professors about grades the children had received.

Lawn mowers and snow plows

In recent months, two new terms, “lawn mower parents” and “snowplow parents,” have emerged to describe an intensification of parental over involvement. Lawn mower and snow plow parents are described as those who walk out in front of their children to remove obstacles, and nervously clear their kids’ paths of adversity, failure, and struggle.

The new labels have gained popularity in part from teacher-recorded instances such as these:

  • A father stopped by the school to bring his daughter a water bottle from home because she kept texting him that she didn’t want to drink from the fountain at school.

  • A parent asked a teacher to walk her student to class to assure that the student would not be late.

  • A mother requested someone from the cafeteria blow on her child’s hot lunch to cool it down.

  • A parent called to schedule a make-up test when the student was clearly old enough to make that request.

By making life easier for their children, some parents believe they are fulfilling their duty to “always be there.”

Use whatever labels you want, but you don’t have to be a lawn mower, snow plow, or helicopter to be concerned about your kids. It’s natural to want the best for your munchkins, even if they’re 38. The problem is not good intentions, the problem is unregulated, automatic reactions. In the upper and middle classes especially, we are now faced with the incessant whirling and buzzing of helicopters, snow plows, and lawn mowers on autopilot. Where are the controls?

Before you start to feel hot and bothered, I want to make it clear that there are times for parents to be involved. Some help is necessary. Measured advice has its place. Stepping in to prevent a true catastrophe is appropriate.

I’ve done my fair share of getting too worked up about a routine problem confronting one of my children. Looking back, I can see very few instances when my over involvement made a positive difference. Mostly, it got in the way.

Though they claim good intentions, invasive parents usually operate without thinking. Their “helpfulness” is more automatic than strategic. In the process, they undermine important life lessons such as self reliance and problem solving.

Self-appointed roles

As parents we may take on self-appointed roles based on our anxiety. Have you found yourself assuming any of these roles?

Referee – At the first sign of disagreement or conflict between children, a parent steps in to restore order and nip disharmony in the bud. Problem: Kids grow up without learning how to deal with difficult social situations, handle interpersonal conflict and navigate disagreements.

Mate Selector – Parents of younger children select who their kids should play with, giving particular attention to weaker, less threatening children who appear least likely to bully their kids. This doesn’t stop with childhood. Parents of adult children believe they must “weigh in”—uninvited—on the acceptability of those who date their adult offspring. Problem: Adult children depend more on others’ opinions than on their own thinking and judgment.

Homework Helper – Parents routinely suggest, remind, edit, write and perfect their kids’ homework assignments. Problem: Kids do not develop self-disciplined problem-solving and study habits. Many grow up thinking they are smarter and more industrious than is accurate because neither their homework nor their grades reflect independent effort.

As sure as there are over-involved parents, there are also under-involved parents—although I haven’t heard of a catchy term for them. These parents are often preoccupied with their own financial worry, health challenges or general busyness. Uninvolved parents fail to establish a reliable presence in the lives of their children or foster a supportive home environment. All kids need and deserve advice and a word of caution from time to time. They want to know they are valued and safe. They need this framework in order to grow and thrive.

The point is not to blame the over-involved or the under-involved, but to improve parental judgment so our kids become responsible, resourceful, thoughtful adults. Most parents would be assessed as a mix of involved and uninvolved. Is your mix a healthy one? Do you act automatically when challenges arise? Have you thought about when you should step in or step out?

Deciding when to act

With parenting presence, the main issue is when to act—or not act. There’s a time to be on top of what our kids are doing, and there’s a time to back off. There’s a time to tell, and a time to ask. There’s a time to let your voice be heard, and a time to give a kid space.

The drivers for healthy when decisions are reflection and discernment. Ask yourself, “Is this decision in the best interests of my child, or am I simply reacting based on anxiety?” In each instance, think more about long-term benefits than about short-term protectiveness or expediency.

It’s not easy to know when to be involved in our kids’ challenges. Stepping back can be scary, messy, time-consuming, even costly. Parenting—like all leadership—is a long and bumpy ride. The hope is that the time will arrive when your children are strong enough to set you straight and wise enough to know when to seek you out. Then you’ll be able to park the plow, stow the mower, and watch your kids take charge of their own decisions and actions.

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