How To Stop Being a Snowplow Parent – Part 2

This is Part 2 of a two-part series for parents who are tempted to do too much for our kids. (Guilty!!) Part 1 covered the importance of recognizing our teens’ desire for freedom and letting them make mistakes. This Part 2 tackles “but what if____” sorts of questions and how to handle the mistakes!

When my friend Lisa Rice and I were doing the research with 3,000 teens for our book For Parents Only and several others, my children were pretty young – but she had four teenagers in her house.  And every day, I was amazed at how well Lisa and her late husband Eric allowed them to navigate the bumpy road of adolescence without hovering. With young kids at the time, I was used to constant hovering!

“Be sure to give the teacher your permission slip – if you forget, you won’t be able to go on the field trip.”

“Did you remember your lunch? If you forget, you’ll be hungry.”

“Here, you’ll be cold if you don’t wear your coat.”

By contrast, here’s an example of something I heard from Lisa when her teenage daughter called from school, having forgotten her permission slip: “Oh honey, I’m so sorry to hear that you missed the field trip. You must be so disappointed. No, sorry, I can’t come get you. We’re on a job today so you’ll need to stay at school and just work on homework and come home on the bus at the normal time.”

Guess who never forgot a permission slip again?

Many of us parents don’t realizethe dangers of what developmental experts call “over-involved parenting.” This could include helicopter parenting – trying to swoop in and pluck a child out of a problematic situation. Or it could mean snowplow parenting – trying to prevent problematic situations to begin with.

The problem is, as we said in Part 1, our kids need to be able to make mistakes. In order to become fully functioning, resilient adults they need to experience the bumps, bruises, and disappointments we are trying so hard to prevent.

Now, some of you have probably been sputtering (as I originally was!) “but… but… what if they get hurt? What if they make serious, life-ruining mistakes?” I’m not minimizing those concerns; the “but what if’s” are crucial to consider. Thankfully, in the For Parents Only research, teens had something to say about that too. 

So based on the research – and the best advice of developmental experts – here are three more action steps for all of us tempted-to-snowplow parents. (If you missed the first three in Part 1, I encourage you to read that post first.)

Step #4: Walk parallel to them, instead of in front 

As our teens get older, instead of snowplowing the road ahead to avoid potential hurt, experts advise that we walk parallel to our kids. This allows us to keep watch and share wisdom if we think it is needed. But if our child doesn’t heed what we say, it allows them to trip and fall over that obstacle we saw coming, but which they dismissed.

For example, avoid the urge to wake your child up every morning in time for school because they’ll get detention for being late. It’s far better for them to learn the lesson of being late for school now than being late for that job interview.

Or what if they haven’t figured out how to navigate an intimidating obstacle – for example how to talk to their boss at the pizza place about switching their work schedule? Yes, encourage and help them by offering to role-play the conversation, but stay parallel. Don’t step into the actual conversation. That gives them the chance to try their hand at it.

Will they do well at it? Maybe not. Maybe they will fumble and feel embarrassed. Maybe they will even end up with a worse schedule from an impatient boss. But again, better for them to give it a shot, practice when the stakes are low, and position themselves later to think, “I’ve done this before, and I know what to expect next time.”

Full disclosure: I’m really, really not good at this. I’m not good at letting my kids – especially my son, who has epilepsy and some processing issues as a result – fumble and try in this way. I want to prevent the heartaches. But … will I? I have to realize: I’m not actually preventing the heartaches. Rather, I am merely postponing the heartaches until a time when the stakes are much higher—and when I will truly be unable to help.

Step #5: Step in when the obstacle becomes a cliff

We have to be ready to step in with wisdom and direction if our kids (or adult kids) are truly in danger or in over their heads. Walking parallel to our kids in an involved but not over-involved way, allows us to do this. When a child trips and falls because of a pothole in the road, that’s one thing. It’s an entirely different situation when tripping will pitch them over a cliff.

As we’re talking about avoiding snowplow parenting, we’re not talking about letting our kids do whatever they want. Even the teens themselves – on our nationally-representative survey – secretly don’t want that. (For more, see this series, “The Good Thing About Being the Bad Guy.”)

After all, their judgment isn’t always sound – so ours must be. As adolescent psychotherapist Dr. Julie Carbery shared in For Parents Only, the freedom our teens are striving for “[is] intoxicating. It’s addictive … They will do anything to get it, and they are terrified of losing it.”

A teenager “under the influence” of freedom, and whose brain is not fully developed, will sometimes do really stupid things. So allowing unmonitored high-stakes and/or reckless activities that can change the entire course of their lives is in a different category. That is not what we are talking about here.

In addition, we are not saying to never rescue a child. Remember, when the disciple named Peter took a brave step out onto the water and then began to flail, Jesus didn’t hesitate to lift him back to safety.

This leads to our very important next step.

Step #5: When your teens make mistakes (which they will) reassure them of your love and support

What our kids need more than our oh-so-efficient snowplowing skill is our unconditional love. One of the most vital findings from the teens in our research was just how easily kids didn’t feel supported when they messed up – and how much that led them to close off their hearts.

When Junior flops his driving test, a sincere “I believe in you” (without mentioning “I told you to practice more”) can restore his confidence. He’s not dumb; he realizes he might need to practice that three-point turn a few more times.

When normally Straight-A Susie copies a friend’s homework because she didn’t get enough sleep after hanging out with friends, you can either chew out the teacher for giving her a zero (not recommended) or you can aim your best affection at your daughter – lovingly telling her you’re sorry for the consequences, but you love her and you’re proud of her for owning up to her mistake.

And what if it is something much more serious? That is when you step up onto the path, take their hand, and walk beside them through every single consequence.  One teenager we talked to in the research was arrested with others at a party where drugs and alcohol were present. His parents were angry and upset, and he was feeling defensive and like a failure.

Yet in their anger, he said his father handled it in a way that changed everything. He said his dad came to the jail to pick him up. He told him, “This is going to probably involve some hard consequences. You’ll need to go to court. It will be on your record. You’ll need to do community service. But I want you to know: I love you, and I believe in you, and I will be with you every step of the way.”

This big, stoic teenage boy started tearing up as he told me that story. And candidly, I started tearing up listening to it. But that is what our teens need from us. Yes, when they make mistakes – and they will – they must know they will walk out the consequences. But they also must know that we’re with them through it all. That, in their lexicon, is what speaks unconditional love.

In the end, letting our kids overcome life’s obstacles will help them find their place in this world with greater confidence, self-agency, and resilience.

So let’s take a deep breath, and let them.

And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at

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