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How Parenting Styles Affect Kids: Snowplow vs. Submarine

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Listening parent

Labels for different parenting styles have come and gone for just about as long as there have been parents. Since the college admissions scandal made headlines last month, there has been a lot of talk about the perils of “snowplow parenting” -- clearing a path for children by shoving obstacles to the side.

Like the tiger mothers and helicopter parents who came before, snowplowers are highly involved parents who take a proactive and often authoritative role in their children’s lives. Any parent can understand the desire to do everything in their power to make their kids’ lives better. And, with the advantage of age and experience, it can be easy for parents to believe they can -- and should -- make all the right choices for their children.

The downside of snowplow parenting

There is, however, reason to believe that the kind of top-down micromanagement involved in some parenting styles is doing more harm than good. When children aren’t given a chance to fail, they get little practice grappling with the frustrations and challenges of failure.

On the other hand, kids who lose the student council election, get cut from the basketball team, or get the C they deserved instead of the A they wanted learn valuable lessons about hard work, resiliency, and handling disappointment.

“We learn to adapt and recognize new opportunities when something doesn’t work out,” wrote Rebecca Pacheco in The Boston Globe earlier this month.

So instead of emulating a snowplow or a helicopter, parents should consider drawing inspiration from another source: the submarine. Submarines are powerful machines that gather intelligence and are ready to pop up when needed. But they spend most of their time "guiding & protecting" below the surface.

In the same way, parents who step back (or below) -- while their teens take charge of navigating the seas of school, relationships, and personal growth -- give their kids a chance to make mistakes, find solutions, spot opportunities, and -- most importantly -- gain confidence. But, like a submarine, they are ready to surface when needed to provide information, guidance, or protection.

Three ways to be an effective submarine parent

Submarine parenting may sound like a great ideal, but how do you make it happen in real life? Here are a few ideas:

  • Let them fail: It might be tempting to call your son’s chemistry teacher to complain about his test score or to attempt to dissuade your tone-deaf daughter from auditioning for the school musical. But as long as they are in no real danger, letting them deal with fear, frustration and disappointment will teach them the importance of taking risks, the ability to cope when they don’t get their way, and the resilience to find their way forward. This is hard, especially when both parents are not on the same page.
  • Be a sounding board: When failure strikes, listen to your children. Don’t jump in with suggestions and plans and solutions. Just listen to what they are feeling and assure them of your support. By letting them lead the conversation and ask for what they need, you show them that you have faith in their ability to handle their own problems and give them the space to do just that.
  • Get them out of the house: For most teens, a chance at parent-free independence is an invaluable opportunity to learn life skills, practice handling relationships, and grow confidence. An academic summer program could let your student immerse in a field of interest while getting a taste of life on a college campus, an outdoor adventure could help them test their physical limits, or a service trip could teach them valuable lessons about hard work and compassion. Boarding schools, high school study abroad programs, and semester schools are another way to build independence and self awareness.

We all want the best for our children. Learning to step back and let them steer their own ships can be a remarkably effective way of achieving that goal.

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Marie Schwartz is the CEO and Founder of TeenLife Media. Marie launched TeenLife in 2007 after moving to Boston with her husband and two middle school sons and discovering that there were no information resources for families with older children. Today, TeenLife's award-winning website lists thousands of summer and gap year programs, schools, college admission resources and volunteer opportunities for teens around the world.