My 13 year old kid has been chosen at school to be a delegate at the Model United Nations held among a few schools in the neighborhood this week. She will represent Sri Lanka, and be part of a committee involved in networking for the Paris Climate Agreement Provisions. Having been informed of this event and the topic, I, being the data-sourcing expert in another avatar, scoured the internet and found useful and relevant sites from which my kid could frame her speech for the event. I sent the links to my kid, who responded with “I will do it myself, I am the delegate, not you”. While it felt like a wet towel just landed on my face, a social media forward by my colleague on the same day about “Lawnmower parenting” twisted the towel enough to sting. I thought I was a helicopter parent, but turns out I am a lawnmower parent now.
A lawnmower parent, also sometimes referred to as the snowplow parent, bulldozer parent and curling parent, I gather, is one who walks ahead of her/his children, removing obstacles from the path so that the kids don’t falter, fall or fail. Has lawnmower parenting always existed, or is it a fallout of networking opportunities and hyper information access of the digital era? It does seem likely that the availability of tools that tether the child to the parent 24x7 has resulted in the overindulgence of parents in their children’s lives.
A teacher in my daughter’s school complains that ever since the parent-teacher interaction went online, rather than face-to-face, there has been a multilevel increase in parental nagging about homework, exams, grades, and class activities. The dynamics of the teacher-student interaction is being increasingly altered by parental involvement, which, according to the teacher, cannot bode well for the child’s development and growth. A cursory web search shows that my child’s teacher is not the only one with this complaint. Summer camp organizers who insist on gadget-free camps for children are appalled at parents helping children circumvent the digital ban by sneaking communication devices to them. It seems that parents have more trouble “letting go” of their children, than children have of digital tools!
This is ironic, considering that studies have shown that family time has dropped dramatically by more than a third since the onset of the digital revolution despite staying relatively consistent for decades prior to this. The digital age has at least partially replaced personal contact with digital information. When I was a teenager, my parents knew the names of my best friends, but not everyone in my class. I, on the other hand, despite not spending enough time with my child, not only know the names of all 28 children in her class, but also their social backgrounds – thanks to social networking, which has all parents (and some step parents and grandparents as well) of all 28 children on board. This suddenly feels like stalking to me. Despite the discomfort at this realization, I cannot bring myself to exit the group for fear of missing out. Missing out what? I would miss out on the knowledge of the obstacles that may exist in my child’s path to success, which I need to remove before the kid arrives.
A possible reason for helicopter and lawnmower parenting is the unrealistic expectations of parenting itself. This is exacerbated by the Instagram-happy, Pinterest-perfect culture. Indeed, a study of 2,000 parents examining their top 20 worries lists “being seen as a cool mom or dad” as the seventh most important worry of digital-age-parenting; and showing the family as a picture perfect one on social media as the 20th. What is forgotten is that picture perfect is not only impossible in real life parenting but also subjective and affected by social, cultural and economic environments. The availability of too much information online is also a cause for hyperparenting.
Lawnmower parenting is detrimental to the overall growth of the child. Being shielded from failure leads to delusional outlook towards life, and fear of failure, which, as the adage goes, is but a stepping stone to achievement. Other essential life skills that take a beating by lawnmower parenting include communication, leadership, decision making, problem solving, personal motivation, primary recognition and self-esteem. Lawnmower parenting also leads to the obsessive parental need to keep the child occupied at all times in result-oriented endeavors.
While the above effects of helicopter and lawnmower parenting are qualitative, a more serious quantifiable effect is the psychological effects on children. It has been shown that while helicopter parenting increases the risk of student depression and anxiety, lawnmower parenting is likely to lead to traits of narcissism and entitlement.
Theories of family enmeshment, effective parenting, and personality development have shown that hyperparenting behavior is associated with negative traits in parents as well. Being an over-involved parent is a drain on energy and time, and in extreme cases, can result in the very existence of the parent revolving around the child’s life. The constant pressure of vigil and preemptive activities can in fact border on obsession and lead to anxiety among parents. Quantitative analysis has shown that parental anxiety, in turn is positively associated with overparenting, and that parental regret had an indirect effect on overparenting through greater anxiety. This becomes a vicious cycle with one feeding on the other. Competitive parenting (both helicopter and lawnmower) can also adversely affect the relationship of the parent with other parents, who are often viewed as competitors and rivals.
There is no such thing as “just right” parenting that falls in the geometric middle of insufficient parenting and hyper parenting. The balance is highly subjective, and depends on all parties involved. The concept of good enough parenting was proposed more than half a century ago by paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott continues to be valid in the digital age. Such parents who were loving and provided a stimulating environment – but also set boundaries and didn’t stress about doing enough – would raise children with best outcomes.