Move over Helicopters, There’s a new Parenting Style in Town

September 10th, 2014 : No Comments »



By now, I’m sure you have read the countless reviews and articles on author and high school teacher David McCullough’s new book, “You are Not Special, and Other Encouragements,” which criticizes what he calls “snowplow parents” for raising a generation of young adults who are “anxious, dependent, narcissistic and careerist.”

I’m sure you’ve chuckled at the title, along with every other adult over 40, and felt a jolt of recognition as he talks about the over-protective molly- coddling that has gone into raising the current generation of young adults. McCullough warns children are becoming “terrified of failure” and are being turned into “achievement machines” by their parents.

The result of all this competitive parenting, he claims, is that children can fail to settle into careers and end up dependent on drugs or alcohol, or even suffer a nervous breakdown, in a bid to live up to their over-achieving parents’ expectations.

Growing up, I always wanted to have helicopter parents — the kind of mother that got up to make you breakfast; who called you every day at college to see how you were doing; and who did your laundry when you came home on breaks without complaint. To this day, I am envious of a friend whose father would drop her off at the door of a theater or restaurant before looking for parking, just so his precious daughter wouldn’t get wet in the rain.

My parents were routinely late for every school pick-up and ballet recital, and were content to let me walk home alone from school down an isolated country lane in the cold, rain and dark.

Now that I’m a mother and soon-to-be empty nester myself, I’m sure you are expecting to say my views have changed. But as a matter of fact, they haven’t. Sure, I’ve read the recent stories about helicopter, and now snowplow, parents with interest, and while I’m not Type A enough to be either (it requires an amazing amount of strategic planning, not to mention effort, to raise a child this way), I do personally believe that one of the most important and rewarding aspects of parenting is to help make your children’s lives easier. I want my children to feel loved, protected and cared for, and to provide them wherever possible with the kind of educational and enrichment opportunities that will enable them hopefully one day to embark upon a rewarding career, and provide a similar kind of nurturing to their own children, and others, once they are grown.

Living in the suburbs of Washington D.C., it’s easy to come across examples of parents who go too far when it comes to nurturing — some would say controlling — their children. There’s the woman whose 11-year-old daughter came over for a playdate, and asked me what she should do with the soiled tissue in her hand after she sneezed. And I know of numerous examples of wealthy parents who have carefully and systematically tried to build their teenagers’ college resumes by sending them to Beijing to learn Mandarin; to Oxford to take advanced math; and to summer internships in New York, where the teenager in question can try their hand at documentary filmmaking without having to worry about how they are going to pay for rent and food.

I can’t help thinking that all these activities do little more than demonstrate that the parents of the teenager in question are wealthy and well- connected. Or maybe I’m just jealous.

At the same time, however, I’m impatient with McCullough’s criticism of snowplow parents for doing whatever it takes to help their kids get ahead in life. As McCullough says himself, “If you do not get into one of the top 30 to 50 colleges, you are in for a very hard time in life — that’s the thinking driving all this.”

In an increasingly interconnected, globalized world, where corporations and jobs move at lightning speed to wherever taxes and wages are lowest, our children will need to grow up to be exceptional just to find employment. So when McCullough exhorts us, as parents of soon-to-be young adults, to “try as much as possible to give children free rein,” and “let them follow their own passions and curiosities without overweening interference every step of the way,” I feel like asking whether McCullough is aware of his own inconsistency in advocating a laissez-faire approach to parenting, while at the same time acknowledging that kids who don’t make it into the top 2 percent of colleges are in for a very hard time in life.

And when he argues that “Sometimes our kids take paths they shouldn’t; sometimes they will make mistakes. That’s OK,” I feel like responding, “No, David; No it’s not.”


* * *


As I helped install my second darling child into her dorm room last week, I listened carefully to the dialogue between her roommate and mother. The mother was being chastised for forgetting a number of items and was eating humble pie in spite of her best efforts. The mother is a cheerful and competent woman who proudly displayed accessories her daughter could share (or not) with her roommates. It was quickly apparent she wanted our approval for her kindness and competence. I thanked her generously and genuinely, but realized so much of what she did was about her and not her daughter.

My theory about snowplow parents is, really, illustrated by my recent experience. Their cushioning of every blow and handling of every crisis occurs because they are perfectionists who fear failure themselves, and have an unquenchable need to have their children succeed as they have. They are often the parents who, as workers, lead a team of people and complete all their subordinates’ projects as well as their own. As most of us know, this makes employees (and children) disgruntled and discontent in the long run. The clear message is that only they know how to do it right. Not a great message to send anyone, really, although it is remarkably tempting to always get your own way.

When my own darling remarked on her own forgotten items, I told her to add them to her list for the relatively nearby Target and we would make one trip before I left later that day. She grumbled a little but understood it was her responsibility, not mine, to pack her belongings for college.

I’d like to tell you I carefully cultivated the persona of hands-off mothering, but the truth is, four children make that much easier. Besides often feeling overwhelmed by so many little people with so very many needs, I’m also an only child myself. In combination this means I had no idea what I was getting into and also highly value “me” time. The result, I think, are kids who (at least in theory) know how to make a list and execute on it. They aren’t perfect, trust me, and neither am I. I sometimes rush to the rescue when a forgotten textbook would mean a failing test grade and they sometimes roar at me when their own negligence results in not succeeding. But, twice so far at least, they know it’s their job to pack for college. Can’t be entirely sure that translates to taking more responsibility in their own lives each year, but I’m hopeful. I have to be.

Remember, dear Phoebe, your friend’s father will inevitably not always be there to keep her from getting her feet wet. Although a charming tradition to be sure, I hope she knows how to cope when it inevitably happens. It is, metaphorically, at least, one of the most important life lessons for all of us.


Posted in DC, DC Diary, Parenting

The College Countdown Begins

August 21st, 2015 : No Comments »

2015-08-17 16.37.07Dear Crystal,

As the mother of four cherubs, including two young adults, I know you are already familiar with the process of seeing the fruit of your womb going off to college, so I am hoping you can advise me if the turmoil I am right now, both internal and external, is to be expected.

To whit, is it normal to feel both bereft at the thought that the baby you once carried on the crook of your hip everywhere will never live at home in quite the same way she once did again, and simultaneously irritated that she is trying to engage you in a deep philosophical discussion while you are trying to eat breakfast in peace?

Is it OK to fall over oneself to do as much as possible for said offspring, by way of shopping, laundry and list-making, then find yourself being driven crazy by their inability to choose between laundry hampers at the Container Store, which is generally your happy place?

And is it to be expected that in spite of the fact they have more or less managed the entire college application process themselves, and held down two part-time jobs successfully most of the summer, all it takes is two weeks of witnessing them hang around in ratty old t-shirts and pajama bottoms all day, watching Netflix, for you to start panicking that they will never figure out what they want to do in life, let alone find someone to share it with?

Of course, it doesn’t help that I seem to have chosen this particularly inconvenient moment in time to embark upon a comprehensive attic to basement de-nesting exercise, when it could easily wait another year, when my second and last chick will fly the coop. I blame Marie Kondo and her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up for selling me on the illusion that I can sort out all my emotions and all my life-problems just by sorting out my shelves. Right now, I appear to be stuck with more of both, and I fear the solution may end up involving putting myself out on the curb with all the other old baggage.

Please tell me there is hope.




Speaking of wombs, I often wonder why my college-aged darlings seem to want to return to it more than the ones who emerged from it much more recently. I suspect, as in all matters of the heart, Phoebe, distance–lots of it– makes the heart grow fonder. Once tucked into dorm rooms, one’s children seem to both relish the pleasure of independence, naturally, and long for the parental servitude of home. The impressive number of heartwarming texts from my offspring while not in my presence is encouraging. However, after a summer spent with so much quantity time with all of my children, I know their looks of disdain for me are surpassed only by my snotty flip of the wrist when discarding yet another carelessly discarded empty juicebox or water bottle in their presence. Can’t wait for my eldest ones to be back in their vastly overpriced maturation pods so that I can long for them (and they for me) again.

In sum, Phoebe, it should not be forgotten that this is as much your journey as theirs. A near constant reminder of that, while their nerves are frayed with anticipation for their new life, is likely to create just the right friction necessary for the the last goodbye on campus to be one they cherish forever.



Posted in DC, DC Diary, Domestic Bliss, Motherz in the Hood, Parenting

Eleven Things I’ve Learned Since Dropping My Kid at College

September 16th, 2015 : 1 Comment »


Dropping my firstborn off at college may have been way harder than I expected, even though I’d been anticipating it all year, but one month on, I’m here to report that the aftermath has been both more heartrending than I anticipated in some ways, but also a pleasant surprise. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1) You will have less laundry, but more leftovers
2) You won’t need to buy as much food at the grocery store, or order as much at restaurants, and this will make you inexplicably sad
3) Their bedroom will look too tidy, so you will need to keep the door closed, to avoid feeling bereft
4) You will send crazy texts reminding them not to stand on balconies at frat parties, and worry about them cycling without a helmet, even though that’s exactly what you did all four years at college, and your parents never said a word
5) You will also send videos of dogs vomiting at the prospect of a new baby in the house, telling yourself it’s a good way to stay in touch, but also because you share the same juvenile sense of humor
6) You will miss them terribly, and yet feel an unfamiliar sense of liberty at having one less family member’s needs to attend to
7) Your daughter will sign up for Catholic mass at the Activities Fair because a stranger offered her candy, and you will fight the urge to tell her not to go
8) Parents at your younger daughter’s Back to School night will look a generation younger, and way too involved in their children’s lives
9) You will resist the urge to tell them it really doesn’t matter where their kids are going to college, so long as they’re happy – not necessarily a given, you know from other parents whose kids have dropped out
10) Your relationship with your kid who’s still at home will get closer and more mature, although you will have to resist the urge to defer to them about every decision, especially related to dinner
11) Your relationship with your husband will get closer, even if it involves being gentler with each other, rather than lots of wild sex (although that may happen too).

Postscript: As I was writing this article, my husband was watching a Ken Burns documentary about the Civil War on TV (I told you he was wild), and I overheard the narrator reading an excerpt from a letter from a mother to her Union soldier son, warning him not to engage in too much card-playing, because she feared that might only lead to gambling. Some things never change.


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Posted in DC, DC Diary, Family Values, Motherz in the Hood, Parenting

The Millennial Menage A Trois at the Doctor’s: Menace or Progress?

October 7th, 2015 : No Comments »


Has anyone else noticed the proliferation of young couples going to the doctor together these days?

Every time I go to see my ob/byn lately, or take my kids to the pediatrician, there will usually be several young couples in the waiting room, either with a visibly pregnant mom-to-be, or a newborn baby in a carseat or stroller beside them. As a generation X-er, I’m fascinated. When did it become de rigueur for couples to show up a deux for medical appointments, requiring at least one if not both parties presumably to take time off work? And just how did this shift in cultural behavior happen? Does today’s equivalent of What to Expect When you are Expecting lecture both parents on the importance of being there for your baby’s every check-up? And what’s next? Grandparents in the delivery room? A family reunion for every flu shot?

If I sound a little bitter, it’s because I am. I’m frankly envious at the sight of these sweet young couples, waiting patiently to see the doctor like they have nothing better to do with their time, as I wish it had actually occurred to me to drag my own husband to at least one of those routine appointments when I was pregnant, or when my girls were young. Having him there would have been a lot less stressful, and way more fun.

I’m also thrilled to see evidence of a palpable shift towards a more equal emphasis on both parents taking responsibility for looking after their children. If having both parents present for medical appointments helps women advance their careers, and men find cultural acceptance for taking time off to care for their kids, that’s GREAT. We’re finally making progress in terms of achieving greater equality in terms of sharing domestic, as well as work roles.

But part of me feels like having two parents present to discuss your newborn’s every bowel movement also seems like overkill, at best, and at worst evidence that as a society we have really let raising children become an all-consuming activity in itself, to the point where I am often left wondering who exactly is left at the office to earn the money needed to raise all these precious children. Are these parents all trust fund babies themselves, or just successful enough in their own dual-income careers to be able to take time out to attend to their little ones?

I’d dearly love to know, only I fear that I have actually aged out of the demographic to know how this arrangement works, or indeed to know any parents with children young enough to ask. If you, dear reader, happen to know the answer to this question, please do advise.


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Posted in Family Values, Parenting

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