McNerney: Are You a Lawnmower Parent?

By Neil McNerney

It seems that every year or so, there is a new phrase to describe the way we are parenting our kids. Most of the terms tend to be less than flattering. Helicopter, Tiger Moms, Free Range Parenting, and Stealth Parenting are just a few being thrown around these days. Enter the newest term: Lawnmower Parents.

A Lawnmower Parent will go to any lengths to decrease the amount of pain their child experiences. They will “mow down” any obstacles that might get in the way. Instead of preparing their kids for challenges, they remove the obstacles that might cause pain, fear, anxiety or insecurity.

Is this a real phenomenon? In my discussions with teachers and school counselors, I would say yes. It seems that children are becoming less resilient the more that we focus on their happiness. Yes, children have more challenges and stresses than ever before, but they seem to be less equipped to deal with those challenges.

I think this tendency comes from empathy. We want our kids to thrive and be happy. When they are facing adversity, our empathy kicks in and we want to help them out of pain. But when we decrease the amount of struggle our kids face, we are not creating happier kids in the long run. We are creating an environment where kids will panic or shut down during moments of stress.

In my work with parents, I have learned that they can be great leaders by using three roles: The Supporter, The Consultant, and The Boss. The Supporter is there emotionally for your kids, cheering them on in their accomplishments and consoling during their struggles. The Consultant gives information in such a way that our kids will heed our advice and deal with situations a certain way. The Boss rewards and punishes.

Did you notice what was missing? The Lawnmower. It’s missing because it is only sometimes beneficial to be The Lawnmower. Most of the time, when we rescue our kids, we squander an opportunity for our child to grow. Although it might help them get out of pain in the short term, it doesn’t give them the opportunity to learn how to solve the problem themselves.

Here are a few of the long-term consequences of being The Lawnmower:

  1. They don’t learn to solve problems in the moment and on their own. Instead of learning self-calming techniques, they instead panic and seek their parents to help solve their problems.
  2. Their confidence to solve problems decreases, which degrades their overall self-confidence.
  3. They will either over-externalize problems by blaming others or over-internalize problems by blaming themselves. Instead of viewing problems as something to solve, they become much more about a reflection of their self-esteem.

How do we be good parents without heading straight to rescuing? Below is a format that might help. Example: Your sixth grade son just realized that a vocabulary test he thought was scheduled for Friday is actually tomorrow, Wednesday. He is in a panic.

  1. Spend a bit of time being The Supporter, letting your child know that you understand how difficult it must be. Try statements like: “You’re really worried about this.” Or “That’s a shock.” These types of statements allow your child to understand that you understand how hard the situation is. Avoid statements like: “You did this to yourself,” “You need to write down your assignments.” Placing blame at this point in the process is never helpful and doesn’t encourage problem-solving.
  2. Encourage problem solving. For instance, ask your child to come up with a number of solutions. “Let’s see how many ideas we can come up with on how to deal with this problem.” Write down all of them, even if they don’t seem helpful. Then identify the ones that are reasonable and that he can do on his own.
  3. Avoid the strong desire to solve the problem for him. It might be a simple task to call the teacher yourself and ask for an extension. It’s a quick solution that might work and will stop the panic your child is feeling, but it does nothing to teach problem solving and stress tolerance. If your child wants you to solve the problem, remind him that you have great confidence in him and that he has the bravery to solve this problem on his own.
  4. Debrief and Praise. After he has dealt with the problem, don’t forget to ask how it went and let him know how impressed you are that he solved this problem on his own.

When we encourage our kids to solve their own problems, it increases their abilities in life, helps them deal with issues in the moment, and increases their confidence. It is difficult to watch our children in pain, but learning how to hold back, when the situation is appropriate, will pay great dividends in the future.

Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of “Homework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!” and “The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s.”

One thought on “McNerney: Are You a Lawnmower Parent?

  • 2018-09-23 at 11:45 am

    Shouldn’t we consider that fostering self-reliance and independence must begin earlier and without dependence on adult supervision? I look at the four closing suggestions in this article and can’t help but think that by sixth grade it’s too late — and that the solution is wholly founded in top-down management by the adult.

    Self-reliant problem-solving must be a way of life, not an adult intervention. Peter Gray, Boston College research professor, wrote in 2011 about the significant contribution unsupervised, childhood free play time makes to a person’s ability to problem solve and manage challenges—

    “The most noticeable and probably greatest decline [in play] has occurred in children’s outdoor play with other children. Anyone over forty has witnessed this change firsthand. In the 1950s and 1960s, and to a lesser degree in the 1970s and 1980s, it was possible to walk through almost any North American neighborhood—after school, on weekends, or any time in the summer—and see children outdoors at play. Today, in many neighborhoods, it is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer.”

    We recognize this when we LIKE a wistful social media meme of summer bike rides and firefly catching that laments the loss of the idyllic childhood many of us had. This nostalgia hides, however, what those adult-less adventures gave us — hours and hours of opportunities to solve treehouse engineering problems and preteen social engineering challenges. Not only have we taken away our kids’ bikes and kick-the-cans, we’ve taken away the challenge of fixing flat tires and dealing with skinned knees.

    Yes, we parents have done this.

    Is it any wonder that beginning shortly after the time we stopped letting our kids out of our sight—ever!—adolescents have seen significant increases in anxiety and depression? I can only imagine what dealing with life as a teen must be like when you never learned how to do it in the first place. And we all know the lengths we’ll go to to protect our children when we see them foundering.

    Neil McNerney’s suggestions are good as interventions, but shouldn’t we be raising our kids from the outset to be confident problem-solvers?

    After all, we all surely want creative, self-reliant students heading off to classrooms of ordered parallel rows of desks and centers where time for exploring the value of wrong answers is missing. Right?

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