Snow plough parenting – what is it and what is its effect?

Snow plough parenting – what is it and what is its effect?

It’s official.  Snow ploughs are the new helicopters!  Until earlier this week, I was aware that parents could be described as ‘helicopters’ (when they have a tendency to hover over their children) but I didn’t know they could be snowploughs.  Let’s be clear.  None of us get parenting exactly right and that’s OK.  We should hold on to Winnicott’s concept of the ‘good enough’ parent, in this age of perfectionism.  

However, even though these rather derogatory sounding clichés can be overly simplistic, it can also be interesting to reflect on the ideas at their heart.  Snowplough parents are those who have a tendency to remove all obstacles that might get in the way of their child’s progress and success.  With the best of intentions, they try to make their child’s life as easy as possible.  A common example is a parent doing their child’s homework to make sure they get a good grade.  Another is a parent who tries to make sure their child does not experience ‘difficult’ emotions.  I remember being asked by a parent to make sure her child did not take part in ‘pass the parcel’ at my daughter’s birthday party.  The parent was concerned that her child would feel upset if she did not win. 

This concept reminds me of a Chinese proverb.  A farmer wants his crop of sprouts to grow as tall as possible as fast as possible.  So he decides to pull them up through the soil himself.  As a result, his crop dies.  The farmer does not trust his sprouts in their ability to work their way up through the soil in their own time, and in trying to do their work for them, he kills them. 

From a Chinese medicine perspective, all aspects of a child’s physical, mental and emotional self grow strong through being used.  Muscles become strong through being exercised and waste away when they are not used.  But so do other aspects of a child.  If a child is always removed from any source of anxiety, they won’t learn that they can manage the emotion.  If they experience anxiety for the first time as a teenager, when their parents can no longer shield them from it, they are more likely to be overwhelmed by the emotion.  If a child has always been allowed to spend their time doing only enjoyable activities, they may find that when they have to do things they don’t want to do, their willpower fails them.  

Psychologists talk of a concept called ‘stress inoculations’. Children build resilience through small, repeated exposures to stress during childhood.

Life inevitably involves challenges.  The Wood Element within us enables us to react to obstacles that we meet with flexibility, to find a way through rather than give up.  The Water Element also gives us the drive to push through all manner of difficulties    If these two Elements are not exercised during childhood, by being faced with challenges and obstacles, they will not enable a person to face difficulties in adulthood in a robust and resilient way. 

As with almost everything, balance is the key.  Of course, a parent would not want to artificially create challenges for their child.  But supporting a child to deal with challenges that naturally arise, rather than snow ploughing them out of the way, may be the kindest approach in the long run.  

Rebecca Avern

I have been practising acupuncture for 15 years. As well as practising in Oxford, I am both a senior lecturer and clinical supervisor at the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine (www.cicm.org.uk) which is the biggest acupuncture training centre in Europe. I have treated both adults and children and whilst the benefits of acupuncture for adults are well-known and well-documented, fewer people are aware of how it can benefit children. I decided that I wanted more children to experience the benefits of acupuncture, and so decided to set up The Panda Clinic. I have to admit to having another motivation - I love being around children and derive great satisfaction when I see children recover from ill health. I am mother to 2 primary school age children. As well as being an experienced acupuncturist, as a parent I have a good understanding of the stress and anxiety that an ill child can induce. I will always do my best to communicate with the parent(s) of a child I am treating as thoroughly and clearly as I can.