Print Edition - 2018-10-07 | Free the Words
Am I a lawn mower parent?
- We need to let kids learn to be tough. But we also need to show them love
Oct 7, 2018-
The mother sat in my office. Her daughter, my advisee, was failing three of her four classes. Perhaps, the mom suggested, a private tutor might be hired, to help her child get back on track.
“Perhaps,” I said, trying to be compassionate. But I also sneaked another look at the daughter: half asleep, clearly hung over and quite possibly high.
What I wanted to say was, “My suggestion would be that your daughter actually start going to all the classes she’s skipping, to maybe also start doing the homework.” Instead I let the mom talk.
“The thing is,” she said, “she’s really a good kid.” And it was at this moment, I believe, that my heart broke in half—for the mom, for her child and for all of us still trying to figure out the best way to shepherd young people into adulthood.
Some people would describe that mom as a “bulldozer parent,” engaging in a more aggressive form of what we used to call “helicoptering.” Others have taken to calling them “lawn mower parents” or “curling parents,” after the sport in which the path of a stone gliding on ice is smoothed by an athlete armed with a broom.
It’s easy to be contemptuous of such family dynamics, and if you look online, you’ll see plenty of articles condemning both the control-freak parents as well as their over-coddled, under-challenged children.
But as I listened to that mom, I did feel more than a little bit of sympathy for her. Because even though I’m a college professor, I’m also a parent. When she said her child was a good kid, I knew she was also saying that in spite of her daughter’s current predicament, “I’m a good mother.”
This took place over 15 years ago. One day, a few weeks earlier, my young son had headed off down our driveway to wait for the school bus, carrying in one hand a book report project. It was a complex mobile, a set of counterbalanced index cards attached to one another with string, listing the title, author, characters, setting and plot of “A Wrinkle in Time.”
As he ran down our front stairs, the thing fluttered out of his hand and fell, somehow, behind a crack between the steps and the front porch. Now the book report was trapped behind the concrete stairs, which could, of course, not be moved, at least not before the bus arrived. My son looked at me in tears as we heard the school bus approaching over the hill. “Go on, catch the bus,” I said. “I’ll deal with it.”
Ten minutes later, I was in the front yard with a shovel, slowly digging a hole next to our foundation. Dirt rose up in a pile. Ten minutes after that, I had reached into the hole, grasped the mobile and freed it. The next thing I knew I was in the car, driving to the school, where I placed it in my son’s hands in home room.
“You’re welcome,” I said, and felt, in that moment, like a superhero. I should be wearing a cape, I thought, an S upon my chest: Supermom.
But driving home, I wondered: Was what I had just done an act of love? That’s how I’d meant it. I’d jumped into action and solved a problem. I’d done it because I didn’t want a random act of fate—the book report falling behind the stone stairs—to wipe out all the work that he’d done.
Critics of lawn mower parents, though, would have suggested I let my son suffer the consequences of his own carelessness. Let the kid learn how to dig his own hole with a shovel! A little suffering, they’d say, would be good for him.
That’s the undertone to a lot of this criticism: Kids today have it too easy! They don’t go through what we went through, all the misery that made us tough! With their safe spaces and their trigger warnings, they’ve been essentially sealed off from conflict—and learning how to respond to conflict is the most important lesson a young person can learn. They’d all be better people if they cried a little more. Like we did.
As the product of a repressive private school, where I was frequently taunted and on one occasion beaten on suspicion of being queer, I know there are some things I don’t want my children to go through. Yes, that experience made me tough, resilient and—in an odd way—forgiving. But I would still do anything to spare my children that trauma. I would rather have them coddled than scarred.
Does that make me a lawn mower parent? Is it always so wrong to stand between your child and harm?
Surely this is a far cry from the parent who, as recounted on a blog, asked that a teacher blow on her daughter’s lunch to make sure her food wasn’t too hot. That’s silly, as is a lot of the “curling” behavior I observe as a professor. Parents cannot be brooms. Children are not stones thrown across the ice.
But I think we should be careful when we start romanticizing “toughness”—either our children’s or our own. Suffering makes us strong, to be sure. But so does love.
If I had to pick just one—suffering or love—I know what I’d choose.
—©2018 The New York Times
Published: 07-10-2018 07:29