In 2019, the college admissions world was rocked when details of a nationwide scandal hit the headlines. Nearly three dozen wealthy and famous parents were accused of bribing, lying, and scheming to get their children into some of the country’s top colleges. What drove these parents to risk fines and jail time in the name of their children’s education?
Sadly, this scandal is a shining example of a new generation of parents entering many teachers’ classrooms: lawnmower parents. Also known as bulldozer parents, these moms and dads believe it’s their duty to demolish any obstacle, adversity, or hardship their children may encounter. Unlike helicopter parents, who hover nearby to swoop in and help whenever there’s a problem, lawnmower parents anticipate and eradicate problems before their children ever have to face them. And while they may have the best of intentions, their tactics often leave students stunted and lacking crucial social–emotional learning skills.
In this article, we’ll take a look at how to spot lawnmower parents, plus four strategies for how to work with the ones who plow their way into your classroom.
How to Spot Lawnmower Parents
Well-meaning though they may be, lawnmower parents can come off strong, especially if they perceive they need to “protect” their child from you. Although it can be challenging, it’s important to look past emotions (both theirs and yours) and address the root of these parents’ behaviors. Here are some signs that you may be dealing with lawnmower parents:
- Their child is not allowed to experience conflict. The idea that two students need to learn to work out their differences is not acceptable to lawnmower parents. They will want you, the school counselor, and the other child’s parents to take charge and prevent their child’s feelings from being hurt.
- They complete tasks, such as homework, for their child. At the first sign of their child struggling, lawnmower parents believe it’s their job to intervene and, if necessary, do the work to keep their child from getting frustrated or confused.
- They rush to school to deliver forgotten items to their child. Lawnmower parents are all too eager to correct any mistake or hardship for their child. They’re willing to drive to school to deliver forgotten homework, lunches, or even a favorite noneducational memento.
- They give their child his or her every materialistic whim. Lawnmower parents believe their child should never do without. Their children are the most likely in your class to have the newest technology, the most fashionable clothes, and large birthday parties and celebrations catering to their desires.
- They engage teachers when conferences are not warranted. Lawnmower parents are the ones who have their own folder in your inbox and whose presence you’re tempted to duck when they drop their kid off at school.
Do any of these behaviors sound familiar? Now that you have a profile of how lawnmower parents behave, let’s look at four practical strategies for how to work with them to build their children’s resilience and ability to stand on their own two feet.
Strategy 1: Educate the Community
Because lawnmower parents believe they’re acting from a place of love and concern, they’re often blind to the negative effects their (over)parenting can have on their children. That’s why it’s important not to accuse these parents of not caring or not knowing what’s best for their child. Instead, make sure to educate all the parents in your class about the statistical impact of lawnmower parenting.
One of the chief issues with lawnmower parenting is that it keeps students from exercising emotional muscles and building resilience. These skills are essential for navigating life’s hardships, and the data show that many students are leaving their parents’ households without them. A recent survey found that more and more students are entering college emotionally unprepared, and are performing worse because of it. According to the report:
Students reported that the first year of college is full of emotional challenges that span far beyond academics. Among myriad challenges, pressures such as paying for college expenses (40%), making new friends (30%), keeping in touch with family and friends not at their college (28%), and being independent (16%) were reported as being “extremely or very challenging,” and nearly half of students (45%) felt that “it seems like everyone has college figured out but me.”
You and your students’ parents share the same goal: to help their children become successful adults. In the least confrontational way possible, make sure your parents know that lawnmowing their children’s every problem will not help any of you toward that goal.
Strategy 2: Set Goals and Let Students Do the Work
Lawnmower parents are great at identifying their children’s path to success, clearing all obstacles in that path, and possibly even carrying them down the path so they won’t stub their toe. However, when parents do these things, they rob their children of the opportunity to learn valuable skills for themselves.
That’s why it’s important to work with students to set goals, define what they need to do to meet those goals, and coach them as they work rather than doing the work for them. Here are some of the benefits of goal setting for students (from GradePower Learning):
- Provides a clear path to success: When adults constantly tell kids “what’s next,” kids can develop a sense of learned helplessness, where they don’t know what to do unless they receive explicit instructions. Goals help students tell themselves what’s next to help them achieve things that are important to them.
- Teaches time management: Many students struggle with procrastination, but goal setting helps them plan and get organized in advance so it’s easier to stay on time and on task.
- Gives students a sense of focus and purpose: Students often ask why what they’re learning matters. Setting goals gives students their “why,” which they can refer back to when times get tough.
- Builds self-confidence: Hitting milestones and seeing progress on a big goal feels good! When students are involved in goal setting, they’ll be able to see how much they’re accomplishing and be inspired to keep moving forward.
- Provides manageable challenges: Productivity guru Tonya Dalton often says overwhelm is not having too much to do, but not knowing where to start. Goal setting breaks down big projects into bite-sized chunks, allowing students to tackle small challenges without getting overwhelmed.
Make sure to share the benefits of goal setting with parents. If you’re dealing with particularly “involved” lawnmower parents, maybe invite them into the process of setting goals with their students (not for them). When you define the path to success as students doing the work, parents will be able to redirect their energy toward coaching their students rather than taking over for them.
For example, say a student needs to have a hard conversation with a peer or teacher. Lawnmower parents will be tempted to have the conversation for the student. However, when parents behave as a coach instead, they will talk to their child about what to say or role-play the conversation with him or her; but ultimately, the student has to do the hard work.
Strategy 3: Allow Failure and Struggle
We all know the stories and adages about failure being essential to success. Oprah was fired from a local anchor job. Harry Potter was rejected by a dozen publishers. Walt Disney was told he “lacked creativity.”
But did you know there’s research backing up this idea? A study from Northwestern University tracked startup ventures for nearly 50 years to see if they could find a pattern in which succeeded or failed. They found that plenty of ventures failed at first (sometimes several times), but some never went on to succeed while others did.
So what was the difference between long-term success and long-term failure? Those who succeeded identified what wasn’t working and improved it (instead of giving up or making changes at random). Moreover, the most successful people were the ones who failed quickly and tried again quickly. In other words, you’re more likely to fail if you stop trying or hesitate for a long time between attempts.
What does all of this mean for managing lawnmower parents? These studies and stories of failure can help you reframe how parents think of “helping” their students. Their impulse is to rush in and “rescue” their children from failure. Make sure to show them that if they really want to “rescue” their students, they should stand back and let students learn from setbacks so they can succeed long-term.
That doesn’t mean letting students flounder indefinitely. Instead, it might mean reminding students about an assignment but letting them take a bad grade if they choose to procrastinate. Or it might mean explaining how to work an equation and then letting students sit with it and get it wrong a few times before jumping in with the answer. As you get to know your lawnmower parents and their behaviors, you’ll be able to tailor your advice accordingly.
Strategy 4: Stand Your Ground
Sometimes you won’t have time to lay out the negative impacts of lawnmower parenting, or your pleas and strategies will fall on deaf ears. That’s why it’s important to create policies in advance and stick to them, even when lawnmower parents come barreling toward you.
There’s an endless number of scenarios that could raise a lawnmower parent’s ire. You might not give his or her student an A, not accept late work, or not excuse the student from an activity he or she doesn’t like. In all of these examples, a lawnmower parent will insist his or her child should be the exception to the rule, and will likely have a list of persuasive reasons why.
Rita Platt, a middle grade principal, says it’s important to stand your ground once you make a decision. She suggests taking your time and making policies based on the school’s core values or mission statement (or your own personal values). Deciding the rules in advance, ideally in writing, will help you stay strong in the face of criticism, and help students (and their parents) learn about boundaries and conforming to appropriate external standards.
More on Building Great Relationships With Parents
Parents want the best for their kids, and sometimes, the “best” means letting their kids struggle, fail, and learn the hard way. Education is the perfect arena for children to learn how to try, fail, and try again, and to take ownership of the challenges life throws their way. Take the time to educate parents on the dangers of lawnmower parenting, and give them strategies to help their students struggle in a safe environment. It will be worth your time and theirs, and will help your students long after they leave your classroom.