Dear Parents of My Daughters’ Future Partners,
Hey there! Since we probably haven’t met (although stranger things have happened), allow me to introduce myself: I’m Emily, a music and piano teacher, academic coach, wife of Nick, and service dog puppy-raiser. I love traveling, cooking, eating all of the things (especially the chocolate things), The Good Place, parentheses, Disney, and Broadway.
Also, I’m the mom of 12 and 14 year-old daughters, which is why I’m writing to you today.
If you live in the United States and own a television, smart phone, car, or computer, you’re probably aware of the scandal that recently broke involving wealthy, sometimes famous parents using bribes to get their kids into college. I’m sure we can agree that there is no shortage of articles, opinion pieces, and research out there decrying the rise in the “snowplow” (and its forerunner, “helicopter”) parenting tactics which are rooted in the belief that it’s our job to protect our children at all times, remove obstacles from their paths, and generally allow them to go through life without having to face heartache, consequences, or… sauces. (Seriously.)
To a certain degree, I get it. Sometimes, it’s easier to just do things for our kids than to teach them how. We believe we’re helping them when we clear away the hard stuff. The world is a big and scary place; what’s the harm in offering a leg up?
While some of these behaviors are humorous or eye-roll worthy (parents making dentist appointments for their twenty-something offspring), the consequences can be far more dire (an increase in depression and suicide consideration among newly-minted adults who have never had to overcome a challenge).
With this in mind, my husband and I have made a point of raising our daughters in non-snowplow fashion by providing opportunities for them to become competent, independent humans. To wit: we assume that they’re capable, give them a lot of responsibilities, and allow them to fail, struggle, and make mistakes.
I don’t worry that our girls will be unable to find clean outfits to wear to their college internships, ’cause they’ve been doing their own laundry since 4th grade. Likewise, we’ve allowed them to take the lead in advocating for themselves (like talking to their teachers and coaches and taking responsibility for missed practices or homework that remains confusing even after checking with Nick or me), so it doesn’t cross my mind that they’ll have no idea how to approach an employer about a work-related problem.
There’s plenty that I do worry about, like how they’ll cope with the pressures of a world that judges them on appearances rather than merit… and you can bet I’ll be here when they want to talk things through, get a second opinion, or when they need a hug or a cheering squad (or a Queer Eye buddy).
But mostly? They’re going to navigate their own lives.
Which is okay, because they’re already responsible, independent, thoughtful young women who do a bang-up job of making their way without Nick or me clearing the path.
In short: Anyone who finds themselves as a partner to either of my daughters is damned lucky – partly because they’re witty, delightful humans who can sing in three-part harmony, but also because they’re capable and competent.
While that’s all well and great – hooray for strong women! – it applies only to them, not to their friendships or relationships. It has recently occurred to us: What if our daughters’ future partners AREN’T as competent as they are, and they rely on our girls for everything? What if their partners’ parents took the snowplow approach and they’ve never had to face heartbreaks or adversity, much less iron a pair of pants?
This is where you come in!
Let’s start with something like chores. Sure, it’s awesome that my offspring can take care of themselves around the house, but it won’t be awesome if your offspring rely on them to prepare the meals, vacuum, or make the bed because you’ve always done these things for them. Partner Parents: teach your kids how to fend for themselves! Have them make their own school lunches and do their own their laundry. Stand back and allow them to change their own sheets (even if the infrequency makes you vomit in your mouth a little).
Chore chart from ten years ago; we start ’em young!
This applies to life outside the house, too. Although my daughters know how to cook and do the dishes, they still love eating out; I expect this will continue when they’re adults. When they look the server in the eye and ask for their dressing on the side, it’s gonna be awkward if your kiddos stare at the menu and mumble their requests. Partner Parents – you can remedy this! Start young! They can order their food, answer questions at the doctor’s office, and respond for themselves when Grandma wants to FaceTime.
Give them responsibilities. They should know how to clean bathrooms and iron a shirt. They can learn what groceries cost, how to address and mail letters, and to wake themselves up. Enlist them to help with yardwork. (If you can afford a gardner or housecleaner or personal shopper? Sweet! Teach your kids anyway, because when the dog-poop-picker-upper comes down with scurvy, it’ll be real nasty out back if your child has no idea where the poop bags are.)
Helping with the yardwork… That day the 7 year-old made everyone’s lunch.
This one kind of sucks, but… teach them that they are not the center of the universe. You might think it’s no big deal when your kid forgets their lunchbox and you skip a meeting to bring it to them, but if they reach adulthood and expect my kids – or their bosses – to drop everything and rush over a forgotten jacket, I suspect it’s not gonna be pretty.
Perhaps most important, and difficult, of all: Allow them to fail and experience heartbreak. Life as a human is filled with adversity. The way to overcome it isn’t by avoiding it (spoiler: that’s impossible) but by figuring out how to handle it, which only comes through… handling it. When your sons and daughters leave an assignment at home and will miss recess… let it happen. If they don’t like what’s for dinner, allow them to go hungry – or to fix an appropriate substitute (so long as you don’t have to be involved!). When they don’t get the lead in the musical or are cut from the team, commiserate and listen… but don’t badger the director or the coach.
Why should we allow our kiddos to fail and overcome obstacles? Because then, when they inevitably don’t get into their dream school or land the job or earn the promotion, they’ll know how to face rejection. When the pipe bursts and the fridge conks out on the same day that the car goes in for repairs, they’ll know that they have the fortitude to get through. And when your child and my daughter lose their bid on the house or get laid off or fight cancer, they’ll be able to face it together, armed with belief in themselves and their abilities.
Partner Parents, I realize this can be scary. I understand wanting your offspring to be content, successful, good humans. I know that it can be so tempting to do things for them because it seems like it will give them an advantage or make them happier. I definitely know how difficult it is to watch them struggle.
It seems, however, that the evidence is clear: despite the snowplow belief to the contrary, preventing our kids from experiencing hardships means they’re more likely, not less, to be miserable in the long run, more likely to fail – and less likely, not more, to grow into confident adults.
And so, hearts in throats, Nick and I will continue our non-lawnmower approach.
Won’t you consider doing the same?
p.s. Don’t worry – we’re still saving for our daughters’ eventual therapy to discuss something we’ve done; after all, we’ve raised them to advocate for themselves. But, with luck, our We Believe In You So We’re Going To Let You Fail approach won’t be their first topic of conversation.
p.p.s Although I’ve spoken of equity here, if your kid wants to take over spider duty, my girls would be down with that.
** I realize that expectations are different for everyone, and especially for children with special needs or differing abilities. Please continue to presume competence and adjust accordingly.**