Reflections of a “Lawn Mower Parent”

The first time I heard the term “Helicopter Parent,” I remember scoffing with pride that I certainly wasn’t one of them, these parents who are all over their children and their children’s teachers. Don’t get me wrong; I have a few propellers whizzing around over my child but I have seen obsessive and aggressive parents, and I know I am not like them.

And then I saw an article on my Twitter feed about the “Lawn Mower Parent” – a parent who attemps to “mow down any obstacle in their children’s path.” (courtesy of Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, “Spare the Spanking, Spoil the Report Card?,” The Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2010). This time the term struck a nerve.

In fact, I remember beginning my parenting journey with this goal (one of many): to spare my son the trauma, the unpleasantness, and the hurts that I had endured as a child. Don’t we all have that as a parenting goal? What parent says, “I want my child to get bullied. I want my child to get his feelings hurt. I hope my child has an uphill battle to fight in school.” ? Our parental instinct is to ensure our children’s happiness.

I’m sometimes amazed at how vastly different Fred’s childhood is from mine. Due to particular circumstances in my family then, I had lived in a lot of fear, and tension was the norm rather than the exception. Everything except academics had felt like an uphill struggle. Very little had felt smooth back then, and my parents were too busy or did not  know enough to help. So I stumbled along myself. I figured out how to get into one of the top high schools in our state. I wrestled with friendships and relationships. I figured out my own career path, found a good man to marry, became a mother. I’ve struggled with a lot of mistakes over my life time, as well as wasted years, depression, and self-doubt. But now, at 40+, I am confident in my ability to rely on myself and to take care of others.

Do I want that for Fred? Would I want him to go through even a third of what I had gone through? No doubt those early struggles on my own helped me develop some of the strengths that I have now. But I see my strengths in a small tub mixed in with a great deal of anxiety and insecurities that would not have been there had an adult played a bigger role helping me get through those obstacles.

I do get the whole argument about the Lawn Mower Parent. Like all these short-cut parenting labels, they’re meant to generalize and stereotype the most extreme parent. The Lawn Mower Parent is the one who doesn’t want his child to ever not get what he wants. She’s the one who doesn’t ever want her child to cry. While I want to protect my child from trauma (if I possibly can), I do know that kids have to experience frustration, struggle, hurt, fear, injustice, and disappointment in order to develop maturity, confidence and coping skills. And believe me, I have more than once wondered, Is Fred’s life too easy? Is he too happy? Has he not had enough bad things happen to him? And then I see the absurdity in this line of thinking, in the kind of self-questioning that these parenting labels induce.

The truth is, try as I might, life has its own way of throwing potholes in my son’s life path, and I am guessing that much of the time there will be little that I can do to shield him from suffering from them. I want so much for Fred to live a happy and pain free life, but already he knows what it’s like to be falsely accused by a teacher and principal, to be cheated by friends, to lose, to doubt his abilities to perform, to fear the anger of people he loves. To think that I have the ability to smooth or clear all of this for him is to overestimate my power as a human being.

Screw all the parenting labels. I’m going to love my son the only way I know how, and be confident that he is going to turn out a responsible, good, and happy human being.

11 thoughts on “Reflections of a “Lawn Mower Parent”

  1. I don’t know that I am any kind of helicopter, lawnmower, tricycle, moped or whatever parent.
    I just know that I want my kids to survive and grow up into healthy happy with themselves adults.
    I hope that I can teach them how to deal with their challenges. The hard stuff builds character but not if it breaks you. Such a fine ling right?

    • Yes, so hard, and the labels try to make parents ever more paranoid about that fine line. Thanks, Annabelle!

  2. Well said.
    All the labels are obnoxious. Another thing to worry about, to think I am doing wrong. Am I overinvolved? Am I underinvolved? Do I smooth too much of the way? Do I let her trip too much? What else will the experts say I’ve done to ruin her life? (Oh, I have no delusions, I am messing up at least some of the time.)
    I think that our best ways to parent are the ones that make us feel most confident and at ease in this terrifically difficult role.

    • Thanks Kate. Your comment is spot on! I used to let the labels get to me, but I realize they are all part of media hype.

  3. Lovely post, as usual! I am learning to accept that in my daughter’s lifetime she will endure pain and hurt, and that I will not always be there (and she will not always listen) when she desperately needs my help. It’s tough. Like you, I entered parenting with the mindset that if nothing else, I’d make sure that she had a childhood that was “different” from mine. I didn’t have a terrible childhood (and it seems better and better the more I continue on as a parent and see what my parents were up against) but I did wish for more support and encouragement in certain areas of my life. I’m learning, however, that all my grand parenting wishes may never come true. I’m learning, like you, that the best we can do as parents is our best and hope for the best. Everything else is really our of our hands.

  4. I totally agree with you, Cecilia. Sometimes I worry that people will think I’m a “helicopter” parent but then I remember that I have to parent in the way that feels right to me and do what I think is best for my child–not worry about what others think. It’s hard though. I catch myself worrying about what other people think. Then just try to say to myself, “Oh well.” It’s still what I need to do.

  5. Cecilia, I’m in complete agreement with you – screw these labels indeed. We can’t protect our kids forever, and even if we succeed in not exposing them to hurt and pain, what kind of reality would we paint for them? One day when they do leave our side and have to fend for themselves, they will quickly learn the pitfalls of having overprotective parents.

    My Guy and his brother (8 years his junior) have vastly different upbringing and I can completely see the difference in the two. When I met his bro, he was 14 and his dad was still cutting his steak for him! My Guy had his first job by then and his brother wasn’t expected to do anything around the house at all. The difference prepared one person to be capable, independent and resourceful and the other to be completely reliant on the help of others. I certainly wouldn’t want the latter for my child.

  6. Screw the labels. I’m in! Like Kate said, I’m sure I’m messing up somehow (and messing them up), but I’m doing what I think is right, what I feel is right, what I hope is right. And, dammit, that’s got to count for something.

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