It’s college admissions decision time and prospective students — and their parents – wait for their hard-won reward for years of preparation to earn a spot on the most-prized catapults for future success. But in the wake of the widening college admissions scandal, it’s a fresh chance to examine the normalization of parental overinvolvement and its toll on youth.
The terms “lawnmower” and “snowplow” parenting illustrate this trend. About half of American adults are familiar with this slang, according to a recent Ipsos Omnibus survey. In addition, more than a quarter of respondents say parents are “a lot more” involved today than a decade ago. It’s a style that many parents today see as ideal.
At the same time, iGen youth whose parents are mainly GenX-ers get labeled the “bubble wrap” generation, says Janet Oak, senior vice president and deputy head of media development for Ipsos U.S. “Their parents make sure they have all the proper safety requirements that Baby Boomers didn’t use as kids. Conversely, Boomers as parents are very hands-off.”
But more than generational factors, wealth plays a role, says Matthias Doepke, economics professor at Northwestern University. He co-wrote Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids.
He says data strongly suggest that rising economic inequality primarily drives this parenting pattern. “When inequality is high, parents have more reason to worry about their children’s prospects,” he says. “So pushing harder is an understandable reaction to this.”
Rethinking college prep
Still, the admissions scandal takes pushy parenting to a new level, says Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult” and former Stanford University dean of freshmen. “This is the most egregious example of helicopter parenting,” she says.
She advocates fixing the system to offer rigor for students without compromising their wellness. That includes limiting homework and reducing advanced placement class requirements. “Kids are stuffing more and more achievement into their childhoods to impress college admissions teams,” she says. “And we’re going to ruin the mental health of children.”
For example, respondents in the Ipsos survey say overparenting affects kids with trouble facing adversity, difficulty solving problems and more emotional problems and anxiety. Accordingly, GenX and Baby Boomer adults are more likely than Millennial adults to cite these problems. “Millennials who lived through the Recession are less likely to consider overparenting as harmful,” says Oak.
That mindset worries Lenore Skenazy. People might remember her as the mother who over a decade ago let her then-9-year-old son ride the New York subway alone. She founded the Free Range Kids movement and today is president of the nonprofit called Let Grow. It promotes unstructured play and activities like walking home from school alone.
“It’s become normal to have kids in supervised, structured activities all the time,” she says. “We’ve left them fragile because they haven’t had that immune system experience of getting stronger through day-to-day interacting with life. Let Grow is fighting this idea that kids are fragile.”
One of the things that people forget about Skenazy’s story is that her son came home from his solo subway ride elated that he had been able to do it by himself, says Oak. “The No. 1 way to help kids grow a strong sense of self confidence is to let them try things on their own with the potential to fail,” she says. “Doing things for kids is a recipe for disaster.”