Sherpa, snowplow or drone: What’s your parenting style?
Apr 25, 2019
Were the 33 parents indicted in the college admissions scandal drones, bulldozers or snowplows?
The metaphors of parenting seem to get more complicated every day.
Experts in child development say there are four types of parents — authoritative, authoritarian, permissive and neglectful — and that one type is demonstrably better than the other three. But these categories are mostly used in academic settings.
In casual conversation, people are much more likely to describe parents in terms of helicopters, jellyfish and submarines, a trend that may have begun when Susan Berry Casey described herself as a “soccer mom” when she ran for Denver City Council in 1995.
Now, every season seems to bring a catchy new descriptive, the latest comparing parents to helpful staff at a hotel (concierge parents) or guides who carry a hiker’s gear up a mountain (sherpa parents).
The parents resembling heavy equipment — the bulldozer and snowplow parents — are getting most of the blame for the my-child-will-achieve-at-all-costs behavior exposed in Operation Varsity Blues. But there’s also reason to blame drone parents — the ones who destroy their children’s perceived obstacles to success with the precision of a military strike.
If you can’t tell a helicopter from a snowplow, here’s a guide to the differences to help you see if you qualify for one of these labels. And for those who prefer an approach based on research, maybe you’re simply “authoritative” or “authoritarian,” parenting styles that the late developmental psychologist Diana Blumberg Baumrind first identified in her study of preschoolers in the 1960s.
Helicopter v. drone
The term helicopter parent dates to 1990 and was coined by child development researchers Foster Cline and Jim Fay, according to Julie Lythcott-Haims, writing for Business Insider.
It describes “a parent who hovers over a child in a way that runs counter to the parent’s responsibility to raise a child to independence,” Lythcott-Haims, a former Stanford University dean and author of “How to Raise an Adult,” wrote.
In his 2017 book “Entitlemania,” California attorney Richard Watts said the helicopter parent has been elbowed aside by the drone parent — a parent who believes that a child’s chance of success is improved when obstacles are removed from his path.
“They’re more strategic (than helicopter parents),” Watts told the Deseret News. “They’re military-like. They go out in front; they can be stealth. They can really start talking about what the best sport is for their child to play at 4 years old to get entry to an Ivy League school.
Similar, but perhaps a bit less strategic, is the snowplow parent, a term believed to be coined by David McCullough Jr.
McCullough Jr., whose commencement speech at Wellesley High School went viral, told the class of 2012, “You are not special” and later published a book by that title.
Snowplow parents “remove any difficulty from their child’s path — similar to pushing snow out of a path,” according to Becky Pemberton, writing for The Sun,
But if it doesn’t snow where you live, you might be a bulldozer parent or a lawnmower parent, terms often credited to Karen Fancher, a Duquesne University professor in Pittsburgh.
In a 2016 post on the Pittsburgh Moms Blog, Fancher wrote that these parents “rush ahead to intervene, saving the child from any potential inconvenience, problem or discomfort.” (She also gives advice to lawnmowerly types, including to trust your children, allow them to make mistakes, and require teens to communicate on their own with teachers and coaches.)
The kinder, gentler enablers of children are sherpa parents — which the Daily Mail says resemble the mountain guides in the Himalayas who take people’s gear up the mountains for them — and the concierge parents, who devote themselves to making sure their children are clean and comfortable, even while they’re away at college.
Jellyfish parents, a term coined by Dr. Shimi Kang, in her book “The Dolphin Way,” are squishy and permissive. “They have (few) rules, expectations, and often overindulge their children. Children of jellyfish parents tend to lack impulse control,” Kang wrote for Psychology Today.
Also subaqueous, but with better results, are submarine parents, who are “out of sight, a little stealthy, keeping track from an unseen distance but able to surface and provide concrete aid if the situation warrants,” Lois Collins wrote in the Deseret News.
They are similar to hummingbird parents, who Motherly describes as parents who “hover but do not interfere too much in the decisions of their children.”
“They remain physically (or psychologically) nearby to jump in if their children need them, but they try to not make decisions for them or prevent their failures, Amy Webb wrote.
Recently popular is the free-range parent, who lets a child explore new things and places on her own, a concept that, in Utah and elsewhere, has required laws to protect parents from accusations of neglect and child endangerment. Lenore Skenazy gave rise to the term and the concept when she was shamed for letting her then 9-year-old son ride the subway alone in New York City.
Her organization, Free-Range Kids, fights “the belief that our children are in constant danger from creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape,” according to its website.
And finally, there’s a small but fervent group of believers in the Mike-and-Carol style of parenting, to mean the couple who headed the blended family in the 1970s sitcom “The Brady Bunch.”
The parenting depicted on the show wasn’t perfect, but Carol and Mike Brady demonstrated sensitivity, responsiveness, agency and self-regulation that results in family unity, wrote John D. Rich Jr., a retired United Methodist minister and an associate professor of psychology at Delaware State University, for Psychology Today.
“The Bradys have family meetings and important conversations throughout the show, encouraging the children to be empathetic toward their wounded siblings and to participate in making things right again. In other words, the parents are teaching the children to be sensitive and responsive,” Rich said.
The expert view
Experts in child development dispense with the catchy labels and use four words to describe parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive and neglectful. Baumrind identified the first three in her research on behavior of preschoolers in the 1960s; other psychologists later added “neglectful.”
There are hints of jellyfish and snowplows in those adjectives, but the words — and the parents they describe — are easy to envision, as are the consequences and benefits.
Baumrind reported that the children of parents who were authoritative — firm, yet loving — had the best outcomes, with superior levels of emotional stability, life satisfaction and coping skills.
Parenting expert John Rosemond lauded Baumrind’s work in a 2018 column, saying that her research “finds that parents who adhere, today, to a traditional parenting ethic, emphasizing unconditional love and firm discipline, raise the most well-adjusted children.”
In a review of Baumrind’s work and others published in the journal Childhood Obesity, Thomas G. Power, a developmental psychologist at Washington State University, said that Baumrind’s work still prevails in the field.
“Despite over 40 years of research, the parenting styles identified by Baumrind and elaborated on by (Eleanor) Maccoby and (John) Martin still are the only parenting styles with a strong empirical basis — at least in Western cultures,” Power said.
Moral: Aim to be authoritative — not an invertebrate or heavy machinery.