Helicopters and Snow Plows

Many years ago, the Dean of Students at Appalachian State shared with a group of campus ministers about what she was seeing in the latest freshmen class. She told the 15-minute-helicopter-flying-28114838.jpgstory of a mother who called her with a question: Who in her daughter’s dorm was responsible for waking her up in the morning so she would be on time for her eight o’clock class? The dean assured us the woman was serious. She answered that it would be her daughter’s responsibility for waking herself up.

This is the classic helicopter parent—overly involved in the affairs of her child after she has become an adult. Stories abound of parents making appointments for their emerging adult children, setting up job interviews, calling professors to challenge the grades their kids received, and even following up with prospective employers about their children’s wonderful attributes.

Now with the recent college admissions scandal, a new term has emerged for the extreme of helicopter parents—snowplow parents. These parents seek to remove any obstacle they believe might impede their children from success. In the admissionssnowplow.jpg scandal, wealthy parents paid stand-ins to take their kids’ SAT tests, and indirectly bribed coaches to declare their children prospects for collegiate athletic teams. One of the young people indicated as she enrolled at Stanford that she had little interest in academics; she was much more interested in her social life. Likely, she would have scored dismally on the SAT, but her mom and dad made sure that would never happen. They saw the obstacles and fired up the snowplow.

Anyone who has worked with college students over a long period can tell you how their emotional maturity has generally declined over the years. They are more anxious, less disciplined, more dependent on their parents, and lack many basic life skills, such as good one-on-one communication, dependability, and a good work ethic. The almost constant use of social media plays a role, but even a greater one is parents who do all they can to protect their kids from hardship and difficulty.

I think back to my father’s generation. They grew up in the Depression and lived through World War II. What made them what Tom Brokaw famously called them, “the Greatest Generation?” I think much of it was their lives were full of challenges practically from the beginning. In a time of desperation, the children were counted on to carry their weight to help the family. They did chores and, when they became old enough, took jobs like delivering newspapers and helping deliver groceries in order to bring in a little money for the family’s needs. It was a hard life, and as was evidenced with the Baby Boomer generation, the parents never wanted their kids to experience such hardship.

Yet, it was that hardship that helped them develop adult life skills and to endure terrible challenges. With each succeeding generation, the parents have sought to lighten the burdens on their kids. My father’s generation sought to help their kids get a college education or at least a better life than they had. The Boomer generation took that a step further by wanting to make sure their kids didn’t have to go into debt to go to college, so they paid for their kids’ college costs or focused on them getting scholarships. And Gen X parents have gone way further with their helicopter and snow plow approaches.

There is no doubt in my mind that this trend toward making life as easy as possible on kids, or having them be singularly focused on school at the expense of other experiences that would help them develop life skills, has contributed to the emotional maturity decline of today’s college students. There is an old illustration that still resonates as I think about today’s students. A butterfly is beginning to emerge from its cocoon. A child observes its seemingly monumental struggle to break free. He feels sorry for the young butterfly and decides to help it by tearing open the cocoon. By doing so, he later learns he has condemned the butterfly to a very short life as it will be unable to fly. The struggle to escape the cocoon served as a means to strengthen its wings and enabled it to fly. With that struggle removed, the butterfly fell to the ground and became some bird’s snack.

Just as the child had good intentions, I am certain parents do as well. But they are grossly mistaken thinking that easing the burdens of their children’s lives will help them. It will in fact do the opposite. It is through struggle that we each become stronger. I have had my share of struggles over the course of my life, but I can readily say these were helpful experiences because they served to strengthen me.

In the midst of one of my most difficult struggles—the terminal illness of my mother while in my early 20’s—I read II Corinthians 12 where Paul describes one of his struggles.

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (II Corinthians 12:7b-10 )

The Lord refused to remove the “thorn” that was causing Paul so much suffering. Instead, he told him that through his suffering he would become stronger. This is true from my own experience and I have seen this lived out in others as well. One student who was involved in our ministry planned to major in exercise science. During her freshman year, she began developing debilitating migraines. She would often go several days unable to leave her room. Many prayers were prayed (and still are) for her healing. And while over the years, the symptoms have lessened, she is still unable to do much physical exercise. Yet, I have seen her grow spiritually and emotionally in spectacular ways. It has been a difficult road for her, but she indeed has become a much stronger person as a result.

For the sake of our children and their children, we must come to the realization that our kids’ hardships, struggles, and failures, are what will help them mature into well-functioning adults. Protecting them from these is not an act of love; rather it is an act of neglect to not allow them to experience what they need.

© Jim Musser 2019

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