Lessons from a Reluctant Helicopter/Snowplow Parent and Educator

Paul Bennion, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, The College of Idaho

February 15, 2018

Ok, let me start by clarifying I am not a helicopter parent, and certainly not a snowplow parent (no, really, I am not, at least I don’t think), but I now have a 16-year-old daughter, so I am starting to understand why you might become one.

I love my daughter, so I want the best for her, and I want her to be happy. I find parental validation in helping her succeed. So far so good, right? The problem is when my daughter doesn’t do what is, at least to me, abundantly clear and reasonable even after we’ve discussed it on multiple occasions. I can only tell – I mean remind – her so many times until I get so frustrated that I want to go ahead and just do it for her, because, after all, I care for her, and it would ultimately be in her best interest. Oh, and these “accomplishments” reflect well on me, her proud, boastful parent.

Our parenting role is not the same as our educator role, but there are similarities, and for me each has influenced the other. In our efforts as Student Affairs professionals to help students succeed, we apply a genuine ethic of care that I contend might border on helicopter/snowplow educating. We hold expectations for our students, and when they don’t meet them or, rather, when they simply don’t attempt to meet them, we are disappointed. On some level, we internalize their inaction as our fault. We did not get through to them, so we’ll keep following up, and we may even go so far as to fix their problem for them (helicopter/snowplow educator). After all, this is in their best interests, and it reflects well on us…win-win. Unfortunately, our tendency to fix, born from our strong ethic of care (and maybe a bit of self-pride), often results in a short-term solution that may enable recidivist inaction, rather than long-term, beneficial behavioral development.

The causes of inaction are as varied as the students with whom we have the pleasure of educating and serving. For example, students may lack resiliency, because they have been shielded from failure; students may lack agency, because they have not been exposed to the cultural capital necessary for even knowing how to take action; and students may lack motivation due to unsupported depression or anxiety. So, how do we help our students succeed, and not become a helicopter/snowplow educator?

As Mark Twain cleverly quipped, “Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from making bad decisions.” Here are my humble thoughts as a father, SSAO, and instructor/co-director of our College’s Leadership Minor, who has made his fair share of bad decisions in at least one or more of these three areas.

  • Listen to students, and to quote Larry Roper, “Don’t steal the pause.” What comes after the pause in our conversations with students is usually quite insightful, and instructive.
  • Similar to Peter Northouse’s conceptualization of leadership, skills such as agency, resiliency, and grit are not innate traits, which means they can be taught and learned. It is a process, for sure, but the recognition of this is an important first step for the student and us.
  • I am increasingly convinced of the relevance of Carol Dweck’s work on the fixed versus growth mindset continuum. Related to my previous point, the extent to which we can help our students understand the growth mindset will lead to the development of positive psychological skillsets, and ultimately greater fulfillment.
  • Help students embrace the Components of Resilience SAVES model, developed by Gregory T. Eells. SAVES - Social connection (avoiding isolation), Attitude (learned optimism), Values (purpose), Emotional Acceptance (emotional intelligence), and Silliness (humor) - are, again, learned skills, and when practiced can change student mindsets.

Maybe I am, at times, a helicopter/snowplow parent and/or educator, but I am committed to removing the blades and plow, and to start embracing my own advice. Easier said than done, but the students (and my daughter, of course) are worth the effort!

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