When our daughter was a baby, my husband and I practiced “attachment parenting,” which means that we wore her in a Baby Bjorn, she fell asleep in our arms and in our bed, and I nursed her whenever she wanted to be nursed — which turned out to be pretty much all night long. By the time she was a year old or so, I felt like I was a victim of sleep-deprivation torture.
So, upon the urging of friends and family, and after doing a little research, we decided we were going to let her try crying it out. We cleared out her crib (used as a playpen filled with stuffed animals), set her down, kissed her good night, and left the room. The idea was that she would cry for most of the first night, less on the second night, not at all on the third night, and then I would have my life and sanity back. I imagined days in which I wouldn’t sob of exhaustion while driving to the grocery store. We waited outside the door. She cried. We cooed that it was okay. She cried harder. I began to cry as well. “I can’t stand it!” I yelled. I ran in, scooped her up, and promised I would make sure she never experienced pain or turmoil ever again. Husband looked at his watch. I had lasted seven minutes.
Looking back, I believe that was when my career as a lawnmower parent began.
What is a lawnmower parent?
Helicopter parents hover over their child; lawnmower parents are one step ahead. They don’t just hover, assessing danger — they make sure their children experience no danger or obstacles to begin with. According to a recent article in We Are Teachers, from which the term was coined, “Lawnmower parents go to whatever lengths necessary to prevent their child from having to face adversity, struggle, or failure.”
After the failed “crying it out” incident, I made sure all grass, pebbles, and weeds were cleared in the path of our daughter for years. If she didn’t want me to drop her off at drama or dance but instead wanted me to sit in the waiting room? No problem; I brought a book. If she wasn’t ready for an all-day kindergarten? For a school with little to no parental involvement? No problem — I devoted two years of my life to starting a charter school (really!) based, in part, on parental involvement.
Like other lawnmower parents, my motives were good. I wanted my daughter to be happy. But then, as our daughter was starting middle school, two things happened simultaneously that made me change my parenting style. First, working as a college professor, I was beginning to see the effect this type of parenting was happening on some of my students. Some of them were absent due to their parents scheduling dental and medical appointments during my classes; when I asked them if they couldn’t reschedule, they explained that their parents took care of that because they had anxiety talking on the phone. Some of their mothers proofread and typed their papers for them, and when I told my students I wanted them to turn in their own work, they said they only knew how to use Google docs, not Word — and besides, “my mom has always done this for me,” and besides, “my mom is such a good writer.” When I told them to come to my office hours to discuss a grade, or a paper, or a problem, they could not. They were unused to speaking to teachers, to adults. In other words, some of my students were helpless.
The second thing that happened was that I found I was completely burned out and exhausted. I had devoted the last 12 years to my daughter, and I wanted my life back. I wanted to write again. I wanted to nap. I wanted to put my feet up, drink a glass of tea or wine, and relax. When we went to an orientation meeting for incoming ixth grade students and their parents, the principal said, “Moms and dads, you can go on the parent portal and check on your students’ progress every night. You can see their homework, their quizzes, their tests, you can find out what assignments they’re missing. We encourage you to do this every day and to contact their teachers if you have any questions.”
I turned to my daughter and told her, “Just so you know, I am never going to do that.”
She is now a junior, and I never have.
My daughter, by the way, had no problem at all with this decree.
My journey from lawnmower mom to lazy slacker mom was complete.
Or maybe it was not quite that simple. I’m still involved; I just don’t mow. Which suits my daughter fine. She’s very independent now, and wouldn’t let me read an English essay if I begged her. In fact, she’s thrived under my lack of lawnmower parenting. It turns out, my daughter is quite capable of walking through a lawn filled with weeds, pebbles, bugs, and beautiful green verdant grass — just like all kids, once they’re given the chance.
5 Clues You Might Be a Lawnmower Parent
- Do you step in and break up a conflict before it even happens? Helicopter parents will hover over young children, making sure there is no conflict between them. Lawnmower parents might go the extra step and make sure that their children never experience conflict by only having playdates with close friends, never anyone new. Or to make sure children don’t fight over a beloved toy, lawnmower parents will go out and buy a duplicate. True, the kids won’t fight — but they’ll never learn how to share or handle conflict, either.
- Do you “help” with homework? Helicopter parents might constantly ask their children if their homework is done, and check the parent portal nightly, making sure all assignments are turned in and all grades are acceptable. (And to be fair, this may be necessary with some children who are not at all self-motivated.) Lawnmower parents will go the extra step and actually do the homework with their children — or (alors!) do the homework for their children. If you’re proofreading and typing a high school English essay, what, exactly, is your child learning? That their mom or dad is good at English?
- Do you drop off homework, sweaters, and water bottles at school? While helicopter parents might perform a daily checklist (do you have your lunch, your science project, the class hamster?), lawnmower parents will bring anything and everything to their children as soon as they receive the text request. If your child forgets their homework at home, and you bring it to them, then the lesson learned is that you will always be there to deliver the things they’ve forgotten — which is a lousy (not to mention false) life lesson. If you refuse to bring their homework to them, then what they learn instead is to be responsible — an important life lesson indeed.
- Do you argue over grades with teachers? If your child truly believes they’ve earned a higher grade than their teacher has given them, let them meet with the teacher and discuss the grade themselves. Arguing eloquently and respectfully for what you believe in is an important life skill — one that your child is not learning if you are doing the arguing for them.
- Are you overly engaged in the college application process? While helicopter parents might be on their children’s cases about choosing and applying to colleges, lawnmower parents might actually be creating the top-10 lists and writing college application essays for them. This is one of the last acts of lawnmower parenting before the child leaves for college… and he or she has no idea how to cope without you.
Lawnmower parents, do yourselves and your children a favor, and let the grass grow in front of your children’s feet. Yes, they’ll stumble and fall, but they will get up again, and both you and your children will be really proud when they do. And take it from me, a recovered lawnmower parent, that it’s much more pleasant being up here on the porch, watching your child make their own beautiful, crooked, unique path, than it is being down there on the lawn sweating, pushing the mower yourself.