Q.  When my middle school daughter cried because she wasn’t put in the same English class as her best friend, I called the principal to request she be moved. I told my sister about it, and she called me a “lawnmower” parent. She said I make excuses for my daughter and pointed out that I sometimes do my daughter’s homework for her. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

A.  Lawnmower parents do things to keep their children from having to face challenges or problems. They ensure their child doesn’t fail at anything. Most of what is written about lawnmower parenting points out the negative results of this type of parenting. For example, when kids don’t have to figure things out on their own, they start to feel like they’re not capable of accomplishing anything.

I often volunteer to help with children’s craft projects at a local museum. Some kids approach the craft table confidently and start their projects. Others need encouragement. Interestingly, some parents take over the child’s project to make it “perfect,” and the child doesn’t experience craft-making at all. I remember one girl who was about 5 years old. She had started her project by herself. I heard her mother say, “Let me help you make it better.” The little girl said (in a loud voice), “No, I want to do this myself.” Letting children do projects themselves and seeing the results of their own work can be a great confidence builder. Likewise, letting children experience failure can be a positive thing. One belief is that failure is a learning experience that helps kids work out how to do better or differently to achieve success.

A big concern of educators is that lawnmower parents produce college students and job applicants who lack motivation, have difficulty making decisions, have poor communication skills and aren’t ready to figure out what it takes to pass a course or do the job.

What are some ways to avoid parenting like a lawnmower? Here are some suggestions:

  1. When kids face a problem, don’t leap into problem-solving “fix-it” mode. Ask your child, “What ideas do you have for solving this or making it better?”
  2. When your child is upset about something like not being in the same class as a friend, encourage her to look at the positive side. This could be an opportunity to make new friends and focus more on learning.
  3. Let your child experience failure when she doesn’t do the work. Ask her to think about what she can do better or differently to succeed next time.
  4. Stop doing your child’s work for her, or else you’ll find yourself writing college papers for your nearly-grown child at 3 a.m.
  5. If your child seems to have trouble with organization or study skills, consider getting her a tutor or enrolling her in an afterschool program that helps kids succeed in school.
  6. When problems arise for your child, talk with other parents to learn how they’ve handled similar situations in a way that helped their child learn to deal with problems.

I want to point out that in some situations, parents do need to get heavily involved at school. When a child is having mental health issues, is being bullied or has a learning difference, parents need to get more involved with the school and other aspects of their child’s life in addition to using any of the above suggestions. We can’t always assume that a parent is being a lawnmower parent when we don’t know their child’s situation.

Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.

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