Monday 27 May 2019

Sarah Caden: 'Snowplough parents may well end up stuck'

Felicity Huffman is at the extreme end of snowplough parenting but we're all at it, writes Sarah Caden

Actress Felicity Huffman faces a prison sentence if convicted. Picture: Reuters
Actress Felicity Huffman faces a prison sentence if convicted. Picture: Reuters

Sarah Caden

When actress Felicity Huffman, still most widely known for her role in Desperate Housewives, was last month charged in relation to a college admissions bribery scandal, there weren't many who jumped to her defence.

Huffman's alleged crime was to pay $15,000 to ensure that her daughter was allowed extra time on her SAT test, which was then corrected by someone well-disposed to giving her a better score. The lack of sympathy for the actress was based, to a great extent, on the fact that she has wealth and status and could use these to smoothe the path for her little girl.

Huffman paid big money because she has big money, so everyone hated her for it. She could pay mightily in other ways too - if convicted, she potentially faces a five-year prison sentence. She has possibly also damaged her relationship with her daughter, who reportedly was innocent of Huffman's efforts.

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It was David Mamet, however - the writer and director with whom Huffman and her actor husband William Macy have worked many times - who came out most volubly in her defence.

He said he'd known the couple for 35 years, that he was "crazy about them both".

"That a parent's zeal for her children's future may have overcome her better judgment for a moment is not only unfortunate, it is - I know we parents would agree - a universal phenomenon."

And on varying levels, it is true that part of being a parent is a desire to protect our progeny. An extreme level of protection is the alleged buying of a college place, but the degree to which parents are now knocking obstacles out of our offsprings' paths is quite the modern phenomenon.

Snowplough parenting, as it is known, is not to be confused with the helicopter parenting of previous decades. After all, the helicopter style, which features constant hovering, interfering and micro-managing, is what gave us the snowflakes, and no one wants a repeat of that.

No, snowploughing seems to be a more subtle approach. Like helicoptering, it attempts to remove all nasty pressures from our young, but without their knowledge that it's occurring. So we snowplough, getting subtly ahead of them at every step, hurtling the obstacles away before they know they exist, giving them the sense that their life occurs on a smooth, forward, always-advancing trajectory.

The snowflakes were made weak by the knowledge that only mummy and daddy, the real adults, could manage the big, bad world. The snowplough kids are spared even knowing the world is big and bad. They just think it lies ahead, open and welcoming to them, while their parents are mostly likely rendered broke and broken by efforts they can't even admit too.

Because, obviously, if you're keeping the snowploughing from the kids, you can't make them feel guilty about it either. I know, it sounds entirely unnatural, but forget about Felicity Huffman and her 15 grand, so many of us are at it on micro levels.

You're snowploughing if you're ringing the school to complain that the homework doesn't suit your child's skillset. You're snowploughing if you're phoning the football coach to insist that they get a place in the team, regardless of whether they are subjectively deserving.

You are seriously snowploughing if you're contacting anyone in their university, especially if it's to say that the princess and the pea finds the mattresses in halls too lumpy.

They are the obvious examples of smoothing the path ahead, albeit in a discreet, even underhand manner. It ensures, with any luck, that the kids grow up believing in themselves and not beset with the anxieties of the snowflakes. Or that's the hope, anyway.

Then there are the tiny moves - less easily recognised than the big gestures. One feature that sums up the small gestures is making mini-mes of our children.

We are grooming them, with social media as a massive tool for this, into training them for adulthood during childhood.

The most visibly obvious effect of this is the way many of us now dress our children. We don't dress them as children used to be dressed, which was functionally, in hand-me-downs, in clothes that knew nothing of fashion or trends.

Instead, many parents now dress their kids by the same standards as they dress themselves. In fact, many children now have fundamentally the same fashion sense as their parents. And, if budgets stretch to it, their clothes budget isn't wildly different.

Kim Kardashian's daughter North West is an extreme example, but there's no need to look that far for an example.

From birth, we want our children to be cool and stylish and regarded as possessing good taste.

Initially, it's taste that we impose on them, because we buy the clothes, but with luck it takes and they are then stylish beings from the get-go and then, phew, bypass any of those awkward stages and phases that besmirched our own pasts and family photo albums.

Yes, that is snowploughing, while the bonus ego-boost for the parents comes with comments such as, "Oh my God, you look like sisters" or "She/he is so your mini-me".

Before we are too hard on ourselves for snowploughing, we need to grasp where we parents are coming from. Many of us reach parenthood a good decade later than our parents did, and this surely plays a part. Today's parents, who have babies in their mid- to late-30s, come to their 40s as their children are at primary- and secondary-school age.

As the parents reach the decades where they stop worrying so much about what other people think, they see the world bearing down with all its harsh realities on their kids. And all the parents can think is how much better it would be if the kids could dodge all the difficult decades and just get straight to the good stuff.

We know, too, that it's going to be more difficult for our children to get to the good stuff. In the case of Felicity Huffman, she allegedly seemed to feel that in the face of massive well-publicised competition for a limited number of college places, she needed to buy an advantage.

The average parent hears constantly that our children may never own a home, and almost definitely will never have a permanent and pensionable job. They may never possess the pillars of security that mean so much to us and to our parents before us, and that bothers us. We want to make that right. Efforts to make that right are, of course, efforts to impose our ideas upon our children, but it's for their own good, right?

They're too young to know that a good education, accomplishments and a well-rounded collection of interests will support them in later life, so we need to slot those things in place for them. They'll thank us later. Or maybe not, if they never find out.

The motivation to snowplough is sincere, but the result may just be a variation of the snowflakes, about whom today's generation of parents are so scathing.

And if anyone expects that they'll thank us for these efforts, then we should think again. The parents will get the blame rather than the gratitude - that's the only pattern that remains constant.

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