Domestic Cozy: 4

This entry is part 4 of 13 in the series Domestic Cozy

I came across a phrase in the coverage of the admissions scandals now plaguing several elite US universities: snowplow parenting. The phrase refers to a particular kind of contemporary active parenting that focuses on clearing obstacles from the paths of Gen Z children. The phrase is an interesting hardening of the idea of helicopter parenting, which parents of Millennials were accused of in the 90s.

The difference between helicopter and snowplow parenting is the difference between peacetime social ambition and a wartime circling of wagons around kinship interests.

Helicopter parents, I suspect, fought to give their kids an unfair leg up in a system they saw as essentially meritocratic and fair, during a decade (the 90s) that was widely viewed as prosperous. It was a covered call bet on a society that was perceived to be winning overall.

Snowplow parents, on the other hand, I suspect want to give their kids an unfair leg up in a system they see as essentially corrupt, during a decade and half (2008-24) that they view as a slow collapse. It is shorting of a society that is perceived to be losing overall.

What does it even mean to short society? In the case of university admissions scandals, I suspect it means, “use my wealth and social capital to get my kid a prestigious degree while that still means something.”

Timing is more critical in a short bet after all, and it is easier to justify participating in unambiguous corruption; you can pretend you’re just getting your share of harvestable value from something that’s already dying.

Snowplow parenting is an interesting metaphor. There is the sense of harsh outdoor conditions full of obstacles that require clearing to create comfortable survival conditions.

Winter has arrived. Snow must be cleared to achieve a state of domestic cozy.

Series Navigation<< Domestic Cozy: 3Domestic Cozy: 5 >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

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  1. Glenn Runnalls says

    Having worked in Student Services, i would suggest 2 distinctions between helicopter and snowplow parenting. 1) Helicopter parenting swoops in after the fact to protect child when something goes wrong; snowplow parenting pushes ahead of the child to make sure that everything goes right. 2) Children are almost always aware (and resentful) of helicopter parents at work; children can be oblivious to what their parents are doing to/ for them

  2. Maynard Handley says

    Do we have good reason to believe that this is a real distinction rather than availability heuristic? We know that a few apparently less than well qualified candidates from the past found their way into top-tier universities and likewise, whether GWB and the Texas Air Guard or DT with his bone spurs/

    One can imagine two claims:
    – more parents today are behaving “this way” (however defined; some sort of influence peddling on behalf of their kids) than was the case one, or two, or three generations ago
    – the parents doing so today are doing so with a different mindset, and with different expectations, than in the past.

    I’d have to see numbers to believe the first claim; my prior would be that it’s always been so and the only thing that may have changed is that the scope of behavior one can get away with without going into illegal (or severe public shaming) territory has somewhat narrowed.

    As for the second claim, I don’t know how one would prove it without careful ethnographic studies (or at the very least some surveys). I’m not sure the extent to which apparent widespread claims about the imminent end of civilization are simply cheap signaling; few making these claims are actually doing anything about them, whether that’s filling a cabin in Montana with firearms, or stocking up on purchased Panamanian or Maltese or suchlike passports. We heard similar such claims in the 70s (just a few years after “The Greening of America”) but they were mostly gone by the late 80s.

  3. Joseph Rhea says

    This basic idea and Maynard’s counter are both reasonable: it’s possible that parents back then did the same kinds of things as parents now do, and also that the kind of effort needed to achieve the same result is different/harder. The “peacetime” and “wartime” model captures something; at risk of straining the terms, helicopter parenting vs snowplow parenting seems like the difference between parenting in civilization and in barbarism.

    Think about the American elite of, say, two generations ago: it’s basically one meta-country-club where 1) anyone with a top Ivy League degree is at most three phone calls away from anyone else, and 2) everyone in the meta-club knows how the game works. If Dad makes the right call to the right guy who knows a guy at Yale, Junior’s little DUI can be swept under the rug and everything’s square. That’s civilization: whether it’s virtuous or corrupt, the people on the inside play the game together and take care of one another.

    By contrast, in barbarism, you don’t have the giant web of trust to support you anymore. There’s no meta-country-club, at least for the nouveau riche. Privilege isn’t a guaranteed inheritance; it’s ripped from other barbarians, or at least pillaged before the other barbarians take it first.

    A snowplow parent doesn’t necessarily think the world is collapsing, but they do operate under “barbaric” assumptions: to take care of me and my tribe, I have to muscle out the privileges I can.

  4. I don’t have kids, but I suppose it may be relevant that I made a pact with myself during childhood that I wouldn’t start a family without first breaking into the upper middle class. In present-day America, life without unfair advantages is a sucker’s game. Thank God I’m child-free.

    • Ralph W Witherell says

      I made the same deal w myself at my Mom’s urging when I was young. Just sending off my second kid, at 24, into the world. I and I think they are both better off for my adhering to it. Raising kids is challenging in a lot of ways including money but in fairness to urself and the kids it’s important to be able to reasonably fund a life if ur going to create one

  5. I’m not sure there is much qualitative difference between a “helicopter” and “snowplow” parent, there might be a difference in terms of the sophistication of services that have developed to service the same parental impulses to manage their children’s lives, but I don’t think that’s the key here.

    I would suggest that to the extent that a different metaphor feels justified, it is essentially due to force, not to differences in timing (helicopter parents attempted to pre-empt problems for their children before).

    I’m also not convinced that the networking among those with wealth or influence in order to improve their children’s prospects has really diminished either, any more than people have suddenly become more sexually abusive now that the “me too” thing has been going on.

    At the risk of continuing my endlessly applicable “It’s just the internet” hypothesis, I would guess that the particular news about people rigging their children’s opportunities, and the threats it poses to the image of meritocracy, come not from substance, but from changes of evidence:

    In the absence of hard evidence of cheating, or the effectiveness of these procedures, parents’ efforts to manoeuvre their children into positions of security can be treated as an obsession or character flaw. And that hard evidence appears because people are doing things in writing rather than in person, and just like nudes being leaked, or sexual aggressiveness being widely reported, privacy is in general more porous than it was, and events more easily documented.

    It seems some irony to me that the article is able to swerve from “trophies for everyone” to “education is becoming more competitive”, without seeing the contradiction between those terms, simply because both oppose their preferred thesis “children need to fail”.

    The difference between the helicopter, hovering ineffectually over the child, and the snow plow clearing the way in front of them, is that the latter, within it’s metaphor, actually gets results. The parents seeking special privileges for their children actually manage to get them, letting them fail in early adulthood when they work for a bank, whereas those poorer children have a breadth of experiences of failure that, whatever their existential value, don’t happen to look as good on a CV. In fact, turning away from a life of privilege and status, implicitly marking your new venture as of higher status, or yourself as understanding things of higher moral value, can be a selling point unavailable to people who never worked for goldman sachs.

    Many individual forms of helicopter parenting may be counterproductive, but the essential argument that parents seeking to shield and protect their children are acting against natural development is something that may be one of those things people wish was true, rather than actually is.

    For example, do we coddle our young more than other primates? Almost definitely, and it’s distinctive how useless and unable to care for themselves a human toddler is relative to an orangutan or chimpanzee of the same age. In comparison to these species, even in terms of relative lifespan, we rob our children of years life foraging for themselves while we put food on their table.

    Indeed, the article even suggests that opportunities for character building failure may be a service that parents schools or tutors can provide to their children, though this is portrayed as an example of people recognising that building a constructed environment around them has gone too far, rather than a destabilisation of the distinction on which the article depends:

    If the snowplow parent, or as I prefer it, the terraforming parent, can even, intensively and proactively, provide their children with prepared opportunities to fail, developing the appropriate capacities independently, then talking about conventional unoptimised failures like dropping plates could be considered instead a kind of organic, rustic character building, like claiming that your slightly sour wine and wrinkled apples are superior to the carefully climate controlled ones because of the inherent randomness in their production.

    And that might be true, the previously linked interview suggests that this attempt to fire a child into the orbit of significant wealth can be at the detriment of more slowly developed experimentation in their own affective priorities, what they actually like and want, but it may well achieve its goals of shaping their character and abilities into those that are compatible with the positions in the current economy that would give them the influence to act on those priorities, once they work out what they are. In a very real sense, the problem is not that they aren’t “preparing their children for the world”, but they are particularly preparing them, as much as their own income allows, for the onerous but increasingly commercially served requirements for membership and operation within the tenth decile of the wealth distribution.

  6. What does it even mean to short society? In the case of university admissions scandals, I suspect it means, “use my wealth and social capital to get my kid a prestigious degree while that still means something.”

    Yes, but isn’t this indicative of a neurotic ‘class consciousness’? Even millionaries strive for nothing but imitating the upward mobility within mass society. Spending 1.2 Mio for a son to become a soccer player … A Louis XIV is severely missing, bending those debased petty aristocrats to his court for a little education in tastes, manners and arts. “Ivy league” means little if it isn’t their league exclusively – and they don’t need to become researchers or atheletes more than becoming craftspeople or shop sellers. The duties of their kids is to keep the money in the family and give birth to healthy children to extend the line. If they share the pleasures of the proles when they are young, this might be fine, as long as they still know what is up and down. If they actually want to live a middle class life, disinherit them.

  7. My 16 year old daughter attends a private school that was carefully chosen based on her specific temperament and interests; her father and I have paid for this cocoon by borrowing against our home equity. The public high school up the road is considered the worst in the largest city of the country. At high school my girl drinks herbal tea during class, and eats wheels of brie (her own ‘quirk’). I read my daughter Aesop’s Fables each night before I kiss her on the forehead, stroke her hair, then turn out the light. She loves it – and it somehow feels like the right thing for me to do. Last night she casually mentioned that her and all her friends expect to be dead by 2050.

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