Bulldozer Parental Impacts

My Sister-in-Law directed a play called “The Pain in the Itch” by Bruce Norris.  In it, the main character, an upper middle class American, Clay, describes to an African cab driver, Mr Hadid, how he wants to give his daughter “every advantage”.  Mr. Hadid notes that an advantage for one necessitates a disadvantage to another.  Clay vehemently denies this motivation, but Mr. Hadid stands by his words.  Clay, it seems, is the literary embodiment of the helicopter parent, who through blindness of amoral familism, cannot see the implications of his behavior.

The term “helicopter parent” was coined in 1990 by Jim Fay, parenting and educational consultant, and Foster W. Cline, MD, a psychiatrist, in the book  Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility..  It referred to a parent who hovers over a child in a way that runs counter to the parent’s responsibility to raise a child to independence.

Julie Lythcott- Haims: lists 4 cultural events or shifts which contributed and led to this:

*The 1981 child abduction of Adam Walsh which led to pictures on milk boxes and the TV show America’s Most Wanted, resulting in an obsession of protecting children from the unknown.

*The 1983 publication of “A Nation at Risk” led to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. It caused many to believe students were not being challenged enough in school.  It became a forerunner to the 2003 book  Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students written by Stanford School of Education lecturer Dr. Denise Pope, and the 2010 film Race to Nowhere.

*The Self-Esteem movement, a uniquely American phenomenon and

*The play date- where parents did not just observe but joined in children’s play.

She describes situations such as the parent who insists that their child find their passion and then… “Take it off the shelf and show it to the college people.”  She talked about the concierge parents who insist on making the child’s life as comfortable as possible so that he can excel in those areas that really matter… the stuff that shows up on the transcript.

There has been many articles noting that this level of parental involvement has intensified, finding its way into everything from pre-school classrooms to college campuses.  Anne Walker, one of the nation’s top golf coaches, noted the change over time from helicopter parents, who hover, to Velcro parents, to snow plow parents to bulldozer parents, the latter who push problems out of the way for their children so they do not experience discomfort, hardship or failure.

It is a whole new level of engagement and much, much worse. Helicopter parents prevent a child from dealing with things like loneliness, self-sufficiency, taking risks, etc. Bulldozer parents prevent children with dealing with obstacles and setbacks. Helicopter parents prevent kids from growing up; bulldozer parents actually prevent them from developing character.

This has led to a rise of many children who are fragile and not self-reliant, and also more fearful and less independent.  In the 1980’s, we started to see more students who acted differently than those before them.  They were much less frequently alone or unsupervised and had fewer opportunities to take risks.  As we progress through the 2000’s, we are seeing how this cultural shift has resulted in the formation of the character and personality of our children, with children less likely to take responsibility and more likely to seek blame for their shortcomings.

This is also antithetical to the needs of a developing adolescent.  Erik Erikson defined this period of storm and stress.  “If an adolescent fails to work on one’s own identity formation, it would result in role diffusion, alienation and a lasting sense of isolation and confusion.”In 1960, James Marcia expanded on Erikson’s work, noting that students who do not experience the traumas of identity development simply “foreclose” the crisis to a point in life where the consequences can be much greater.  He speaks to the high value of a “moratorium” where children can experience crises and failures to develop into adults.

Indeed, research has borne out that these increasing intense parenting styles are harming our children.  Reed, et al, noted that children with helicopter parents showed  low levels of self-efficacy, or the ability to handle some tougher life tasks and decisions.  Those who reported low levels of self-efficacy also reported higher levels of anxiety and depression, and lower life satisfaction and physical health.

The implications of this pervade the life of the child, but have particular relevance in the college admissions process.  Counselor Michael Thompson notes that, for many parents, this “ is the culmination of their child rearing, the end of the parental curriculum. What is the main testing ground of fears about incomplete or inadequate child rearing?:  the college admission process.  The frantic involvement of many parents in the process is a cover for this profound parental anxiety: Did I do a good job with this child? Did I do everything I needed to do for this child? Is this child prepared? Is this child going to have a good life? I have seen many laissez-faire parents, not much in evidence in the tenth and eleventh grade years, swoop back into their children’s lives at college admission time, trying to stuff all of their wisdom and discipline into helping their children at the last moment. What comes closest to getting graded as parents?:  the status of the college to which the child is admitted”.

We in the college admissions community, school counselors, independent consultants, college admissions officers, all have our place in making this a process that encourages rather than inhibits student growth.  Our job is to support students, not direct them.  As counselors, we need to provide students the tools to make their own decisions rather than controlling the process.

According to a study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies “Parents are sending an unintentional message to their children that they are not competent.” The study lists three elements that must be present in people’s lives for them to be happy: feeling autonomous, competent and connected to other people.

There are many things that we as counselors can do to help in the process.  

Karl Gode, in the Huffington Post gives some general recommendations for parents, including:

*Don’t bully your kids to do what you want by threatening to revoke money, love or whatever.

*Don’t meddle in their lives while they’re in school or after they graduate, unless they ask

*Do respect and trust your kids

*Support them when they fail without saying “I told you so.”

For those who counsel students, there are a few recommendations I might have:

*Provide regular and thorough information to parents.  Both high schools and colleges are providing parent portals for parents about academic and financial issues.  FERPA requires that students approve parent access on the college level.

*Give parent orientations and workshops to educate parents about their proper role in assisting students.  Many colleges are now separating parents from students during orientation and focusing on this vital issue.

*Provide dual enrollment opportunities in high school with less parental involvement and access.  I started programs at two high schools where students attend community college full time for the second semester and I told parents I would answer questions but all requests for action needed to be initiated by students.

*Use organizational tools like Next Tier or Naviance to help keep students organized without parental input.

*When advising parents during the college process, suggest a single night per week to discuss any college issues and and ask them not to have this discussion at any other times.

Perhaps most important, though, is to be firm, fair and consistent in all interactions with students and parents.  The parenting role was developed over many years and over-parenting will not be extinguished with any particular program, action or response.  

Though I had taken her on multiple overnight college tours, I tried to minimize my involvement in my own daughter’s college process.  One of my proudest moments as a parent was when she was being interviewed by our local paper for a scholarship she had won.  She was asked, since her father was an experienced college counselor, whether I had helped her in the process.  Her comment:  “he left me alone.”

As Rudyard Kipling wrote in the poem If:

If you can keep your head when all about you   

   Are losing theirs and blaming it on you….   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.




Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as swcollegeconsulting@gmail.com or 973-919-6798.

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