MEL'S MUSINGS: Which kind of parent will you be: helicopter, snowplow or glacier?

Mel Olson
Mel Olson

When I was in high school, a miracle happened: the girl of my dreams agreed to go on a date with me to dinner and a movie.

I didn’t have my own car, so I endured the Gestapo interrogation of my parents as to the time, place, distance, passenger, plans, etc., and after two hours of intense grilling under hot lights I had permission to use the car.

At last, the Friday in question arrived. As I was preparing to leave, there were my parents with their coats on.

“Where are you going?” I inquired. “To dinner and the movies with you,” my mother replied.

I looked at my dad, the trickster, and burst out laughing “That’s funny!” as I swept past them out the door.


Unfortunately it was no joke. They accompanied me on the date, over my protests and to my everlasting shame. My dream girl was a good sport about it; nevertheless, it was all over school, like fleas on a dog, on Monday.

I never lived it down and refused to date again in high school, much to my mother’s mystification. My folks, Mom especially, were helicopter parents.

I was introduced to Captains Courageous in seventh grade English class. The 1937 film stars Freddie Bartholomew as a spoiled rich kid named Harvey, and Spencer Tracy in the role of a Portuguese fisherman called Manuel, for which he won his first Oscar. Harvey’s mother has died and his father is rich.

Dad is busy making money and doesn’t really know how to relate to Harvey, so he uses money as a surrogate for love. He buys Harvey out of trouble and eventually into a position as editor of the school paper.

The father takes Harvey on a luxury cruise in order to bond with the boy, realizing that his values are being twisted by money and well-meaning, but ill-conceived, parental obstacle clearing. Harvey falls overboard, luckily picked up by a passing fishing boat. The rest of the film has Manuel showing Harvey the value of hard work; self-worth brought on by individual achievement, true friendship and love based on something other than what another can buy for you.

It is one of my favorite films. It is also a perfect example of how snowplow parenting habitually produces the opposite result of its intention.

The best kind of parent is the glacier parent. They are the parents who are always available but generally non-interventionist, not the kind of parents clearing obstacles for or hovering around their brood.

In nature, glaciers appear not to move, but do, imperceptibly. Glacier parents realize that their childrearing language, style, rewards and consequences must slowly evolve as their youngsters reach different stages of life.


Child development research has shown that if you’re going to be a stay-at-home parent for only one portion of your child’s life, the time to do it is not when they are toddlers. No, the time to do it is when they are teenagers, during their period of growing independence, weathering their raging hormones and emotional diatribes.

Glacier parents understand that most suffering has to be faced by their children alone and that facing the music now, when the stakes and consequences are usually lower, can be the temporarily painful lesson that warns offspring away from really serious future misfortune.

I’m sure those snowplow parents who were caught buying their children’s way into elite universities with counterfeit SAT scores and false athletic accomplishments thought they were doing their adolescents a favor.

If you’re always hovering, kids don’t learn self-sufficiency. If you’re always snowplowing, young people learn a false sense of entitlement leading to genuine disaster later in life.

The children of glacier parents come home for the holidays. Helicopter parents regularly find their descendants living in the basement. Snowplow parents’ progeny often end up in prison. Which kind of parent will you be this year?

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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