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Bulldozer Parenting: When Helping Isn't Helpful

Bulldozer Parenting: When Helping Isn't Helpful

Parents' involvement in kids' lives has escalated to an extreme and it can have long-term negative effects on the child.

In 2019, Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were indicted for paying thousands of dollars to fix test scores and create fake athlete profiles for their daughters to secure their admission to top U.S. universities as part of the College Admissions Scandal. These days, it’s not uncommon to hear about a parent trying to coerce a teacher to raise her daughter’s grade or to see a fourth-grade science fair project that was clearly done by a 40-year-old. These over-involved parents are both examples of bulldozer parenting, and professionals believe their behavior is getting in the way of their children’s success. 

What is a Bulldozer Parent?

A bulldozer parent is someone who goes above and beyond to make their child’s life easier, according to Victoria Turner Turco, founder and president of Turner Educational Advising. While parents almost always have the best intentions when helping their kids succeed, their tactics can often cross ethical or even legal boundaries, like in the instance of Operation Varsity Blues (the college admissions scandal of 2019).

This trend likely started in the 1980s: When the country faced a heightened fear of stranger danger, parents began more closely organizing and monitoring their kids’ activities, according to Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult and former dean of freshmen at Stanford University. 

Playdates became popular—instead of letting kids run around outside with neighborhood friends, parents were more present and involved in their kids’ social lives.

“It’s like a snowball running downhill,” says Turner Turco, who wrote about preparing students for post-college life in 2019 for LINK for Counselors Magazine. “Once parents started organizing their children’s play, it wasn’t much longer until they were involving themselves in their children’s play.” 

Soon parents were choosing what instruments and sports the child should play, what hobbies they should have, what extracurriculars they should participate in, and of course, homework.  

Lythcott-Haims told The New York Times that while she was at Stanford, she saw students rely on their parents to set up “play dates” with other college students. “The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid,” she says.

When Has it Gone Too Far?

The problem with parent’s extreme efforts to ensure their child’s success is, it inevitably makes the child helpless, according to Turner-Turco. While no parent wants to see their child struggle, it’s important for kids to learn how to face failure, says Julie Morison, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and owner and director of HPA/LiveWell.

“If all adversity is taken from a child, they never learn how to problem solve, how to fail, or how to lose gracefully…bottom line is they don’t develop resilience,” Dr. Morison says. “It is thought that this type of parenting is causing an increase in depression and anxiety in college kids.”

In fact, kids raised by bulldozer parents develop low self-efficacy as they get older because they don’t believe in their own ability to manage challenges or difficult situations. And when that child is on his own in college and is faced with meeting his needs for the first time, he will likely struggle and become anxious or depressed. 

RELATED: This is Why We're Following a More Relaxed Homeschool Schedule

Changing Bulldozer Parent Behavior

Dr. Morison encourages parents to ask kids if they want help before offering it. Useful questions are: “Do you need me to help you solve this or do you want me to just listen?” or “What do you think you can do about this situation?” or “What are your options?” Allow your child to brainstorm solutions on her own and encourage her to ask others for what she needs.

"Parents who act as bulldozers want to get all adversity out of the child’s way and this implies that we see failure or struggle as bad,” Dr. Morison says. “Really, it can be reframed as an opportunity to grow.”

Instead, focus your attention on being your child’s support system, encouraging her as she encounters challenges. The “I can do this myself” attitude doesn’t change as children grow into teens, according to Dr. Morrison. In letting your child face her challenges on her own, you are teaching her to learn life skills she will need through adulthood. 

Turner Turco recalls the time her oldest daughter was cut from her middle school basketball team. That evening, she received a call from a concerned parent in the class deeming the decision unfair and offering to call the coach for her.

“Actually, it is fair. Katie isn’t as strong of a player as some of the other girls, and the coach wasn’t picking on her by not picking her,” Turner Turco recalls telling the concerned parent. “She needs to learn that she can’t always win.” 


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Melissa Wickes

Author: Melissa Wickes is a graduate of Binghamton University and the NYU Summer Publishing Institute. She's written hundreds of articles to help New York parents make better decisions for their families. When she's not writing, you can find her eating pasta, playing guitar, or watching reality TV. See More

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