"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Snowplow Parents

I had never heard the term ‘Snowplow Parents’ before, but when I found out what it meant – parents who resolve problems for the their children, making their way easier – it made sense.  I have known plenty of them. Their strategies and approaches might have changed over the decades, but they are still out there.

Margaret Planter was the mother of one of my classmates at Belmont Country Day.  Bobby Planter was as dumb as a stone and was only admitted because the Planters were descendants of the founder of the school, Rogers C. Belmont, industrialist, leading citizen of the community, and philanthropist.  He felt that a private country day school would be a refuge from the public school system and a welcome addition to the old-monied West End neighborhood families. The Bishop, Langford, Thomas, and Stanley children would no longer have to rub elbows with the sons and daughters of mill workers.

For many years Belmont Country Day had few academic standards.  If you were from the right family, you got in.  It was always assumed that success breeds success, and that the offspring of the well-to-do would inherit their parents’ genes for intelligence, enterprise, and discipline.  This of course was a pleasant fiction.  Genes are funny things, and nasty bits from ne’er-do-well forbearers had a way of gumming up the works.  It was always said that Bobby Planter’s great-uncle Harold had been the black sheep of the family back in the day – a ‘philandering reprobate’ his parents always said when genealogy was discussed, never imagining that any of his DNA would show up in their own family.  Of course there is no way to prove that any of the defective strands of genetic material got entwined with Bobby’s, but it was a convenient excuse.

In any case, the Planter boy was not only thick, but obtuse as well. He picked his nose in Latin class, tripped underclassmen on the stairs, never flushed the toilet, and got Incompletes on all his tests.  The teachers, acting on the advice of the principal, never failed Bobby Planter because of his family and the sizeable contributions they made every year to the building fund; but everyone knew that the situation was untenable.

Enter what I now know was my first Snowplow Parent. Margaret Planter was known in the lingo of those days as ‘a tough cookie’. In other words, unlike the more retiring housewives of the Fifties, she was a barking, intimidating woman.  She was the one who wore the pants in her house; the one who bullied and abused her husband, kicked the dog, and yelled at the neighbors.  When Henry Steele, the Principal of Belmont Country Day saw her coming, his first instinct was to hide.   “I can’t take it anymore”, he said to his deputy.  “But what can I do?”.

“I want you to shape my boy up”, she hollered as soon as she had entered the Principal’s office. “No more E’s, no more rambunctious behavior.  I want you to turn him into a proper West End child.  And I’ll be watching you.”

In other words, she took in loco parentis to its logical extreme.  She couldn’t be bothered with Great Uncle Harold’s descendant, and if Belmont Country Day wanted any more generosity from her, they better damned well do what she said.

“I don’t care if you have to beat the living daylights out of him”, Mrs. Planter said, “or lock him up in a dark closet.  I want results”.

This all happened a long time before the category of Special Needs Children had been created, and no teacher had been trained in dealing with obstreperous, undisciplined, dumb students.  “Use your imagination”, said Henry Steele, “and leave the rest to me.”  He took Margaret Planter at her word, and for the first time that any of his colleagues could remember, he became a sadistic jailer.  All the frustrations at having to put up with the West End airheads who lived off their inheritances, summered on the Vineyard and had soirees at the Country Club every Saturday were released with a vengeance.

These were the days when no watchdogs were keeping teachers in line, ‘abuse’ featured in no one’s vocabulary, and shaming, isolation, expulsion, and humiliation were all options open and available.

“Let me out of here”, shouted Bobby Planter from the broom closet. “I will tell my mother!”

“Ha”, said Henry Steele. “Go right ahead and tell that succubus.  Little good it will do you”.

And so it went. Bobby’s knuckles got whacked whenever he started to pick his nose, the math teachers tripped him on the top step of the stairs when he bullied the girls; and the football coach was told to spare no pain when using him as a blocking dummy.

When Bobby began to realize that the punishment at school was permanent, and that he could expect no solace or refuge at home, he started to change.  His behavior became more compliant and socialized. While far from a model student, he was at least amenable to school routine and discipline.

“Now we can begin on that sorry excuse of a mind”, said the Principal; and Bobby was given special tutoring to bring him up to snuff.  Henry Steele was surprised when Bobby actually made progress.  He could add and subtract after all, and even manage some basic algebraic equations. He was dumb to be sure, but not as dumb as everyone had thought.

During all this, Mrs. Planter had become a feature at the school.  She became hall monitor, class disciplinarian, and academic watchdog.  “That’s more like it”, she said in an aside to the Principal when Bobby raised his hand instead of throwing his ruler at the teacher. “He’s showing definite improvement”,.

Today’s Snowplow Parents are of an entirely different breed. In an era of inclusivity, special needs, self-esteem, anti-bullying, and multiple intelligences they have learned how to game the system.  With a carefully-crafted strategy of threat (there are a lot of lawyers in Washington) and support (“Mrs. Jones, you are doing a fine job with little Sarah, and I will be sure to let the Principal know”), these modern-day parents have been very successful.  They can rest assured that their children will be coddled, propped up, defended, and promoted.

Jane Tally was one such Snowplow Parent, cut from the same mold at Margaret Planter, just armed with different tools. “I heard that Jonathan was bullied on the playground today”, she said angrily to the Principal of her son’s elementary school. “And I want it stopped confestim”.  The thinly-veiled threat of her lawyer Latin was not lost on the school; and Jonathan had adult bodyguards accompanying him every recess.

She convinced school administrators to divert Special Needs monies which were ordinarily designated for slow learners, to her child.  She demanded a math resource teacher, and the school engaged a math major from American University to tutor Jonathan in geometry.  When she felt his self-esteem was dropping, she engineered a special award to be given to him at mid-year.  It was to be called the Proctor F. Higgins Award for Outstanding Citizenship.  Higgins was a long-dead alumnus of the school who went on to start a clothing company in Anacostia before the neighborhood turned bad.

Mary O’Dell’s children went to Catholic school, so her Snowplow Parenting had to take a different tack.  She happened to be friends with the Archbishop of the Diocese – they had both gone to Georgetown together – and she carefully curried favor with him since graduation.  She was active in the Catholic community and enthusiastically supported him on his way up the Vatican ladder.  When he was appointed Archbishop, she hosted a large lawn party for him to which Washington’s most influential Catholics were invited.  It was a grand affair.

She called in her markers when her son, Michael started school at St. Anthony’s; and she endured that her modestly-talented son got all the privileges the school could confer on a student.  He was selected to represent his school at the Regional Science Fair event though his experiment was far from the best.  He went to the Model UN, and got to meet the President of the United States and the First Lady.

Carolyn O’Laughlin, writing in the Washington Post (12.21.13) writes about these Snowplow Parents, but thinks that their well-meaning attempts to promote their children’s interest could backfire:

The everyday obstacles of living and learning in a college community — conflict, disappointment, discomfort — are awkward and messy but necessary. Development of a person’s identity, confidence and competence requires the ability to deal with adversity. When well-intentioned parents plow through obstacles, they often bury their child’s ability to clear the next path.

She is absolutely right.  I have always had a perverse interest in Bobby Planter and have tried to follow his life trajectory.  Apparently he made it through Loomis, although his mother helped things along there as well; but failed miserably at Colby, and then went completely off the rails.  When his parents died the genes of Great Uncle Harold kicked in fully, and he became just like him.  He lived well off of his parents’ considerable inheritance, but when it ran out, he relied on the wealth of gullible Main Line matrons.

Jonathan Tally fared little better.  He was a classmate of my daughter, and she followed him on Facebook. None of the special attention paid him throughout elementary and junior high took at all.  He managed to get in to Bullis, a second-rate private school in Washington known more for sports than academics, but he failed after his sophomore year.  He enrolled at Montgomery Community College, pejoratively known as MK, where he studied art, and eventually got a job in Meridian, Mississippi designing cute banner ads for a local grocery chain,.

Neither of my kids have seen hide nor hair of Michael O’Dell nor heard anything about him.  There was a rumor that he had joined the priesthood and had been dunned out because of sexual abuse; but that was quickly scotched by his mother.  “Oh, Michael’s doing fine”, she said to her fellow parishioners every Sunday.  “Just fine”.

So on the basis of my small-sample anecdotal evidence, I would have to agree with Carolyn O’Laughlin that Snowplow Parenting is not a good thing.  She is right that children should be allowed to make their own way.  They should be bullied on the playground to prepare them for a rude, bullying world. They should never be told that they are better than they are so that they can be prepared for failure. In other words let them compete on a level playing field, and let the talented, fully able, and enterprising rise to the top.

This will never happen, of course.  This is America after all, and Snowplowing is common everywhere.  We are taught from a very early age to take advantage of every opportunity, take every advantage, use every possible tool and stratagem to get ahead.  Laissez-faire simply doesn’t cut it.

I stopped by the park to watch a Little League game last Spring and saw the parents gang up on the coach because the team was losing so badly.  I never expected such venom and bile to be spewed by otherwise genteel neighbors.  They were not Snowplowing.  They were bludgeoning, but the goal was the same.

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