Tim Elmore: College admissions scandal -- Could free range parenting prevent the next disaster?

By now, you’ve heard or read about the largest college admissions scandal in American history. Dozens of affluent parents—including celebrities—are now being sentenced to jail time and fines for paying bribes to Rick Singer, who posed as a legitimate advisor.

But I believe the real culprits in this scandal were the snowplow parents.

The Consequences of Snowplow Parents

As the Millennial Generation grew up, we began hearing about the “helicopter parent.” As Generation Z comes of age, we’re now hearing a descriptive term for an even more intrusive form of parent: the “snowplow” parent.

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The term describes folks who are like machines clearing any obstacles in the path of their child’s success, even if their “plowing” is illegal. They navigate life for them, negotiate with teachers, exploit situations and even pay bribes to get their kid what they want from the system. Unfortunately, their children often never skin their knee or endure failure or frustration. It’s no wonder so many teens are unready for adulthood when it’s time.

Have we created a “snowflake” generation?

The snowflake generation is a term that’s caught on over the last five years as college students began demanding legislation for Halloween costumes and safe spaces from controversial speeches. The term describes the delicate, soft and even fragile population that’s coming of age ill-prepared to handle the challenges of adult life. The sad reality is:

Snowplow parents usually create snowflake generation.

What Free-Range Parenting Would Have Accomplished

I believe this scandal would have been avoided if these parents embraced a “free range” style. Free Range Parenting originated with Dr. Benjamin Spock in 1946 who encouraged parents to relax and allow age-appropriate risks for their children.

When you find yourself intruding in your teen’s life, ask yourself if helping them the way you feel is most natural is really going to help them down the road? Is helping them actually hurting them? Does your help disable them from learning hard lessons they’ll thank you for later?

States have begun to write laws to encourage “free-range parents” that allow kids to mature and figure life out—even applying for college. Lenore Skenazy endorsed it in her book, “Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.” The goal of free-range parenting is to gradually offer autonomy and responsibility to kids as they age. Later, when they encounter intimidating situations, they’ve already faced and overcome such scenarios. They are ready for life.

How to Move From Snowplow to Free Range Parenting:

1. Ease them toward independence while they are still living with you.

The safest time for kids to learn independence is when they’re still in a safe place called: mom and dad’s house. It’s like a simulator. When our two kids were in high school, my wife had them begin doing their laundry. We had them pay half when they wanted their own car and we taught them to resolve any conflicts they had between them by age 12. The best part was—they seemed to know how to do it when they left for college. They even applied to their college all by themselves.

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2. Combine autonomy with responsibility and increase them as they age.

The two ingredients that indicate maturity are autonomy (I can do this on my own) and responsibility (I will own this task as if it were my own). Whenever our kids wanted more autonomy, I always tried to combine that freedom with a corresponding responsibility, a sense of ownership of it. If they borrowed the family car, they paid for the gas they used. If they wanted the right to stay out later at night, they had to meet the current curfew first.

3. Don’t do for them what they should do for themselves.

Some student affairs staff tell me their student’s parents call them about topics the students should figure out by college. For instance, moms will call and ask what items are in the dining hall salad bar so they can choose what their kid should eat for lunch. Parents call or text to make sure their child is up and doesn’t miss class. Another parent intervened on a video chat to resolve a conflict her child had with a roommate over a stolen peanut butter jar. We delay their maturation when we do such tasks for them.

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4. Always ask yourself: Does helping them now hurt them in the long run?

This is a great accountability question for parents. When you find yourself intruding in your teen’s life, ask yourself if helping them the way you feel is most natural is really going to help them down the road? Is helping them actually hurting them? Does your help disable them from learning hard lessons they’ll thank you for later? When I speak at an event, I often use this phrase: The further out I can see into the future, the better the decision I make today for my child.

If our goal is to prepare our kids not just protect our kids, free range styles win.

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