Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Lawnmower Parents

Written by: on May 15, 2019

HAPPY Mother’s Day! Today is Mother’s Day, and I am on a vacation airplane to San Diego with the beautiful mother of my two children. Planes aren’t a bad place for me to read our weekly book, especially with Lisa’s sleepy head resting on my shoulder. On the title page of this week’s reading, I immediately focused my eyes on the book’s dedication, “For our mothers, who did their best to prepare us for the road. JOANNA DALTON LUKIANOFF, ELAINE HAIDT (1931–2017).” [1] This fit in perfectly with what I wanted to write about this week, specifically with parents doing their best to prepare children for the road.

Most of us have heard of “helicopter parents” with their incessant hovering over their children, never letting the kids experience anything on their own. As a coach and referee for the last 30 years, mainly in basketball and soccer, I have witnessed many parents helicoptering when my teaching or calling did not match up to their expectations. Take little Johnny out of the game and ask him to play a tad harder on defense, or make a call on sweet Suzi for high kicking and WATCH OUT for the wrath of the helicopter blades…

Now with travel teams and parent expectations at an all time high for a potential college scholarship, even as young as elementary school, a new descriptor has entered the scene. We now have “lawnmower parents”, which was new one to me. What is a lawnmower parent? Helicopter parents hover over their child; lawnmower parents are one step ahead. They don’t just hover, assessing danger — they make sure their children experience no danger or obstacles to begin with, by moving ahead of their child and clearing the way, like with a lawnmower. [2]

Greg Lukianoff with Jonathan Haidt, in CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND: HOW GOOD INTENTIONS AND BAD IDEAS ARE SETTING UP A GENERATION FOR FAILURE, explain in Chapter 9 titled “The Decline of Play”, “…the brain is ‘expecting’ the child to engage in thousands of hours of play—including thousands of falls, scrapes, conflicts, insults, alliances, betrayals, status competitions, and acts of exclusion—in order to develop. Children who are deprived of play are less likely to develop into physically and socially competent teens and adults.” [3] Both helicopter parents, and worse yet, lawnmower parents, deprive their children any blood loss or broken skin to “protect” their precious bundle of joy, but may be harming them in the long run.

My purest memories of sports was not in the organized play of my college basketball or soccer teams. Rather, they were in my backyard as a child with no parents, referees or coaches close by. Us neighborhood kids made up the rules of many a game, yelling at the tops of our lungs, taking risks and getting bruised in the process. No one told us to watch out for glass shards in the field of play, we figured it out for ourselves, and benefitted later in life because of it.

Was I too protective as a parent? Probably, especially with my firstborn, and a daughter at that. I loosened up with child number two, maybe a little more because he was a boy. If I had 7 children like my parents, I for sure couldn’t have cared less, due to parental exhaustion. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a perfect parent (just ask my son) but at least I understood the blessings of unstructured time.

I already respected Jonathan Haidt, after prior reading of his book, THE RIGHTEOUS MIND: WHY GOOD PEOPLE ARE DIVIDED BY POLITICS AND RELIGION. Now I am an even bigger fan, especially when I read the cautions to avoid, “Childhood as Test Prep” [4] and “The Resume Arms Race” [5]. Today, free play is replaced with more homework, more technology, and more parental structure. Why? According to Lukianoff, for the almighty college scholarship and admission. In fact, we are pressurizing college expectations at an even earlier age, “In response to things like the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, state preschool standards, a general emphasis on testing, and then the introduction of Common Core standards, the preschool and kindergarten landscape has changed enormously. [6] I was always taught that 70% of kids would not need a four year college degree, rather they would benefit from a certificate or technical training in countless industries where job possibilities are at a premium, like mining, welding, or computer repair.

I kinda understand how we got here—“The decline in free play was likely driven by several factors, including an unrealistic fear of strangers and kidnapping (since the 1980s); the rising competitiveness for admission to top universities (over many decades); a rising emphasis on testing, test preparation, and homework; and a corresponding deemphasis on physical and social skills (since the early 2000s).” [7]

Sure, not everyone agrees with these two authors. says the Atlantic, “It may be possible to coddle more with some aspects of child raising, for instance trigger warnings from microagressions. [8]



But, the closing of chapter 9 is a real jewel in my opinion, when it powerfully explains, “Free play helps children develop the skills of cooperation and dispute resolution…upon which democracies depend. When citizens are not skilled in this art, they are less able to work out the ordinary conflicts of daily life. They will more frequently call for authorities to apply coercive force to their opponents. They will be more likely to welcome the bureaucracy of safetyism. [10]

Safetyism! Something to be concerned about, but not something to consume over. I am going to let my grandkids make a few more mistakes as I encourage them to play, maybe even a little recklessly. Take a few risks, bump your noggin. Just don’t tell Grandma.

[1] Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure. Allen Lane, 2018. xi.

[2] Clark, Nancy. Five Signs You Might Be A Lawnmower Parent: and what you can do to fix it. firstforwomen.com. November 4, 2018. Assessed May 12, 2019.

[3] Lukainoff and Haidt. 182.

[4] Ibid., 186.

[5] Ibid., 189.

[6] Ibid., 188.

[7] Ibid. 194.

[8] Haidt, Jonathan, and Greg Lukianoff. “The Coddling of the American Mind – The Atlantic.” SoundCloud, September 2015. Accessed May 15, 2019. https://soundcloud.com/user-154380542/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind-the-atlantic-greg-lukianoff-and-jonathan-haidt.

[9] The Atlantic. Ibid.

[10] Lukianoff and Haidt. 194.

About the Author

Jay Forseth

Superintendent of the Western Conference of the Evangelical Church. Blessed with 28 years as the husband of my amazing wife who I can't make it without. Now three of four in our family are attending University, but both my children are way smarter than me.

10 responses to “Lawnmower Parents”

  1. Greg says:

    Hey Jay. I used “snowplow parents” in my blog (same idea) though I didn’t deal with the concept as you did. I agree that parents in the states don’t in some areas of the country allow the freedom of play. I was fascinated by the whole peanut allergy discussion and how studies have shown keeping peanuts from kids at a young age has increased the peanut allergies. How often do we do things that we view as helpful only to find out that we have created a bigger problem?

    I love you focus on free play and creativity. We also probably protected our kids too much. We did try to let them build tents in the living room, roam our apartment complexes without supervision and make independent decisions as much as we felt comfortable doing. I will say that when we were back in the US the fear of weirdos harming our kids made us create US rules separate from what we normally did. Finding that balance of protecting our kids and still giving them space to succeed is a challenge that I believe our children will continue to face.

  2. Jason Turbeville says:

    The closing of your post in the end of the book speaks for itself. We see that in the lack of political discourse from both sides and the villainizing of anyone who thinks differently. I truly am amazed at just how far we have fallen as a society. Do you think there is any going back?


  3. Great post Jay, and extra early! I thought it was funny that you talked about the lawnmower parent and Chris talked about the snowplow parent, you guys are in sync (not the boy band) ? I think you both are right in many ways, parents are not teaching their kids resilience, they are setting them up to not be able to handle anything hard. I also loved how you highlighted the need for free play for our kids and how that prepares them to be better functioning, society-contributing adults. Hope you had a nice vacation with your wife…you deserve it.

  4. Dan Kreiss says:


    I picked up on the idea of ‘free play’ as well and was actually thankful that much of my own children’s early years were spent in New Zealand where parents were a little less anxious and my kids had free reign of the neighborhood. Imagine our shock when we moved to the US and found a completely different culture. Parents scolding us because our kids were playing our front without supervision etc. Or letting our daughter spend a semester abroad as a Junior in High School.

    Anyway, I have certainly noticed the over emphasis on organized sports as a college coach and the pressure parents put on to give them a scholarship. I think the over emphasis on organized sports also has impacted the issue of obesity in the US as few just play for its own sake and if you don’t ‘make the team’ many tend to just stop activity.

    It will be interesting to see how the next generation handles things and if the pendulum will swing back again.

  5. Great post, Jay!

    You’re opening paints such a beautiful picture of your wife. I can’t believe that we’ll all meet again in London within the next few months. I can’t wait!

    I was blessed to be brought up by highly independent and older parents. This gave me the ability to experience a paradox of Millennial safetyism and independent play. Especially as an only child, I had two choices: 1) Be bored and complain about not having a playmate or 2) Self-soothe and make friends.

    The one downfall that I see with open play is that it usually keeps children within the safety of their peers and not exposed to varied ages. What are some of the benefits of intergenerational ‘play’ that is purposed?

  6. Mike says:

    Helicopter to Lawnmower parenting. In either case, there is a fast-moving blade that can cause a lot of damage if it gets to close to anyone or anything that asks their kids to take responsibility for their actions? Now we have microaggressions, trigger warnings, and safetyism. We need a new encyclopedia for sure.
    Did you ever watch the 1993 movie Demolition Man? Of course, you did. That is about the right time when the iGen began getting parented by helicopter parents and the new lawnmower behavior that you experienced as a coach. At least they have not implemented the “three shells” yet!
    Great post,
    Stand firm,
    Mike w

  7. Jean Ollis says:

    Jay – you are on VACATION – so happy for you! Can’t wait to see you and Lisa soon! You, more than any of us, can speak to the craziness of sports these days. At some point, parents began to live vicariously through their kids activities. I have never been able to relate. Ron and I moved out of town (and by town I mean 1000 people) when the kids were young because I wanted them to play, take risks, get dirty, have animals…all those things that help kids connect with nature and creative play. It was the best decision! I don’t know how to change our present trajectory in society but I think we should start by evaluating our values. Sports are great but not to the excess they are at right now! Great ending by the way…your perspective is excellent!

  8. Kyle Chalko says:

    Nice. Great ending. I grew up hearing “dont tell your mother ;D” and I knew something pretty cool was about to follow whenever I heard that.

    What Im left thinking about now is what is good resilence training, and what are things that should be in the safetyism zone.

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