Are You A Lawnmower Dad?

Photo by Daniel Watson on Unsplash

Welcome to the LatinoDad College Series in partnership with Quetzal Mama to bring you guidance on getting your kids on the college track.

Quetzal Mama

Before you get mad thinking I’m stereotyping Latino Dads as gardeners and landscapers, hold up.  It’s not that kind of dad.  I’m talking about the type of Latino dad who plows down any obstacle or hardship in their child’s path, a ‘lawnmower dad’.  When their kid is distressed because of homework overload, Lawnmower dads go into plow mode.  Or, when their child is having personal conflicts with peers at school, they start revving up their lawnmowers.  They do this because they’re loving fathers and believe protecting their kids from adversity is going to make them happier.  They want to clear the path, so their kids can glide through life without the challenges they grew up with.

catering and coddling our kids when they’re in distress doesn’t help anyone – Dr. Ocampo

But, shifting into lawnmower dad mode is a bad idea.  To better explain how the lawnmower parent (yes, mamás do this too!) is dangerous, let me a share a quick story.  This past week during my walk, a woman in front of me abruptly stopped because her son threw himself on the ground.  This little guy wanted something and began crying.  Instead of telling him to get up and keep going, she bent down and tried to comfort him.  And then, she actually started negotiating with her 4 year-old.  Chew on that for a while.

Watching this tantrum told me this wasn’t the first time this kid was acting out.  He learned that if he threw himself on the floor in public, mom would jump.  I wanted to tell her that catering and coddling our kids when they’re in distress doesn’t help anyone.  In fact, these same kids grow up to metaphorically throw themselves on the floor in their jobs, marriages, and in other challenging situations.  They didn’t learn the skills to “suck it up” and figure out how to move through a challenge, obstacle, or crisis.  What they learned is that if they don’t get their way, or if something becomes too difficult, they get to wimp out and go into coddle mode.

As Quetzal Mama, I’d never recommend a parent shield their kids from adversity.  Instead, I’d tell them to lean into the hardship.  Don’t run from it.  Run toward it.  Yes, embrace the obstacles.  In fact, there’s been a lot of coverage on this topic of “overparenting”, “helicopter parenting” or “lawnmower parenting.” For example, former Stanford University Dean, Julie Lythcott-Haims, talked about this in her book:  How to Raise an Adult:  Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kids for Success.  And recently, Dr. Sheryl Ziegler spoke about this in her book, Mommy Burnout.

So, what does this have to do with college admissions?  It actually has a lot to do with college admissions.  For one, students who have learned how to deal with adversity will have stronger academic outcomes including higher GPA’s, higher graduation rates, higher rates of college enrollment, and higher rates of completing college degrees.  Second, colleges are very interested in students who have adapted, overcome, and maneuvered through life’s hardships.  In fact, one of the prompts on the Common Application (the one used for nearly all competitive private colleges) specifically asks about failures, obstacles, and hardships.

Why would these colleges care?  Because they want students who have learned how to overcome challenges.  Many of their incoming freshman encounter culture shock, academic overload, and cutthroat competition.  These colleges know that students who are skillful at dealing with crisis and major hardships will be able to cope and adapt.  Ultimately, these students will be successful at their campuses.

In fact, read below the #2 prompt for students applying to colleges like Stanford, Harvard, and Yale:

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Parents play a critical role in helping students learn how to navigate obstacles.  Parents who model coping behaviors teach their kids how to successfully tackle life’s challenges.  When our kids witness us dealing with hardships by working through them, and not running from them or having a meltdown, they develop confidence and strategies to do the same.  When they’re confronted with a crisis, they can deal with it.  It’s kind of like saying, “Mijo, it’s no thing. Watch how papá does this.  You can do the same.” On the other hand, if we parents allow our kids to have meltdowns – and even commiserate with them, we’re doing more harm than good.  I’m not saying to ignore your child or to coldly dismiss their crisis.  Instead, acknowledge the situation, express some healthy empathy, but then shift into empowerment mode.  Steering clear of the ‘lawnmower parenting’ mode will benefit your child, his future employer, future life partner, and your future grandkids!


Dr. Roxanne Ocampo – aka “Quetzal Mama” is an award winning author, public speaker, blogger, and national college admissions expert. She began coaching students after helping her own children earn admission to every Ivy League campus and other highly selective campuses like Stanford, UCLA, USC, and Berkeley. Dr. Ocampo has coached thousands of students throughout the US.

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