Seven Symptoms of an Under-Functioning Parent

It almost seems as if today’s parents can be divided into subsets, depending on how they approach their duties. We’ve all heard about the “snowplow” or the “lawnmower” parents—these are intrusive moms and dads who plow or mow down any obstacle in the way of their child’s progress. According to the educators I meet each year, they represent a greater headache to schools than their kids.

Why? Because they over-function. They do too much for their kids.

Today, I’d like to talk about under-functioning parents. I often call them “dry cleaner” parents. In the same way that we take our soiled or wrinkled clothes to the dry cleaners to get them cleaned and pressed to be picked up on Friday, these parents drop their children off at schools, scouting programs, youth groups, clubs, and other such organizations to develop and “clean up” their child for them.

Sometimes, these parents want other adults to do their dirty work.

I recently met a mom who told me she related to her kids very well when they were younger, but now that they’re teens, she doesn’t connect with them. She tries but feels she needs a professional at this point. Ironically, the same day, I spoke to a dad who’s just the opposite. He explained he didn’t do well with younger children and couldn’t wait until his kids grew up so he could enjoy spending time with them. It happens to many of us.

The Challenge of the Under-Functioning Parent

The reason for the emergence of this parenting style is two-fold. First, we live in a day of consumerism and professionals. Almost everything we own is dropped off to a professional since they are plentiful today. We take our car to get the oil changed, our clothes to get pressed; we dine out more than ever before and even have lawncare professionals manicure our properties. Why wouldn’t we assume a professional should develop our kids?

Second, these parents feel ill-equipped to lead their children, to relate to their children (depending on their ages), or to develop life-skills, musical skills, or sports skills. We recognize our strengths, and kids are not one of them. Further, while few of us feel rich, we live in greater affluence today than we had a hundred years ago and can afford to have specialists take care of that work. In short, we are not forced to work outside of our strengths, so we stay in our lane and farm out the weaknesses.

The Problem of the Under-Functioning Parent

The dilemma is that the most important element of parenting has little to do with skill sets or with the ability to afford professionals to upgrade our child’s instruction. Kids need to see and feel that their parents want to engage with them. Even when we’re not gifted with relating to kids, the fact that we stopped our own endeavors and focused on them is paramount. By nature, parents are the number one mentors in their children’s lives, by proximity and biology. To farm out those duties is to neglect sending a message those children need to hear: “I love you and want to lead you. I will show this by being with you in both important and unimportant moments of your growth.”

Seven Symptoms of an Under-Functioning Parent

Here are a handful of signals that we are under-functioning in our children’s lives:

1. Zoning out when together with family

You find yourself distracted or in a daze, not engaged. You say it’s because you’re not interested in what they like, but aren’t you interested in them?

2. Feeling and communicating distress when thinking of your kids

You feel anxious or uneasy when you think of interacting with them. While this can be normal with teens, putting in the work to engage with them sends positive signals.

3. Always needing help to engage or communicate with them

You tend to always seek help from others to engage with them rather than working to understand or relate to them. Will we pay the price to connect?

4. Self-sabotaging behaviors that diminish quality time with your kids

When observing yourself, you see you regularly sabotage your time with them, arguing or finding problems instead of seeking commonalities and enjoyment.

5. Hiding behind amusements or “busyness” to avoid time with them

You tend to delegate to your spouse all the kid responsibilities, hiding behind other stuff you must get done. In reality, amusements are your scapegoat.

6. Being too permissive so you won’t have to engage or enforce a rule

This is subtle and sinister. You feel like a cool parent because you allow them to do all they want to do, but in reality, it’s to avoid having to confront them.

7. The predisposition to throw money at them instead of spend time

Many affluent parents have a habit of trying to buy their children’s loyalty or well-being. Their first reaction is to give them cash instead of time and energy.

During the 19th century, Henry Brooks took his dad’s advice and began journaling at a very young age. You may remember the story of his entry, following a day he went fishing with his father. He simply wrote, “Went fishing with my father today, the most glorious day of my life.”

That day was so glorious, in fact, that Brooks continued to talk and write about it for the next thirty years. It was then that he thought to compare his journal entry to his father’s diary. When he found the date, he saw his dad had simply written, “Went fishing with my son. A day wasted.”

Let’s never underestimate the time we have with our kids.


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Seven Symptoms of an Under-Functioning Parent