Move Over Snowplow and Helicopter Parents, Lighthouse Parents Are Shining Through

I recently read a terrific book by Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg entitled, Raising Kids to Thrive: Balancing Love with Expectations and Protection with Trust: The Lighthouse Parenting Strategy. In his book, Dr. Ginsburg talks about the value of being a “lighthouse parent.” You may be wondering, what is a lighthouse parent? Dr. Ginsburg describes lighthouse parenting as providing “beacons of light on a stable shoreline from which our children can safely navigate the world.” Lighthouse parenting allows children to ride the waves, while providing guidance so they don’t crash into the rocks. This style differs from a helicopter parent who is constantly hovering anxiously overhead, or a snowplow parent who would remove the rocks from the ocean. I think we all can agree that hovering and plowing are not best, but rather being a lighthouse parent is something we should strive for. But how do we get there? Here are some ideas to parent like a lighthouse:

1. Fill Your Child’s Bucket: Try to build a reserve in your child’s bucket. Make time to create and grow the positive in your relationships with your children. By having a strong positive relationship with your child, something still remains when you may have to dip into your child’s bucket (see story at the end).

2. Seek to be Consistent: We (parents and children) are not perfect. We make mistakes. However, if we seek to be consistent, then the positives will outweigh the negatives.

3. We are all Works-in-Progress: Remembering that we are all works-in-progress helps us process both our misdeeds and our children’s misdeeds in a way in which we won’t be as defensive or anxious.

4. Set High Expectations, but Scaffold along the Way: We all succeed when we set high expectations, but we also do well when we meet success along the way. Have realistic expectations and provide a roadmap to enable your kids to get where they need to go.

5. View Mistakes as Opportunities for Growth Instead of seeing a mistake as permanent or “fixed,” view it through a growth mindset. See mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow. Did you know that potato chips, the microwave oven, post-it notes, and chocolate cookies were all invented by mistake?

6. We All Get Nervous: Acknowledge the fear; let it inform you, but not overwhelm you. Make sure to breathe and take a step back. When we are yelling or nagging, often because we are worried, our children become turned off and they are no longer able to process our positive messages. In addition, we are no longer able to be the role models we want to be.

7. Remember the Big Picture: Sometimes as parents we want to intervene because we get nervous about what will happen if we don’t. Sometimes it is the right choice to intervene. But think of the 35-50 year plan: Where do you want your child to be in 35-50 years? We need to remember that our goal is to prepare our children to be successful when they are 35, 40, or 50, not just tomorrow. We need to ask ourselves whether the actions we are taking now are going to help get them there. We sometimes think we are thinking long-term (next week), but I mean really long-term (50 years).

8. Have Children Create Goals from a Place of “Want-to” Rather than “Have-to”: We know from research that a goal is more likely to be accomplished when the person finds value and meaning in the goal. However, when it is our goal and not our child’s goal, it becomes a “have-to.” Goals need to be our child’s, not just ours.

9. Cultivate Gratitude: It is easy to focus on the negative and what is not working with your child. Instead, focus and share with your child what you are grateful for. Focusing on gratitude improves relationships and forces us to see things in a more balanced perspective.

10. Create Balance What is difficult in lighthouse parenting is that it’s about living in the gray. If you think about hovering or snowplowing or even free-range parenting, there is no balance. Instead it is very lopsided. It is not so easy to do, but we know that balanced parenting leads to better outcomes.

I am going to end with a story from my own life. On Sept 18, 2015, my baby boy turned seventeen. I promised myself that as a gift to him and to myself, I would not nag him at all on this one day, his birthday (I also wouldn’t hover or snowplow). You would think this would be easy; that as a psychologist, I could control myself for just one day. I did pretty well from 9-2 (when he was in school). I only sent one text which was really not a nag, but a reminder. However, it got harder when he got home. I had in my head all these things I wanted him to accomplish, but all he seemed to want to accomplish was watching TV. I still did pretty well. However, after a whole day of him “not accomplishing anything” and no nagging by me, at around 9 pm, I lost it. It was like the flood gates opened and all my nagging came out at once.

Why did the snowplow come out and what can we all learn? I think for me the anxiety took over and I thought about the next month and not the 35-year plan. I also forget that we are both works-in-progress and that balance is important (on your birthday you can take a day off). I also think the goal of “accomplishing” especially on his birthday was a “have-to” instead of a “want-to” for him. But, the good news is that I think my bucket with my son was full enough to take the dip.

My goal going forward and my hope in writing this article is that by keeping these ideas in the forefront, I will continue to get better at my lighthouse parenting skills. Furthermore, I hope these ideas will inspire you to be mindful about your parenting style and to discover for yourself 1) what gets in your way; and, 2) how to develop the skills necessary to be “the beacon of light situated on a stable shoreline helping your children navigate their world.”
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