Parents, if you're going to be a tool, be a submarine

Posted May 19

If you're a helicopter parent, hovering over your kids to make sure things are going well, it's time to land the chopper. Ditto snowplow parents, who clear everything out of their children's path. Park it.

The only good vehicle-inspired parent, according to Marie Schwartz, founder of, a curated search engine connecting teens with enrichment opportunities, is a submarine parent. A submarine parent is of sight, a little stealthy, keeping track from an unseen difference but able to surface and provide concrete aid if the situation warrants.

“Parents pop up when needed, but the kids are guiding their own way,” is how Schwartz explained submarine parenting to the Boston Globe recently.

Kristin Lee Costa, who heads the behavioral science faculty at Northeastern University, told the newspaper's Jaci Conry that parents want to save their kids from struggle. “But we want them to have a healthy blend of realism. The idea that everyone gets a trophy is nice in theory but it’s not reality. Kids should know that and that it is possible to celebrate risk, mistake and hardship.”

It's not a new concept. Silvana Clark was writing about being a submarine parent for the Seattle Post Intelligencer nearly a decade ago: " My job as a parent is to have fun with my daughters while letting them explore and learn natural consequences."

All discussions of the submarine model of parenting make clear that the kid has to know you're there, not far away, not visible. But there to provide backup if there's trouble.

James Pedersen in a National Association of Elementary School Principals bulletin notes a plethora of parenting styles, including the submarine, telling this version of how it came to be: "Deborah Skolnik coined this term in her article, 'Stop Being a Micromanaging Mom,' for parents who remain 'hidden' until their guidance is needed. These parents stay close to their children and only intervene when they feel it is necessary to do so. Unlike helicopter parents, these parents try to have their children address many of their own challenges by themselves, but are always on the lookout for possible danger."

He also talks about "fast food parenting," "panda parenting" (cute, cuddly, but with claws) and other parenting styles. says there are actually four different parenting styles, not all equally effective: Authoritative, authoritarian, permissive and neglectful. Writes Carol Lloyd, "Of these styles, child development experts have found that the authoritative parent is the most successful in raising children who are both academically strong and emotionally stable. But the truth is, most parents don't fall conveniently into this or any other single type; instead, we tend to be a combination of several styles. The trick is to be flexible enough so that you make adjustments to your basic type — adapting your style by adopting some best practices from other parenting styles."

The difference in those parenting styles is the degree of parental input and the degree of warmth. Authoritarian and authoritative are both parent-run relationship styles, but the former has a low degree of warmth and the latter a high degree of warmth. Permissive parents are warm but don't offer adequate control, while neglectful or hands-off parents don't provide warmth or any control.

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