The Vacuum Cleaner Parent


The helicopter moms get the most attention, don’t they?  Just when you think that the world has finally stopped over-thinking parenting approaches, up pops an ad featuring a very exaggerated version of what we’ve come to know as the helicopter mom.

Perhaps I’m overly sensitive about the issue.  I do enjoy playing with my kids, after all, and this, as it turns out, is one of the hallmarks of a helicopter – according to some.

The term helicopter parent actually dates back to 1969, although it gained media attention in the early 2000’s.  Meant as a pejorative term to describe the parents who just can’t seem to let go – the ones who call college professors when grades are low or those who maintain hyper-presence in the children’s lives, I think it has morphed into so much more.

Today moms who are involved in the PTA, cheer the loudest from the sidelines, or even (gulp) play with their children at the park all get labeled helicopters by the mompetitors on the sidelines.

And while the world loves to laugh at the helicopters among us, another kind of parent goes largely unrecognized.

The Vacuum Cleaner Parent.

Never heard of it?  Read on.

The Vacuum Cleaner Parent (VCP) is the non-parent:  The parent who refuses to set any rules, teach right from wrong, or provide any sort of structure for their children.  Don’t get me wrong, VCP’s are fun.  They don’t worry about things like “age appropriateness” or going overboard, these non-parenting parents have a simple goal in mind:  Avoid confrontation.

And therein lies the problem…

At some point, most kids go to school.  And when they go to school, they are expected to follow certain rules and adhere to a school schedule and routine.

Those poor kids who have been whooping it up with their VCP’s – who needs a bedtime, anyway? – tend to have a difficult transition into this new, structured lifestyle.  Not only is the structure difficult, but the boundaries can be very hard.  VCP’s aren’t known for teaching social boundaries, so these kids tend to over-step and have a considerable amount of catching up to do.

In short, they get in trouble.  They talk out of turn over and over again because they never learned the meaning of interruption.  They get out of their seats at regular intervals because, well, they never really had to worry about staying in their seats.  They use words that aren’t acceptable because they learned them at home – but they didn’t learn that those words hurt.  Taking turns at the park?  Who needs to take turns?  And they are completely exhausted from lack of sleep.

They do what they’ve learned, as all kids do.  Sadly, they weren’t prepared for the real world.

So the VCP’s suddenly go into overdrive.  They don’t confront the actual issues.  No, these non-parenting parents follow their kids around, cleaning up their messes.  They vacuum up the evidence until the next thing comes along.

They blame the teachers.  They blame other kids.  They blame the school, the class, or the team.  Whatever they do, they don’t stop to think about what caused the problem(s).

All families are different.  All kids should be treated as individuals.  But one thing in parenting remains the same – it’s up to us to prepare our children for the outside world.  Just as the helicopters need to step back on the over-parenting, the vacuum cleaners need to parent a little bit more and teach their kids some valuable lessons.

There is a happy medium in there somewhere…and it’s up to all of us to find it.

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)