Confessions from a Helicopter Parent and A Magic Cleaning Fairy: How Culture Shapes Parenting

A vacuum cleaner vacuums up a colorful mess of small objects

Are Helicopter Parents Lazy? Optimizing parental efficiency in a busy world, or just doing their best?

Our parenting is shaped by our own conditioning- especially around messes!

Here’s a provocative article to consider about parenting styles with a different perspective on the so-called helicopter parent: Are Helicopter Parents Lazy?

Is it possible that the tendency towards doing things ourselves and our over-involvement with our children is simply the path of least resistance?  For many parents currently in the parenting stage where independence relates to self-help skills around the house or chores, then this conversation is something we can probably all relate to!

What is a helicopter parent? 

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There is a lot of social connotation for this term, “Helicopter Parent.” Here, it is being used to describe the parenting tendency to hover nearby, swooping in and out, and including doing things on behalf of our children through a high level of involvement and attentiveness.

At best, Helicopter Parents are highly engaged, involved, seeking to be present, attuned, and paying attention to our children and their needs! But at worst, we may end up ultimately disempowering our children by doing for them what they could or should do by themselves or inadvertently interfering with their natural learning opportunities by over-involvement in the experiences that shape learning for self-sufficiency and thriving.

Perhaps the average Helicopter Parent also tends to ignore their own needs at the expense of seeking to better meet the needs of their children. This is perhaps a well-meaning intention that all generations of parents likely experience as a response to the way our own parents shaped us with a desire to simply “do better” or “do differently.” 

Another way to consider the phenomenon is also that “Helicopter Parenting” exists within cultural and social constructs where the behaviors associated with parental over-involvement are simply a reasonable and understandable response to parental needs and pressures.

A highly managing/involved parenting style is perhaps simply the most available and most effective attempt for parents to meet a wide variety of complex, simultaneous, and dynamic needs within a family system based on the many roles and responsibilities we hold as parents, adults, and human beings. We do our best with the tools we have, and when we know better, we do better.

We do not parent our children in vacuums either; the way we parent is shaped by the culmination of our own life experiences, including gender, race, social/economic status, geography, culture, age, and more. In fact, on a broader cultural level, parenting itself is actually a reflection and expression of social systems related to how our culture views children.

Culture Impacts Parenting and Household Chores!

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First off, true confessions from a (helicopter-ish) parent of 4 children, ranging from 11 years down to almost 2 years old. Do I fit the definitions of a Helicopter Parent?

Perhaps, or likely, yes.

But I’m more curious about how and why these tendencies are expressed in my own parenting, so I’ll keep on exploring and examining my own propellers.

I spend what to me feels like an exorbitant amount of time picking up things off of the floor and cleaning up after my children, seemingly endlessly battling the perpetual forces of gravity + young kids + a puppy that result in so many objects constantly on the floors! At the same time, I end up being the one picking things up because a clean, neat, and orderly space is something I seem to value far more than anyone else in my household. I’m constantly baffled by the things I watch family members simply step over or messes that are somehow “not seen!”

To me, a neat and tidy space is beautiful, orderly, and inspiring. I feel calm when my environment feels calm, and the literal spaces around me invite me to explore from a place of beauty and inspiration. A tidy kitchen feels beautiful the way a garden or a sunset over the mountains feels beautiful. Not perfection, but order!

The Magic Cleaning Fairy

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The Magic Cleaning Fairy

On a cognitive level, I can easily imagine the joyful thrill of having my own Magical Cleaning Fairy. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a literal fairy tidying up in your wake, picking up anything and everything that was left out or abandoned to succumb to the forces of gravity and land on the floor?

I would spend so much less time rage-scrubbing the gunk off the kitchen sink. I’d spend fewer Saturday mornings oscillating between trying to make a whole-house clean-up into a super-fun-relationship-building-dance-party-with-my-kids and yelling at them to pick up the Legos for the last time before I finally flip my lid and lose it! 

And, sometimes it turns out that in my own household, it is me. I’m the Magical Cleaning Fairy! Whether it is beneficial or not (spoiler alert: not actually beneficial), my cleaning fairy tendencies have trained my children at times to know that if I eventually get dysregulated enough by the mess, I’ll clean it all myself.

From their perspective, there is a major upside to ignoring a mess (I’ll eventually clean it), and that trade-off probably is probably worth it from their perspective. The downside to my kids learning how to hold out until the Magic Cleaning Fairy arrives is that Mama may be pushed over the edge. There is nothing that triggers me like a mess I didn’t make! Wowzers!

When I reach the point of being triggered, rather than showing up as my Best Parenting Self, my less-than-ideal response is yelling and/or baseless threats that I never intended to follow through on. While I may threaten to throw away the Legos, I also pick them up, even the ones underneath the couch! I really don’t have a need to rid my entire house of Legos, I just hate stepping on them!

Helicopter Parenting and Emotional Intelligence

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While this may be characteristic of a Helicopter Parent, I also see myself as a “good enough” parent, a human being doing my best to learn, grow, and form new (more actually effective) patterns, especially related to household chores!

With that, I also connect Helicopter Parenting tendencies to my own self-awareness of my physical and emotional states and my ability to insert the Magic Pause between stimulus and response, or to self-regulate. When I experience a mess that I feel compelled to clean myself, I’m also learning to connect it to my own thoughts, feelings, and emotions and the process of increasing emotional intelligence.

First comes the experience of noticing THAT my body communicates a sensation when I encounter a mess – I typically hold my breath and tighten my shoulders and fists, and there are emotions that emerge out of this- perhaps anger, frustration, exasperation, etc.

As humans, we seek to make meaning, so our brains create stories to explain what we’re experiencing, which can often be judgmental. When I can access my Best Self, I can notice my feelings and emotions around a mess, and label them with detailed granularity, which allows me to connect to my true needs and respond with intention in order to empower my children and strengthen our relationship effectively.

Often times when I’m dysregulated enough to do something FOR my children rather than involve them, it is because my needs for ease and order aren’t met. Rage cleaning is simply one strategy to attempt to meet this need. This strategy, while not ideal, is like all human behavior: simply our best attempt to get our needs met based on our belief systems.

In the language of Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication, needs aren’t in conflict, but strategies are. New strategies are ALWAYS possible!

The Perpetual Drive for a Clean House

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The fact that I find myself so attached to clean floors is also heavily shaped by my family of origin and historical patterns of social conditioning, such as Puritan values of “cleanliness is next to godliness” and the internalized values I unconsciously ascribe to being a “good mother,” or a “respectable woman” with well-behaved children and a “Pinterest-worthy” living room. 

My own journey to build a deeper understanding of the familial and cultural patterns that shaped my upbringing seems to bring household chores to the front and center on a regular basis! This plays out in the way I parent in terms of the things I try to control myself because I’m attached to the outcome.

I sometimes notice myself in a dis-empowering role of resentful martyr around household labor, where I find myself stuck in an unhelpful pattern of 1) doing everything myself, 2) believing that I’m the only one capable of doing things “good enough” and therefore not allowing anyone else to truly help in a meaningful way, and then 3) experiencing resentment that I’m the one doing everything myself. Without data collection and analysis, I’d guess that I’m far from the minority of female-identifying parents who sometimes, oftentimes, or frequently find themselves stuck in this dysfunctional tango!

The intersection of parenting and culture also plays out in my household through the things (tasks, skills, or experiences) that I am currently comfortable delegating to my children or releasing the rope of full ownership, knowing that my children’s development, skills, and attitudes mean that the outcome of my 5-year-old sweeping the kitchen floor may or may not actually meet my standards of the fully-swept floor I’d like to have. 

While my own limited experience is hardly universal for all parents in our culture, my own experiences lead me to experience both insight and solidarity.  I have a lot of compassion for the average Helicopter Parent who is overly involved in all aspects of our children’s lives because we truly mean well and want the best for our children, the world, and everyone in it!

As parents, I believe we are all just doing our very best, given the tools and resources we have available in the present moment, given the stories and experiences that shaped us in the past, and in light of our intentions to notice and shift patterns on behalf of the future. 

Parenting is Also a Process, Not An Outcome

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Like all things in learning, it is far more beneficial to focus on the process, not the outcome. Remember, parenting is both about the long game (the entire lifetime we’re preparing our children for) as well as the immediate here-and-now.

Literally, while we want our children to lead healthy, thriving, and interesting lives for decades into the future, we also have to get through dinnertime and make it to bedtime. 

Therefore, I like to reframe the concept of Helicopter Parents as highly involved parents, with the expectation that all of us have the capacity for a lifetime of learning and growing.

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