The Free Parent’s Manifesto

 

School has changed a lot since I was a kid, and I think most of the changes have been for the better. For one thing, my kids don’t fear their teachers the way I feared mine. There seems to be more emphasis on kindness and age-appropriate expectations than there was, so the teachers seem more willing to work with the kids’ needs rather than punishing the kids for such things as needing a chance to get up and move around once in a while or needing to go to the bathroom. My kids can have water bottles at their desks so they can actually drink during the day, while we had to beg and grovel for a minute at the water fountain, only to have the teacher claim that we weren’t really thirsty and just wanted to get out of the room. My kids have three recesses each day, which is two more than we had and which means that they never have more than two hours at a stretch during which they’re expected to sit still and silent, and as far as I can tell, kids aren’t allowed to torment each other during recess, which is another welcome change. The school has an official anti-bullying policy and procedure in case of complaints, which certainly wasn’t the case when I was in school and bullying was considered part of the educational environment. The teachers now seem to actually like kids, while the teachers then seemed to think kids were a necessary evil (I’ll grant that impression might have more to do with my being adult now or with this particular school compared to the particular school I was in, rather than any actual change in the type of person who becomes a teacher. Then again, it might not, since women now have more stigma-free career options than the women in my teachers’ generation, who really didn’t have many other choices whether they liked kids or not–but that’s another subject). All that seems unchanged is that many gym teachers are still bullies who obviously like the athletes and dislike the rest of the class.

What I really wish hadn’t changed is parties. We have a beginning of the year picnic and party. There’s a party before winter break. There’s an end of the year party. There are parties for various milestones during the year, when the class completes any big unit or project, usually two or three per class per year for these. I love going to the school and seeing my kids’ classrooms. I love seeing their artwork on the walls or seeing the play they put on to dramatize the part of history they just studied. I appreciate the school’s efforts to include the parents, to encourage the kids to have a good attitude about school, and to incorporate more interesting ways of learning and reviewing than just tests and papers, such as plays and field trips and themed art galleries. I would have no problem with all these parties IF WE DIDN’T HAVE TO BRING REFRESHMENTS.

But we do. Every time I turn around, we’re divvying up supplies to be provided by each parent in the class. This person brings the plastic tablecloth. This one brings plates and napkins. I bring juice or pretzels or fruit or cups or whatever hasn’t been claimed by the time I actually see the email. I’m always the last one to see the email, I think, because I’m the only one (or so it seems) who doesn’t check email at least once an hour. I don’t want to make another trip to the store to buy pretzels or paper plates for 40 people. Why can’t we start the year or finish the year or finish the unit or look at the kids’ projects without ANOTHER party full of junk food and garbage? Why can’t I just eat a snack before I come? The parties never last more than 30 minutes anyway. Honestly, is it so difficult for everyone to go 30 minutes without a snack and a drink? I don’t mind that we have to get flowers for all the teachers and give teacher gifts at least twice a year, at the end of the first semester and at the end of the year. I’ll grant that I think it’s silly that it’s so compulsory that it’s hardly a gift anymore, and I’ll grant to still being annoyed that when I brought the flowers for the first grade teachers before winter break, the “room mother” commented that I’d left the price tag on them (I looked and looked but didn’t see the tag. She glanced once and saw it!). But the teachers work hard, and they deserve the attention. But I DO mind having to buy food for everyone when we’re a couple miles from our own perfectly-well-stocked kitchens and had lunch two hours ago. I do mind having to show up twenty minutes early to set up, when coming to the party in the first place involves waking my two-year-old from his nap and getting there early involves basically not letting him nap at all. I’m sure the room mothers (I’ve been one several times, but I never drafted the whole class into potluck entertaining) think the refreshments add to the festive atmosphere. I think they add to my list of errands and significantly diminish my enjoyment. I could not volunteer to bring anything, but of course, the list of necessary supplies is always exactly calculated to equal the number of families so each family brings one thing, which means that not bringing something would make me a deadbeat.

I’m not a deadbeat. I volunteer extensively to help my kids’ classes. I drive on every field trip. I run errands for the teachers. I pick up supplies they need for actual schooling, and when I’ve bought supplies for the school, I’ve never asked them to reimburse me and have considered the expense a donation. When one of the teachers needed to leave the school and find another job, I wrote her a letter of recommendation, and when circumstances changed and she didn’t need to leave after all, I was genuinely happy for her, for the school to be keeping her, and for my younger children who might still have her for a teacher. But I don’t want to buy pretzels for the class. I just bought snacks for girl scouts two weeks ago when I substituted at the last minute as the parent volunteer (voluntarily, I might add). I have to buy snacks for a community youth group in two weeks. The parent draft boards assume that if they require each parent to contribute on a rotating schedule–all families must volunteer to help at least x times per year–no one is being overburdened. But we ARE overburdened because there are so many groups and so many parties and we apparently can’t figure out how to be happy or celebratory or just plain friendly without potato chips and disposable dishes and a requirement for the parents to provide these things. I’d pay an upfront fee to cover the cost of refreshments if it would spare me yet another last minute trip to Party City for plastic tablecloths and yet another reply-all email conversation to divvy up the duties.

I don’t remember snacks at every activity when I was a child because WE DIDN’T HAVE THEM! And you know what? We survived. I am not scarred by the lack of juice I suffered on the last day of first grade. I also don’t remember parent volunteers at everything. I know with absolute certainty that my parents were never field trip drivers, group leaders, girl scout chaperones, or room parents. And you know what? Even without drafting all the parents into “volunteering” for these activities, they still happened because the parents who were interested enough in each activity volunteered, and when they did it, it was really volunteering and they didn’t mind doing more for that activity than the other parents. I know, because I’m that kind of volunteer on several fronts. I don’t mind in the least that I’m working harder on those things than other people are, partly because it’s truly voluntary and partly because I care about those things. I don’t care AT ALL about popcorn at the end of the year party. And I DO resent it.

The school recently announced that next year they would require all families to provide 20 hours of volunteer service. What’s wrong here? You can’t require volunteerism. I have definitely done more than twenty hours of work for the school this year, but I resent that requirement. I don’t tally up the time I’ve spent helping out, and I don’t want to have to. I don’t want to have to track it and make sure I’m staying on course. I don’t want to compete with other parents for the good jobs like going on a field trip rather than the bad jobs like–I don’t know–weeding the garden. And I don’t mind if I give more effort to the school than some other families whose parents both work. They have less time to give and more things to give, and that’s fine with me. They can provide new sports equipment while I provide transportation for a field trip. It works out nicely with little resentment until you start measuring contributions only in hours spent and requiring “volunteer service.”

It’s time for us to call off the conscription of parents by other parents. If there aren’t enough volunteers to run an activity, then the activity should die; it’s not carrying its own weight in our lives. If there aren’t enough volunteers to organize five big parties per class per year, then we need fewer parties or we need them to be simpler. The point of girl scouts is girl scouts. The point of youth activities is the activity. The point of the end of the unit and end of the year parties is to celebrate the kids and what they’ve learned. I can do that without any crackers in my mouth or cheese squares on my plate. So can everyone else.

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