School Volunteer Vampires
6 mins read

School Volunteer Vampires

Call it Volunteer Vampires – a dilemma many of us struggle with (and feel guilty about struggling with). In simple terms, how much to volunteer at our children’s schools?

In “Sharks and Jets,” one of the stay-at-home mom essays in my anthology Mommy Wars, Washington, DC mom Page Evans reveals the angst underneath the yes-woman she presents to everyone who asks her to volunteer for anything:

YES! Yes. Yes. YES! Yes. And yes. 

For stay-at-home moms without so-called “real” jobs, volunteering becomes a social payback of sorts. I feel obligated to volunteer, to say yes, to prove my worth.  But who am I proving it to?

The problem with saying yes so often is that I’ve found myself doing more volunteering than parenting.  One day I woke up and thought: ‘The whole reason I’m not working is to raise my children, but now I’m paying a babysitter to take them to the park so I can volunteer and not get paid.’

Another view on over-volunteering comes from Terri Minsky, a New York based Hollywood writer and show-runner, who called her Mommy Wars essay “The Mother Load.”

At my children’s school, there are mothers who hold meetings with administrators to discuss the juice policy. I would put a fork in my eye if that were my life.

These days, perhaps to help parents find a happy medium between spending too much or no time at all at school, some administrators have taken to mandating volunteerism, a doublespeak concept eerily reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984.

Parent involvement is greatly encouraged at Buckley. The library, the safety patrol, stage productions, the Family Skating Party, the Theatre Benefit, the Used Clothing Sale, the Book Fair, the Spring Art Exhibition Day and Grandparents Day provide many opportunities to volunteer. The Fathers Committee organizes annual Father-Son events such as: the overnight camping trip in the fall, a dinner off campus for Middle and Upper School fathers and sons in the winter, and a baseball game outing every spring.  – The Buckley School

Some parents wouldn’t dream of missing a camping trip or a family skating party with their kids, helpfully organized by the school. But apparently, other parents aren’t reading the fine print.  Buckley and another Manhattan private school, Marymount, created a stir  by reprimanding parents who outsource volunteering to their paid housekeepers and nannies, with this email blast:

“Parents are the only acceptable option for patrol. Caregivers, housekeepers, etc. may NOT walk safety patrol.”

Safety patrol – which in my day was a prestigious elected post held by kids wearing fluorescent orange pinneys — in particular seems to be the duty that is most politically incorrect to delegate.  But there are many others. There is one tale of a housekeeper who ran the school PTA.  Another of a babysitter who was forced to lead a Brownie Troup.  A former admissions employee from the prestigious Horace Mann School says nannies often participate in school interviews – and that applicants make better impressions than when their parents are present.

Working parents paying $40,000 a year for tuition argue that they need to be at work, not working the school bake sale, in order to afford the school fees.  Others with multiple children at different schools feel the volunteer expectations are simply too onerous. But what about those parents who cannot find the school cafeteria or their kids’ locker?  It does seem a bit freeloaderish to let other equally harried parents pick up your slack.  What example are you setting for your kids, after all?  That you are so important that you can’t spare a few hours to drop into their world, hang out with their teachers and friends, and pitch in?


The opposing argument goes: Isn’t the whole idea of parenthood actually spending time with your child?  Parenthood is not a job you can outsource.  But then, under this guise, I’ve witnessed vocal uber-volunteers who seem intent upon taking over the school, pressuring everyone to parent and educate their way, to have more than one vote in every decision.  Others seem stationed in carline to socialize and spy on their kids (not that there is anything wrong with that!).

Whichever argument appeals to you, it is clear that over- and under-volunteering can be destructive for parents, schools, and kids involved.

But the bigger question:  why do people care so much about who volunteers, and when?  This is an issue at a few elite schools in New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco, at schools only a tiny fraction of parents can afford to send their children. Why then does the scandal can make for such big media news – appearing in newspapers, blogs, and radio shows up and down the East Coast and across the pond in the UK Daily Mail?

I doubt who volunteers, and when or why they do so, makes much practical difference to any school. Or to other parents.  It’s a personal and private choice, influenced by many unique factors, including your salary, your bosses’ view of time off, your kids’ needs, and your personal capabilities and inclinations.

So why all the judgment?  Why do we, as individuals and as a country, love to assess other people’s parenting decisions and values?

Maybe looking down on others makes us feel like better parents ourselves.  Especially when the other parents’ wealth make them such satisfying targets.

One school decided to ignore the debate over who should volunteer and how much. Instead, The Epiphany School, also in New York, held a gratitude event for caregivers.  Who were apparently thrilled. What a great idea, harkening back to the old days of volunteering, when generosity reigned for both the volunteers and the beneficiaries.  Back when we volunteered because it felt good to give back to organizations that had given so much to us.

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