The XX Factor

Is That “Volunteer” Really Necessary?

Does volunteering at your kids’ school feel more like an obligation than an option? Is “Beach Night,” “Donuts for Dads Day,” or the “Kitchen-Tour Fundraiser” taking over your life? Are you chairing, supervising, contributing to, or otherwise participating in anything that sounds quite as insane to outside ears as the “crazy hair” station at the fall festival? Teacher appreciation breakfasts, recess helpers, snack parents-please. If parents are, as the New York Times reports today, ” pushing back against volunteering ,” it’s because volunteering has snowballed. Every fun idea any single parent at any school ever had for raising funds or adding a different spark to a school day has piled up on top of everything else until there is no holiday without a party, no week without a fundraiser, and no day without some extra activity. Has the Carmel Elementary School in Woodstock, Ga., (an affluent suburb of Atlanta) considered the horrible possibility that sometimes, when the parents who might otherwise organize the painting of faces and the crazy-ing of hair and the pie walks are otherwise occupied with earning a living or volunteering at food pantries, the fall festival just might not happen ?

Last year, right around this time, Helaine Olen wrote in an article for DoubleX that she was “calling a halt” to her own volunteering at her kids’ wealthy school, where demands that she “bring in food for countless celebratory festivals and chaperone everything from field trips to student-play rehearsals” were piling up. Volunteering for the local equivalent of “Donuts for Dads Day” is, she suggested, pretty much self-congratulatory make-work that only attempts to fool us into believing that we’re contributing to the community. “If you need someone to speak before the school board about budget cuts or read to children in schools where the majority of children are poor, give me a holler. Otherwise, sorry: You can’t count on me.”

That may be exactly why so many parents say they’re pushing back. Real volunteer work makes a necessary contribution to the entire community and, as an added bonus, gives the volunteer a sense of being part of something larger than herself. It makes us feel good about ourselves while doing something good for someone else. Help build a house with Habitat for Humanity, and you probably won’t come away declaring, “I’ll never do that again.” But spending hours cutting out tiny squares for a kids’ mosaic art projects? Not so much. Schools, PTAs, and even our fellow over-enthusiastic parents lose our volunteer time because they abuse it. When the need is real, people are more willing to step up to the plate.

Mother dropping her son off at school by Comstock/Thinkstock Images.