On Volunteering: My Anti-Helicopter Parents

The NYT has a fascinating article up titled “Frazzled Moms Push Back Against Volunteering,” which examines how some mothers have forcibly extricated themselves from increasingly overwhelming commitments to volunteer at their children’s schools. While the article overlooked the major elephant in the room, that fathers apparently feel untouched by any obligation to volunteer, commenters left no stone unturned in pointing the finger of self-righteous blame at dads, working moms, stay-at-home moms, over-achieving moms, basically any kind of mom, and the school districts themselves.

I read all of this with a certain bemusement, because I grew up in a household that periodically homeschooled, so my family’s involvement with public schools was spotty to begin with. And, despite my older brother being in special needs classes and my mother being a stay-at-home mom, neither of my parents ever once volunteered at our schools. Hell, it was hard enough getting my parents to remember to attend my parent-teacher conferences, and there was a strict “find your own ride” policy vis-à-vis after-school activities.

I imagine this might make my parents sound overly detached or insensitive. Far from it, they were encouraging, if laid-back, people who got their dose of involvement through our church communities. Overall, I’d describe them as the polar opposite of helicopter parents. While growing up, I both appreciated and resented them for that.

On the “appreciate” side, I enjoyed having my parents out of my hair, particularly when I was in high school, and taking the bus or walking through downtown Seoul alone felt like the height of cosmopolitan exploration. Unlike many of my friends’ parents, mine never breathed down my neck about grades, never cross-examined me about how a test went, and never complained when I was staying late every evening for theater rehearsals; they just wanted to know where I was and when I’d be home.

However, there were times when I wished they would, just once, volunteer to chaperone a school dance or field trip, so they would see first-hand who I was and what I was doing outside our home. Their rejection of school involvement, volunteer or otherwise, was just the tip of the iceberg of what seemed like a diffuse non-interest in who I was hanging out with, which teachers I had, what classes I was taking, and how I was flourishing (or not) at school.

Now that I’m older, I’m infinitely more empathetic to how overwhelmingly busy my parents were with their own lives and my seven siblings’ lives (that number jumped to nine while I was in college). And they found ways besides volunteering to show that they cared about me, things I selfishly overlooked when I was a teen. They attended most of my recitals and plays and even the silly school beauty pageant I was in; they found the money for me to go on ski trips; my dad diligently read and critiqued all of my college applications.

Also, there are practical factors that account for my parents’ lack of involvement in my school life. First, by avoiding the public school system, which my parents were always highly distrustful of, I think they were protecting their own sanity and saving their energy for other spheres (religious being the most obvious) they deemed more important.  Second, my status as the “good” child, the smart one, the responsible one, stood in bleak contrast to certain siblings whose behavioral problems earned them frequent suspensions, arrests, and the parental attention that bad behavior necessitates.  If I questioned my parents today about why they weren’t around my schools more when I was younger, they’d probably be shocked and deny knowing I ever wanted them to be, saying they always took it for granted that I was doing well enough on my own.

So will I volunteer once I’m a mom? Absolutely. I won’t commit, quite yet, to coordinating the entire fifth-grade graduation ceremony, but I’d like to do something when I can. Due to my own experiences, I’m fairly sensitive to how important it is for kids to see their parents participating in school functions and demonstrating an interest in the educational sphere of their child’s life.

Do I judge parents who can’t or don’t want to volunteer? Nope. Not everyone has the time and resources to do it. If my parents had been volunteering at my schools, we probably wouldn’t have been able to have family dinners every night or take scads of weekend trips together. In the end, like so many other things, volunteering at school is about balance, and I don’t think it’s wise to elevate it as more or less vital than so many other roles parents fill.

2 thoughts on “On Volunteering: My Anti-Helicopter Parents”

  1. I have two sons, the oldest is a senior in high school. I am past the judging part about how many hours people give. I have my own reasons and am highly selective.

    I am wary about the professional volunteer moms though. There is always a core group who run things–and people. They are super efficient, but it’s very difficult to break through into their social circle unless you are one of them. Much of their aggressive style comes from their days in the corporate world and they apply their talents to our school clubs. Which is good for the most part, stuff gets done, money gets raised.

    Volunteering needs to be authentic. You can tell who is in there because she wants it versus doing it for socializing, or it’s the thing to do. In the end, I am happy for any parent action.

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