Bruce Feiler for the New York Times: It’s O.K. to Skip That Bake Sale

August 31st, 2012

New York Times
Published: August 31, 2012




THIS week my daughters will participate in a ritual my family has performed for almost 50 years. They will each make a sign that says “First Day of School” along with their grade and the name of their school. After breakfast, they’ll pose for pictures next to their newly purchased backpacks.

When I was young, I did this once, on the first day of kindergarten. In keeping with the overparenting ethos of the day, we do it every year, with increasingly ornate signs.

There’s another difference between back-to-school when I was a child and today. My wife and I will then take our daughters to school, volunteer for various assignments, then enter the parade of curriculum nights, picnics and parent get-togethers into our smartphones.

These days, it seems, parents are going back to school along with their children. The siren song to increase their involvement in schools has become so widespread we almost don’t question it anymore. One article on listed 38 ways for parents to become more active in the classroom. Thirty-eight! On the Internet, parents swap ideas for bringing in snacks, designing class T-shirts, supervising dances, teaching printmaking and editing the school paper.

Even the national Parent Teacher Association has a 14-point plan to increase parental participation in schools. Recommendations include having parents design and print “happy grams” as a way for teachers to regularly report positive behavior to parents, and color-coding school hallways to help parents visiting the building to find “important places like the office, parent resource center and library.”

Volunteering has become a status symbol of sorts. We’ve gone from “Baby on Board” to “Parent Overboard.” Have you made your happy gram today?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for parents’ involvement in their children’s education. I am on the board of advisers at my alma mater in Georgia. My wife is heavily involved on committees at our daughters’ school in Brooklyn. We both eagerly attend school functions, parent-teacher conferences, even fund-raisers.

But recently a backlash has begun to erupt against all these demands on parents. A mommy blogger and former P.T.A. president in Los Angeles began a campaign a few years ago called “Just Say NO to Volunteering.” Some parents, who work long hours or hold down multiple jobs, whisper to friends that they feel saddled with guilt. “What if I’m too busy to volunteer: am I letting my child down?” they ask.

So what is the right balance? And perhaps more to the point, is there any correlation between a parent’s involvement in a school and the child’s performance in that school?

The answer to the second question, from those who have looked at the matter for decades, is no.

Read More