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Why A Parent Should Volunteer Even More During the High School Years

Why I Volunteer Even More At The High School

By Mir Kamin

My name is Mir, and I’m demanding.

It’s true, and I know it. I don’t mean that I’m obnoxious (I hope I’m not) or unreasonable (I don’t think I am), but I do want what I want and I’m not afraid to say so. In this phase of my life, that translates into spending an inordinate amount of time advocating for my children; while the IEP system is in place to accommodate kids like them (with various special needs), IEPs are neither magic nor automatic. My involvement in the process is necessary to make sure things run smoothly, and I consider that both my right and my privilege. That said, I want to be seen as part of my kids’ educational team, not just a parent making demands.

I have always volunteered in some capacity with my children’s schools/activities, throughout the years. And yes, it started because of this team mentality—hey, teachers, I’m on your side! I’m here to help!—but it has grown to more than that, and now that my kids are at an age where many parents let go and step back, my husband and I are at school more than ever. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Believe me, my kids aren’t shy about voicing their displeasure with us, and I have yet to hear, “Do you have to be there?” (In fact, what I usually hear is, “Can you come?” As often as possible, the answer is, “Absolutely.”)

Several times now when I’ve written about volunteering, someone has responded in a huff about how not everyone has the luxury of participating this way. While I know that sometimes there are extenuating circumstances that simply cannot be made to accommodate the time needed, I believe that most parents can find a way to make some volunteer time a reality if it’s important to them. [Edited to add: Even if that means showing up just once the entire year for an hour.] We work full-time and have busy lives and yes, sometimes I would much rather take a nap than go spend hours at school, sure. It’s not always easy or convenient, but I will be there as much as I can, and here’s why:

I want to be part of the team. As I already said, I want to be part of a cohesive team aimed at giving my kids the best school experience possible. Do parents with kids who need something extra who don’t show up to help still find that their kids are accommodated as needed? I certainly hope so—volunteering shouldn’t affect that—but the reality is that parents who help out are viewed more positively by school staff (“this isn’t just a parent asking us to do things, they’re willing to give back, too”), and anything “extra” my kids may need feels like less of an imposition, I assume, because teachers know we appreciate their hard work and do our best to help when possible. And on a very basic, no-ulterior-motive level, I want to give back where I feel my kids are getting the most benefit. Marching band has become very important in my kids’ lives in a dozen different obvious and subtle ways; I want to support the band.

I want to see where and how they’re spending their time.
You can call it spying if you must, but I prefer to think of it as helpful reconnaissance. There’s a huge difference (at least with my kids) between the retelling of events around the dinner table and actually seeing with my own eyes how things unfold in real time. When I help out at school, I stay as far away from my kids as is possible—I don’t want to cramp their style—but I see things. I see how they interact with staff, I see who their friends are and how those interactions play out. I see a side of my children I don’t get to see at home. It’s a great way to pick up a lot of information by osmosis; I know which staff will bend the rules for them (for better or for worse) and which ones have no patience when they’re struggling. I know which kids whisper and point and which ones go out of their way to help others. I know who is perfectly polite to my face and horrid when they think no one is looking. I know. This builds my appreciation of the amazing folks involved (and make no mistake, that’s the majority) and allows me to subtly steer the kids away from anyone who may not have their best interests at heart. This is especially useful for my son, whose autism causes him difficulty in reading social cues.

I want to be with them on their terms.
At this point in their lives, both of my kids are out of the house more than they’re home. My oldest is happiest when her dance card is not just full but double-booked, and if I didn’t volunteer, I’d hardly see her at all. I guess I could demand she be home more (I’m sure that’d work out great and she wouldn’t be resentful at all…) or just shrug and say, “See you on Sunday!” but I’d rather meet her where she is. As for my son, he needs a little more social support than his sister, and just knowing I’m around is often enough to make him feel more comfortable (and if something happens and he needs me, I’m there). Volunteering is a fabulous, unobtrusive way to stay in your teens’ lives without being right in their faces all the time.

I want to be part of the village.
I’ve noticed something interesting has happened over the years: the same kid who wants me to just stay out of it, Mom, geez, is very quick to come to me with other kids’ problems. Recently something went down on a band trip that left another kid kind of shrugging off an incident as “no big deal” and my daughter asked me to please talk to the other kid because “it’s a big deal and this kid needs to hear that from an adult.” She was right, so I was able to pull the other kid aside for a conversation (as well as alert band staff to the issue). It was kind of a sticky situation and I was worried said kid might be angry with me, but the reception to my intervention was… surprisingly grateful, actually. I know that if this same situation had involved my child, someone else would’ve done what I did (and furthermore, that any message would be better “heard” from another adult). I’m not just there for my kids. I’m there for all the kids, as are the the other parents, because that’s good for everyone. The days when I’m there doing my thing and I see another adult call out to one of my kids for a hug (and said kid runs up, unembarrassed and delighted) are the days when I hide a smile and count our blessings. It’s good to have a village.

My people are there, too.
I was never a band kid. My husband was never a band kid. Both of us had activities we loved, back when we were our kids’ ages, and our parents weren’t involved. We just went out and did our thing and that was that. Did I ever imagine I’d be where I am today, a middle-aged, frazzled adult who happens to be an active band booster and volunteer? Nope. And did I have any reason to believe that the other parents would turn out to be “my people?” I had no idea, honestly. But it turns out that most of the other parents who are there as much as we are really are our people—we’re not united by a love of band or volunteering, necessarily, but a love of our kids and a similar set of priorities. And what do you know… other folks who see the same merit in all the reasons why we’re there are often people we just plain like hanging out with. I’ve made some great friends through volunteering.

I only have a few years left with these oh-my-gosh-when-did-you-become-adult-sized kids. I’m glad to be able to be there for them (and their pals) before they fly the coop.

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Elle

    November 18, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    “I believe that most parents can find a way to make some volunteer time a reality if it’s important to them. We work full-time and have busy lives and yes, sometimes I would much rather take a nap than go spend hours at school, sure.”

    Yikes. I agree for the most part with the gist of what you’re saying throughout the article, but the part that I copied in quotes comes off as incredibly condescending and out-of-touch with reality. I am a teacher. I can tell you with 100% certainty that “most” parents, at least at our school, actually cannot find a way to make volunteer time a reality, regardless of how important it is to them. Maybe you just happen to live in a more affluent neighborhood than the one I teach in, but half of my students are lucky if they see their parent(s) at night. From the households with two parents working two or three jobs each just to keep their heads above water, to the single parent households doing likewise, as well as the many, many families who do not have cars and for whom taking their littles along on public transportation just isn’t an option, they really, actually cannot. To suggest that they aren’t volunteering because they are lounging around home napping… that’s a joke that is not very funny.

    Otherwise, yes, I do agree that it’s important to be present in our kids’ lives and volunteering all the way up the line. My family has the luxury of scheduling our work hours so at least one of us is always available (if not both). But I know and appreciate that this is indeed a luxury, and not something that all or most have the financial privilege of doing.

    • Mir Kamin

      November 18, 2014 at 8:23 pm

      It’s not intended to be condescending, Elle. I typed out a big long thing here and deleted it; maybe we need to agree to disagree? If someone is working three jobs, has no car, has a lot of other kids, etc., okay. Point taken. I live in a very high poverty area and while I admittedly come from a place of privilege (I have a car and a flexible job), plenty of our active parents do not. I tire of seeing parents who manage to show up for the fun stuff but not to help, which is different from parents who are truly never around (which is a whole ‘nother issue). Mea culpa on the bad joke. Consider it a clumsy attempt to point out that we’re all busy and tired.

    • Lucinda

      November 19, 2014 at 11:56 am

      She didn’t suggest that parents who weren’t volunteering were home napping.  She said SHE could be napping instead of volunteering. It wasn’t a bad joke.  You just didn’t get it. 

      As for your 100% certainty, unless you are in someone’s house on a regular basis and look at their finances, you don’t know if lack of ability to volunteer is lack of resources or lack of priority. You are just making assumptions.

      There are many, many, many ways parents can help and volunteer.  If it is a priority, you can make it work.  You work nights? Volunteer during mid-day in those few hours between sleep and getting to work.  Do it once or twice during the year. Work days?  Show up to that evening carnival and do your once-a-year hour. You don’t have time?  Maybe you have money.  Offer to buy an extra shirt or recorder or whatever the school is asking you to buy for your student.  Don’t have money?  Save stuff and collect it from your friends.  Box tops, printer ink, cell phones, etc.  I guarantee the teacher will know what you are doing. Don’t have transportation? Make phone calls for the PTA or offer to do stuff from your home that other people can come pick up.  I say all this as a parent and a former teacher.

      I have the luxury of time and money but I know a lot of people who don’t.  It isn’t hard to tell who makes their kids a priority and who doesn’t.  The families who do, they show up.  Even if that means bringing all the kids because they can’t afford child care.  Even if it is only showing up at the events where there is free food.  Even if….you get my point.  They show up.

  • Andrea

    November 19, 2014 at 10:14 am

    I never thought about why volunteering at the school in high school would be just as, if not more important than when the kids are smaller, so thank you for that perspective; my initial reaction is one hundred percent agreement.

    I do have to side with Elle in her assessment that your assumption that most parents can volunteer if it is important to them is really out of touch.

    Flexible jobs are a luxury, so are cars, so is paid childcare or elder care. I think it is great that you and I have the luxury of being able to arrange our schedules to volunteer at our kiddo’s schools. But make no mistake, it is a luxury to be able to do that, not a priority setting problem.

    Your attribution of ‘why’ most non-volunteers do not volunteer at school is pretty insulting. You know, I don’t remember my mom ever volunteering at my school, or showing up to 99% of the school activities was involved in. Education was her number one priority, and she passed that value on to me, without it, I would not have worked hard enough to go to Harvard. But, over the years, she was occupied putting food on the table and battling cancer. You just don’t know what other people are going through, so give them the benefit of the doubt, huh?

    • Mir Kamin

      November 19, 2014 at 10:31 am

      I did add an edit to the original post to clarify that by volunteer I mean even one hour a year, not necessarily the amount of volunteering that those of us with privilege are free to do. And I have said (repeatedly, I’m pretty sure) that I take issue with parents who never show up for the work but always show up for the fun. Of course people have extenuating circumstances, and I am not sitting around judging everyone. But the reality is still that a lot of people who say they “can’t” or “I would love to, but” (or who just don’t even consider it) really could. Where is my “insulting” attribution of “why” people don’t volunteer? I’ll cop to not devoting an entire paragraph to spelling out that I understand some people really truly can’t (I thought that was implied but I guess not), but I don’t see anywhere that I said “… and those people are downright lazy!” or “… and they don’t love their kids!” Please don’t put words in my mouth.

      This post is supposed to be about why I volunteer, with a brief suggestion that some folks who don’t actually could. I’m not going to continue apologizing for not being crystal clear that I get that some people truly can’t. I assumed that folks would give me the benefit of the doubt in assuming I know that sometimes life circumstances simply make it impossible.

      • Andrea

        November 19, 2014 at 12:17 pm

        Mir, the insulting attribution is in your statement that if ” if it’s important to them” parents would be there. You admit that it is hard even when you have a flexible job and a car at your disposal. It’s clear that you are well aware that the way you express your attitude towards parents who you don’t see showing up at their child’s school in a ‘non-fun’ way is off-putting and insulting to people who understand that regular life circumstances, not just extenuating circumstances can make it impossible to volunteer at school or to take volunteer work home. You are a good writer; if you get it, then it surprises me that you are not communicating it well. I don’t think you have to apologize or explain yourself, I heard you loud and clear, and I don’t think you are the only person who feels that way. Peace – we are all doing the best we can.

  • Toes are delicious | Woulda Coulda Shoulda

    November 19, 2014 at 10:40 am

    […] meant I could communicate that clearly, but this is me we’re talking about. I went ahead and wrote that post for Alpha Mom and managed to piss off the first two commenters, right off the bat. Mission not accomplished. […]

  • Heather

    November 19, 2014 at 11:08 am

    You do not nor should you explain yourself. I got what you meant clearly & it was harmless. My daughter goes to a private school & they do not allow parents to just volunteer at the school HOWEVER we are asked to go on field trips. I get a list of field trips at the 1st of the school year & schedule my time off around that schedule. My employeer is a large banking corporation & in corporate world it IS hard to take off but I make it work.

  • Heather

    November 19, 2014 at 11:09 am

    Ugh that should be “You do not have to nor should you explain yourself”

    Sorry, its been a long day already!

  • Patricia

    November 19, 2014 at 11:13 am

    I volunteer at my kids school fairly often – room parent help for parties, library book shelving every other week, in-class reading help the other alternating weeks. I agree with all the reasons it’s important and I fully understand how fortunate my work schedule accommodates this. I happen to work less than five minutes from the school and 90% of my volunteering is on my lunch hour. I don’t begrudge anyone doing what they have to do for their families / life / work and know not everyone can get into the classroom (though as an organizer, I sure wish they’d answer the emails and communications we put out there… even just to decline!)

    Anywho. Another reason I spend so much time and energy at the school and on Girl Scouts etc, is to show my kids by example the importance and benefit of being involved, volunteering, being a member of the community. I try and convey that in our family, this is what we do, we participate and help and donate, by example, not just mandate to them.

  • Becky

    November 19, 2014 at 11:23 am

    As a former high school (and college) marching bando I have to say that we actually loved our band moms and our prop pops. They were like a second set of parents throughout high school. My parents were part of that set and I’m eternally grateful. And now as a middle school teacher I get so sad when I never see my students parents even when I know they show up for younger siblings’ events. I think its so important to remind parents that the middle and high school years are just as important as elementary in terms of parental engagement. It is so NOT the time for parents to take a hands off approach even if it’s just asking about homework and showing up for parent conferences and open house. Parents can ask teachers how they can help out. Even if it is just 1 hour for the year, times 24 or 100 kids this is almost an hour a day for the year. Yippee!

  • Wendy E

    November 19, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    yes, Yes, Yes, and Yes to all of what you said. I have one kid who just graduated from high school last year. Through volunteering, I knew the majority of the kids she graduated with. It meant so much to me to see all those kids I have watched grow up graduate from high school. A good share of them I have known throughout school. My husband and I also both work full time, but through the years I have been their Girl Scout Leader (all 13 years), their volleyball coach, and also just a mom who helped out wherever she could. Most of my good friends I met through volunteering, and now with my younger kids I get a whole new set of parents and kids to get to know. I love it. 

    I understand that not every parent can, and that’s ok. That’s where those of us who can step in. I still believe it takes a village even if others don’t.

  • Kim too

    November 19, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    It seems like the phrase “if it’s important to you” covers it.  If it can’t be a priority in your life, because other things are important to you, then ok.  We all get to choose how we support our kids.  Sometimes, that’s working to get food on the table, or keeping special needs kids on an even keel, or getting a family to church every Sunday, if that’s what rocks your boat.
    Me, I am already missing the community that I found in my co-op preschool, where I knew the families of my kids’ friends as well as the kids themselves.  It’s harder to find that in elementary school, but part of the way I will is by showing up there.  So I am trying to fit it in, even while I am feeling stretched to meet all of the special snowflake needs, including my own, at home, but it isn’t as much as I would like right now.  It’s all right, I have years to go.
     We all do what we can, and to me, the article talks about the benefits to Mir’s particular choices.  

    • Kim too

      November 19, 2014 at 1:01 pm

      Hit send too soon – I think every time someone reads something like this, it can be easy to find the offense in it, if you are looking.  If you’re ok with your choices, then you don’t need to worry about what someone on the internet said.  this isn’t click-bait and it’s not meant to be inflammatory, so maybe everyone can chill out.

  • Elizabeth

    November 19, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    I live in a relatively affluent area in Australia – my eldest two are in prep and grade one. Both classes are already struggling for volunteers for daily reading groups so this post really resonated. In my area, it seems going to the gym takes precedence.  I agree with Mir – if it’s important to you, you can often take the time. My husband makes a point of starting work late each term so he too can can participate in their reading groups. I take in two distracting babies weekly because I’ve been assured that it’s more helpful to have me there than not. It is not fun for me trying to control two toddlers but…

  • kazari

    November 19, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    Oh my.
    There was an article a while back about P&C committees at schools, and how they tend to be full of the parents who have the time to be part of committees and such – and so they don’t always see the problems caused to the students of families with less time and money.
    I can’t put my hand on it.
    I’m a single mum with a full time job. But it’s a well-paying job with a fair amount of flexibility. And our fundraising committee meets in the evening (and my boyfriend loves hanging out with my son, so childcare is covered – and oh yeah, I realise there are people judging for the boyfriend thing) – so I do that. I missed his music concert, though (10am on Wednesday – same time as a meeting I couldn’t miss.)
    But there are other mothers at our school who wish they could volunteer for reading, or whatever, but really do not have the capacity. I try to speak for them when I can.
    There are a lot of parents (and not just those with three jobs and no car) who do not have the bandwidth for this.

  • Caroline

    November 20, 2014 at 4:01 am

    I agree with the thrust of the article actually. I work very flexibly, from home, part-time and I am extremely fortunate and privileged to do so. However… my ”work time” is limited because I cannot do what I do (transcription and editing work) and wrangle kids, thus once they are home, it’s pretty much it till they’re in bed. Anyway, I tend to volunteer for ”one off” things like lifts to outings, helping out on a sports day, bake sales and similar, not a weekly roster type thing because that would just mean a committed time away from remunerated work, that I cannot afford. The point is, there are many who could do SOMETHING who choose not to for a wide variety of reasons, quite often apathy, but sometimes not, and I do feel if everyone who could do a little bit, did that, it would be better for all the kids concerned. A lady I know works very hard, very full-time at a demanding job. What she does is book a morning’s leave once a fortnight to join the individualised reading programme rota. She’s cleared it with her boss that 2 Tuesday mornings a month, she’s out and busy. Her rationale is that her kids aren’t terribly sporty, thus she’d rather ditch the sports day but help out in a way that allows her to plan in advance. There are often ways and means, we just have to want to.

  • MR

    November 20, 2014 at 11:49 am

    My kids are still both little, the oldest is in 1st grade, but I totally agree with you on this. My parents didn’t volunteer at school stuff much, because there weren’t really any parent volunteers at any of the stuff we did back then, but they were very involved in our lives. We used to complain about them because they were the “strict” ones, but it was also no secret that we loved it. They were always there. They cared about us, and our friends, and we all knew it. I had many a friend who told me how lucky I was that my parents wanted to be so involved. And there were several friends that came to me with problems that were too grown up for us, and we went to my parents together. My parents helped every time. Sometimes I think they only came to me because they knew I would take them to my parents. But I was ok with that. Because kids need that sometimes. And I am always grateful to any parent who is willing to be there and be part of the community. I some parents volunteer sometimes and they are very obvious about only looking out for their kid, and it makes me a little sad, because it really does take a community. But their children are part of my community, so I will look out for them too regardless. We all want what is best for our kids. It is ok that we all have different ideas on what that means.

  • Mert

    November 20, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    I volunteered when my sons were in grade school and high school. I think we all enjoyed it. But some of the parents who volunteered with us used it as a means of controlling their children. I think people who are soon to go off to college can expect some privacy. You don’t need every detail of gossip or every in joke. You had your chance in high school allow your children the same privilege. I often wonder if some moms will photograph their children on their first day of their adult job and throw in a criticism about not polishing their shoes enough (is that even a thing among kids?).

    • Mir Kamin

      November 25, 2014 at 9:47 am

      Interesting, Mert. I don’t see that happening when I volunteer (in fact, when we chaperone away games, it’s a rule that parents cannot ride the same bus as their kid), but I can see where it might happen some places. I try to maintain a respectful distance and I see other parents doing that as well.

  • JMH

    November 21, 2014 at 12:28 pm

    Wow…quite a few strong reactions to this post! I see both a parent and as an elementary teacher. My husband is also a coach. First, as the govt. takes more control of the public school system, the schools are required to fulfill many unfunded mandates. This usually means LESS staff (money needs to go elsewhere) with more work. If parents want/need/expect to keep getting the same help for their kids as in the past, we rely a lot on our volunteers. Like it has been mentioned, one does not have to physically come to the school to volunteer. You can have your students bring home things that need cut out or stapled for the classroom. You can call other volunteers to help organize an event, etc. Of course there are people who truly cannot help for various reasons, but even helping with one field trip can make a huge difference. My own kids are in  middle school and active in sports. Sports parents are expected to help…we are assigned dates to work in the concession stand and also to provide team meals. We are also asked to keep stats and run the scoreboard. If a parent can’t help on those dates, then they get to wash uniforms. I thought this was ridiculous at first, but since the expectations are stated at the start of the season, it was actually less work for everyone since everyone had to help. It was fun too…I met a lot of new people and made some new friends.