Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Involved Parent

Science Fair has come and gone.  A few years ago, I wrote a post in which I calculated the number of children I have times the number of school years that require science fair participation minus the projects my children had already completed and came up with an appalling total of fifteen science fair projects still to do.  And now, with Ian and Brigid in college and Grace nearly halfway through high school, we have just seven more science fairs to go.

This was Seamus' first science fair. His project:  to compare what happens when you deep fry a snickers bar, to what happens if you boil it in milk, to what happens if you boil it in water.  Lame?  Yes.  Parent friendly?  Absolutely.  (Unless you have a problem with allowing a twelve year old to deep fry things in your only saucepan, but I became resigned to that ages ago.)

Speaking of "lame" here's a public school parent's expose of what passes for science for first graders in her district.

Anyway, Seamus is not the only kid to do a project of dubious scientific value.  I remember the mother of one of Grace's classmates telling me she had to go home and help her daughter watch ice cubes melt.  I thought she was being sarcastic.  She wasn't.

I applaud that mom for not getting sucked into an elaborate, expensive, parent-driven project. Ever since I heard of it, I've been trying to pawn that ice melting project off onto my own kids, but they're not interested.  The expectation nowadays is for parents to be "involved" in their children's education.  We're told that the children of "involved" parents do better academically.  We're not specifically told to micromanage our children's assignments, but clearly, this is how many parents interpret the "be involved" message.  I've never been the type of parent to do my kids' projects for them, but I used to be "involved" in the sense that I participated in PTO--I was even PTO co-president of my kids' elementary school, an experience so traumatic that when it was over, I removed my kids from school and homeschooled for two years.

My kids did get better grades during the years I was "involved" but it's far more likely that this was because I was at home full-time and was able to provide a stable home life.  The years of nursing school and working as a nurse--especially when I was working night shift-- were utterly chaotic.

Now I carry a burden of suppressed rage against our school district--for various reasons-- and avoid most school events.  Sometimes the rage erupts (indeed, a pent-up volcano of rage is coming to the surface in writing this post) like the time Seamus had to write a description of his parent's occupation for a DARE assignment.  The idea was (I guess) that people who are gainfully employed are less likely to do drugs. How does this even make sense?  "Hey kids, find someone you know who has a JOB so that you won't do drugs." Anyway, the sheer stupidity of the assignment prompted me to make Seamus write "pushes narcotics" as my occupation --an entirely accurate description of my job at the time as an ortho/trauma nurse, if you define "push" as "IV push."

But do you see the conflicting message?  Parents are expected to have careers so as to be good role models for their children (so they don't do drugs!) but they must also have unlimited time to devote to fundraisers, field trips, classroom volunteering, sports, parent-teacher conferences and homework.

Before I became PTO co-president,  I edited the parent newsletter, was room mother for Grace's first-grade classroom, baked cookies, helped grade math workbooks, chaperoned field trips, and on one godawful occasion, assisted nearly forty 6-year olds in making gingerbread houses out of graham crackers, milk cartons, and frosting.

A constant lamentation of our PTO was that the less-privileged parents were not "involved."  In my innocence, I honestly believed that these parents ought to be involved.  I soon learned that PTO board members tended to pay for small necessary items--the stamps with which to mail hundreds of thank-you letters, for example, out of their own pockets.  Technically, one applied to the treasurer for reimbursement, but there was intense social pressure not to do so.  It's generous to willingly absorb these costs, if you can afford it, but I couldn't afford it.  Particularly odious was the spring carnival for which I drained my meager checking account buying bags of ice.  The little cash I had left went for tickets for my children.  I told them they could play games or eat dinner, but not both because I didn't have enough money.  So don't sit there from your vantage point in an exclusive, unwelcoming clique of parents and wring your hands about parental involvement.


  1. Having just completed our contribution to the science fair project, I'm already pissed off about next year, when we'll have two students participating.

    Actually, I hate to use the word "participate" for this, because it's not like we had any choice in the matter. It was coercion, plain and simple. I actually calculated my daughter's grade based on her not doing a damn thing, including not turning in her display and paper, but the pressure put on these kids by the school was too much for her to resist.

    If I thought it would do any good, I would go talk to the school about these effing projects, but I doubt it will.

    And, no, I don't tend to volunteer for school volunteer gigs anymore, nor do we attend the "family nights" at either school.

  2. My son is 1.5 years into high school and there has been no mention of a science project yet. I think it might be optional, or maybe that's wishful thinking.

    In my limited experience, the parents at the private school are much nicer and less judgmental than any of the unfriendly PTO clique members in the public school.

    However,the unspoken assumption that people can afford to cover the little expenses goes on at private school, too. I got stuck with 360 lollipops that I bought for a carnival that got rained out.

  3. Wait, you said 7 more science fair projects. Does that mean the MF'ers are mandatory at the high school too?

  4. It gets a litte tricky at the high school level, Jen. I think it depends on the teacher. I should have said "potentially" seven more projects. :)

  5. Oh man, we are so much on the same wavelength on these issues. Simpatico is the word, really. I wish I was your neighbor so we could kvetch, vent, rage and do it right together.
    Freaking HATE "parental involvement"--at least the way most schools try to incorporate it, too.

  6. I could feel the rage in that post!

    I've never had Emma in a public school (they're worse than normal around here, after a desegregation lawsuit and tanking tax base due to middle-income flight out of the school district) but the private school is not all that different in parental demands. One big difference, though, is that there are plenty of wealthy, stay-at-home moms, and after the first few years, I've left all the helping out to them. They're kind of cliquey anyway.

    And although the school states that the work for large projects is to be done at school (to decrease parents doing the work), I find that Emma doesn't get the guidance I would expect from such a small student to teacher ratio, and I still have to do lots of teaching at home. Enough that I've considered home-schooling once she's in high school to save the tuition money. Why pay if I have to do so much of the teaching?

  7. A pent-up volcano of rage makes a fine science project and only requires common household items, such as baking soda and vinegar.

  8. Okay, I'll deal with high school when we get there. After putting up with this shit in middle school, I'll be damned if we'll do it again in high school.

  9. Ooohh, the vitriol of sustained concealed rage is leaking out around the edges Jen.
    I remember that post where you described your precipitous removal from a school meeting, so I guess the rage is long lasting.
    We don't have a PTA in out school. We tried to start one (with the main idea to raise some money)two or three times, but the level of involvement from our parents isn't high enough.

    Again we don't do Science Fairs in kiwiland and if a Kiwi teacher asked his/her pupils to write in a description of their parent's occupation as part of a drug project, they'd be suspended for unprofessional behaviour.

    Each of our kids is an individual in his/her own right, and while a parent's character may well have an influence on a pupil's behaviour and attitude, it has nothing really to do with the parent's occupation.

    The hidden social pressures to use your own money is emotional blackmail, and it's lucky a Scot wasn't involved otherwise the treasurer would be getting claims (with reseipts) for everything, including paperclips.

    It sounds like you're well out of it.

  10. I might be one of those overly involved PTO parents, although I refuse to be involved in my kid's homework. Period. I won't even sign off daily where I'm supposed to, to say I see where she did her homework. It's done, isn't it? Why do I need to say it's done when she's turning it in? Let me know when she doesn't do it.

    I find that there are some parents at our school who complain about how there are far too many "over privledged overly involved" parents at our school, that ironically enough, were just forced out of our PTO leadership because they did nothing but complain about the overly involved parents and did their best to turn them away from helping at anything. They even complained that too much money was being donated to spend on things like field trips and new technology for our school. You know, things ALL kids benefitted from.

    I suppose I am part of the clique, especially since I helped lead the hostile takeover of the PTO. I don't think we sit back and exclude anyone - there is definitely a camaraderie among parents that tend to show up and work the same events, but I for one, have a reputation as pulling every last parent I can into helping out, any way they can.

    I don't volunteer at school because I have oodles of time on my hands, I volunteer at school because I realize it makes it a better school for all our kids. And I get that not every parent has that kind of time.

    Oh, and our PTO never makes parents feel they have to suck it up and pay for things themselves.