Volunteering No More

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In her article for Slate's XX Factor, columnist and author Helaine Olen argues that volunteering at her children's school is counter-productive.


Helaine Olen

Comments [39]

Kathy from Warren, NJ

"...huge, huge burden" ???

This is a huge huge burden????

Were that all our burdens were this huge.

Dec. 16 2009 06:04 PM
a dad from nj

volunteering is rewarding or even ecstatic, for some, including myself. i am not the most experienced coach but my strength and a source of satisfaction is getting ALL the parents and even siblings involved, without asking, showing up with oranges, giving rides 3x a wk, smiling and cheering their kids on when they can. white collar workers and spanish only landscaping parents side by side. doing what they can and what they want for these primary school girls, and winning too.

none of us will ever forget these wonderful, tiring times.

Dec. 15 2009 12:07 PM
Abigail Meisel from NYC

As a teacher and parent in suburban NJ, I saw parents--99 percent of them mothers--leveraging thier volunteering as a means of securing desirable placements for theic children, from elementary school gifted programs to high school honors classes. My son's elemetary school graduation began with a salute to the volunteer mothers, with awards for their volunteer achievements presented by their children. These mothers often shifted the balance of power from faculty and administation to themselves. THey regarded theselves as knowledable about education because they were selling cup cakes, running book fairs, and chaperoning field trips.

Dec. 15 2009 11:55 AM
Stephanie Crossman from Upper West Side

Please add PS 166 in Manhattan to the list of schools where Dads have historically shared in the volunteer work.

Why is Helene so upset by the fact that women generally do more school volunteer work than men? What about looking at the bigger picture? If it's a woman volunteering in a family, maybe she has more time during the week and that's a calculation that family has made. I know of many families where the man has more time during the week (maybe not as many as the other way around, but there are plenty of them out there), so he does the school volunteering and that's the calculation they make. But, as another poster wrote, more dads coach in sports leagues. Maybe that's b/c weekends are when they have time to give, or maybe it's b/c that's an arena where they feel more comfortable and women don't. Should they stop doing that b/c more women don't step up to do that?

I would also like to question the quality of the research done by the guest. It seems like most of her points are anecdotal with a lot of buzzwords like "inequity". For example she refers to the inequity amongst schools where parents are able to raise money for things like classroom assistants. What she didn't mention was the fact that schools with lower income populations receive significantly more government funding than schools with kids from higher income families. So, where is the inequity when the parents are trying to make up for differences in staffing?

Dec. 15 2009 11:24 AM
Laura from Manhattan

Let's stop making this an issue between "Men and Women". I know many men (and women) who volunteer at both of my kids schools. Those who can, do. And those who can't or don't want to, don't.

I have deep gratitude for anyone who helps out the children of our communities (whether they are parents or not). It is such a generous gift to give. Our schools don't have the money to pay for many of the resources adult volunteers provide. You can argue all you want on whether or not money would appear if parents didn't step up, but that is a moot point. By the time anyone could prove that point, a generation of children would be denied those benifits. I'm not willing to sacrifice my child (or any child) to find out.

If you feel put upon when you volunteer your time, then find a way to contribute where you can feel good. It might be with contributing money, or goods. It's not about "us", it's about what is best for the children.

Dec. 15 2009 11:20 AM
ME Sweeney from Manhattan

With two grown daughters and four grandchildren, it was painful to listen to Helaine Olen. A simple test to start: has Ms. Olen been able to spend a semester or two on an academic athletic team of any sort? One hears in her words and voice the individual rant and not the collective spirit needed to be the classroom example any and all children need in private or public school. In my experience in public and private school settings for many years, fathers volunteered with hesitation. They seemed simply not to understand why a female-driven school volunteering effort did not have a straight-foward "game plan." They expected god, easily communicated rules by which all were to act. And surely they would have smiled more through their female-assigned roles had there been an agreed-upon cheer for all to loudly yell once and awhile as a short or long term goal was reached. As one caller said this am, school volunteering is done for one's child. I say school teaches nothing if it does not teach civic pride. Ms. Olen's words and tone only seem to promote divisity.

Dec. 15 2009 11:19 AM
L Small from NYC

Brian, try not to let a guest dictate what the call-in question will be. We volunteer to make things better. My wife is a school teacher I did most of the volunteering at my kids schools until HS. Hardly anyone volunteers in HS which is why most HSs are so bad in NYC. When your guest said we didn't have to do this 30 years ago, I really lost it...bad topic lousy guest, love your show.


Dec. 15 2009 11:09 AM
Scott from Brooklyn

Just have to agree with Andy (18)on that one- I teach an afterschool program to 5-6 year olds and serve them snack.It's a blast. Kids are fun- adults who make gross genralizations aren't.

Dec. 15 2009 11:06 AM

I don't understand your argument. If I understand it correctly, pre-school children don't have children. In other words, I would expect parents to get some education and worldview before they have children.

Dec. 15 2009 11:06 AM
mozo from nyc

I used to work in Greeenwich, CT in a pub and restaurant. Teachers from the elementary and high school would pop in for happy hour. The general feeling I got from them was that the voluteer moms were mainly wealthy, bored, neurotic helicopter parents who for the most part bossed a lot of the staff around and got in the way.

Bear in mind this is Greenwich and not the real world.

Dec. 15 2009 11:05 AM
8458 from

whoops anna/22

Meant to say:

to be fair i doubt many parents of little kids would consider this NOTHING but a primary issue.

Dec. 15 2009 11:04 AM
Andy from Brooklyn

hellofrombrooklyn [20], I think it's understandable that people get emotional in response to that claim. She didn't cite any systematically collected data. She just offered anecdotal evidence. If you were a father who had been told that fathers in general aren't involved in school volunteering and the only basis for this statement was a collection of anecdotes, you wouldn't be angry?

Dec. 15 2009 11:01 AM
rich from nj

I'm a stay at home dad whose efforts to volunteer in a public elementary school were rebuffed by a highly organized group of mothers with specific agendas about what to do, who to do it, and how it shouldbe done. I actually had one mother ask that I relay a message to my wife asking if she would help with a project, fully knowing that I was the only one with the time.

Dec. 15 2009 11:01 AM

An astonishingly divisive, unhelpful segment. Also, the guest seems to have an entirely superficial view of the topic.

Dec. 15 2009 11:01 AM
Mike Knoerzer from Inwood

The problem is not the the volunteering by families privileged enough to have a stay-at-home parent. The problem is the unequal treatment that the children of these families get. They become the princesses and princes of the school. Children whose families cannot volunteer regularly are made to feel inferior.

Dec. 15 2009 11:00 AM
John from NYC

I know from my niece and nephew's schools that there are lot of activities like cup cake Fridays and Halloween parties. The parents are required to volunteers more and more.
My question is whether all these activities are being substitutes for real academic work.

Dec. 15 2009 10:59 AM
Don from manhattan

Of more concern to me than the gender issue is the class issue your guest referenced. I (a man) have been on my child's elementary school PTA board for a couple of years, and been volunteering for longer. But how to get the wider community of the school involved? We on the board, and volunteering, tend to be higher educated, and at least middle class. It tends to be a smaller "clique" that's not representative of the school population.

Dec. 15 2009 10:59 AM
Karine from Bayside, NY

My husband and I are involved in the parent committee at our daughter's preschool. We are more shocked by the lack of any parental involvement. Out of 100 children, only 5 parents are active participants in this committee. Yes, he is the only father, and we find it so sad that it is considered acceptable for father's to be uninvolved parents.

Dec. 15 2009 10:58 AM
Uos from Queens

that lady who thinks her kids love seeing her in class... insane ;D

Dec. 15 2009 10:58 AM

Stupid, stupid, brainwashed people psychobabbling about "Bush is to blame" (previous segment) or "volunteering" of fathers or mothers. Not a single one is familiar with such concepts as "system," "systemic problem" etc. They remind me of my poem, the first and the last (a masterpiece :)
Marching zombies, marching zombies, marching zombies march

Dec. 15 2009 10:57 AM
hellofrombrooklyn from Brooklyn

I don't understand why everyone is getting so emotional about this subject. She's not saying that men never volunteer or that their efforts are not as important, only that women end up volunteering and are expected to volunteer more than men.

Dec. 15 2009 10:56 AM
Elise from The Bronx

I work full time, but I'm expected to raise money from parents I don't know to get a teacher's gift for a teacher who doesn't like me and is angry at everyone in the school.

I write for the parent's newspaper, fundraise every semester, and coordinate other parents to help with classrooms.

When I tell other parents that I can't make a function I get dirty looks. When my husband says he can't make it the mothers flock to him and make small talk with . It also doesn't matter to anyone that I have two other small children who might need my energy.

My husband NEVER has to volunteer.


Dec. 15 2009 10:56 AM
Andy from Brooklyn

"What man would want to sit and have lunch with 4th graders?"

Wow. Hey Brian, let's follow this segment with one about women are naturally bad at math and science.

Dec. 15 2009 10:55 AM
asdfadfadsf from NJ

When my first child joined kindergarten, i found the woman head of the pta and asked about joining. "I guess a man would be good to have as part of the group," she said. Just a few years later, today, the head of the PTA is a man.

The schools are open minded about having more dads become homeroom moms, etc., i've found it's some of the other moms who have some sort of the problem.

Dec. 15 2009 10:54 AM
Marielle from Brooklyn

My son attends a small Catholic school in Brooklyn, and I was just telling my mother the other day what a strong presence the fathers are at his school and what a difference it is from when we were children. I think it's a combination of dads being unemployed, working from home, working part-time, and working on flexible schedules, so they can spend a lot more time at school. Also, we were one of the Catholic schools that was threatened with closure last year, and I think that may have motivated a lot more people to get involved and raise money to keep us open.

Dec. 15 2009 10:54 AM
Melissa from Brooklyn

it's unbelievable that callers are questioning the idea that mothers do the vast majority of volunteer work at their kids' school. talk about denial!!

Dec. 15 2009 10:54 AM
Jon from NYC

Your caller just nailed it on the head: Why hire a pro when you can get volunteers (or unpaid interns) to do work for free?

Dec. 15 2009 10:54 AM
Another listener from Brooklyn from Brooklyn

I have discussed the inequality of resources (based on parents' wealth) between wealthier schools and poorer schools w/ friends of mine who have children and who have been involved w/ fundraisers and volunteering at their childrens' (wealthy/middle class schools). I have asked them if the parents at their school would ever consider "adopting" a poorer school and giving a percentage of proceeds from their fundraisers to it or to share some of the other largess (donations from corporate contacts such as computers) they benefit from.
It had never occurred to them.

In listening to their stories of volunteering and fundraisers, they HAVE mentioned fathers' participation.

Dec. 15 2009 10:53 AM
Robert from NYC

you seem to be ticking people off! Stop the "new" in your face journalism and let people finish an answer to the question YOU put to them1

Dec. 15 2009 10:53 AM
WILL from williamsburg

I am a man who works AND volunteers. I used to teach and I found the kids who had involved parents did better. Our schools face vicious budget cuts, and we lose programs right and left. I would rather rare funds go to programs rather than snacks or aides when parents can show their esteem for education by volunteering.

But really it's pretty self selective. Someone who holds a selfish attitude like this - I would prefer they stayed out of the schools.

Dec. 15 2009 10:53 AM
Scott from Brooklyn

I volunteered for 3 years at my kids public school- I "mentored" 3 kids,( meaning we read together in the hallways) and all the kids were fatherless or didn't really see their dads much. I found it really rewarding and the cooperating teacher was very appreciative. I was disapointed that I couldn't follow the children to the next grade and maintain the relationship ( it was subject to the teachers approval.) I have also set-up pot lucks and continue to help the Theater program at my kids present school. I argue with my wife about not including men in the PTA process- women hold on to stuff and don't admit it.

Dec. 15 2009 10:52 AM
Jgarbuz from Queens, NY

When men get a 50% chance of getting custody of their kids in case of divorce, then men should put up 50% of the work required with children. But as long as men are not seen by the powers-that-be as having at least a 50% equity stake in their children, I can't see why they should be expected to do 50% of the work in regards to their children. A partner who doesn't have a 50% equity stake in his business, shouldn't be expected to put in 50% of the total physical effort involved.

Dec. 15 2009 10:51 AM
asdfadfadsf from NJ

I am too glad to direct traffic, raise money for classrooms, run parties, make calls to congressmen, put up and advocate for community bulletin boards, anything that helps the school -- our partner in raising our kids. I'm a dad.

Incidentally, Brian, most volunteers in terms of time are men. If coaching counts dads, not moms, do the majority of volunteer work.

Dec. 15 2009 10:50 AM
Betty Anne from UES

My niece's ballet (civic ballet) asked her mother to bring food for a tea party hosted by the group. The ballet then requested each parent and child pay $15.00 to attend the party.

Dec. 15 2009 10:49 AM
bernard joseph from brooklyn

men don't volunteer as much because bored, stay at home moms like this are not working therefore someone has to pay the bills, right??
so these dads should quit their jobs and cackling women like this should go to work to keep the lights on.
can we have some real nyc moms on here? listening to this upper crust accent makes my stomach instantly sick

Dec. 15 2009 10:49 AM
Pitt Cairn from Mohegan Lake, NY


The title of the piece is misleading. She doesn't say she won't volunteer anymore. She says she will reserve her efforts for places where it is most needed. The title is sensationalizing, and below the dignity of NPR.

As a frequent volunteer, I found nothing new here. We who regularly volunteer know that most folks don't, but we don't care. We do it for those we can help, and because we feel it is the right thing to do, and because we can. For those who don't - give it a try. You might find it the most wonderful thing you ever did.


Dec. 15 2009 09:44 AM
hjs from 11211

I guess it would depend on whether or not they are single issue voters or if they see the positive trends of the last 11 months as a good thing. clearly BHO is more progressive on all issues including human rights than the bush cheney mccain palin reagan gingrich ilk.

Dec. 15 2009 09:31 AM
Josh from Brooklyn

Sorry, but this article reminds me of those people who say "I won't get married until gays can get married" -- a nice sentiment in theory but more likely an excuse.

If you really want to volunteer for the poor, go do it. The reason that you might be finding it surprisingly difficult to find opportunities is that organizations tend to want someone who can make a real commitment, not just spend two hours at international food night, i.e. someone who will actually make a difference.

Dec. 15 2009 09:28 AM
Peter from Sunset Park

In a time when the President of the United States is backing health care reform that curtails a woman’s right to an affordable and safe abortion and in a time when the President is leading the charge against gay marriage and gays in the military, Ms. Olen’s article rings true. With the Obama administration being so aphetic and opposed to human and civil rights for all Americans, volunteers will be needed to work hard to push back the religious left agenda of the Obama administration. Volunteers will be needed to convince President Obama and his administration that equal, civil and human rights are for all Americans, not just some Americans. ran an article before the election stating that almost all of its staff members were voting for Obama. I wonder how the staff at Slate feel now regarding Obama’s abandonment of many human and civil rights.

Dec. 15 2009 08:53 AM

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