Dr. Wendy Walsh: Years ago, when I was helping to found a Booster Club at our local public elementary school, I was unabashed about approaching parents -- any parents -- to join our little crusade. And I was always stunned when someone would decline my invitation with the warning, "That group is too political for me." Our dedicated coffee klatsch of involved mothers (and a few fathers) didn't feel one bit "political" to me. But maybe that was because I possess a degree of natural social intelligence, and people -- whether they be alone or in groups -- rarely intimidate me.
Now that I'm six years into the "politics" of school life, I've spent some time analyzing the motives and methods of school parents -- and I would love to impart some wisdom.
First of all, every school, public and private, can use parent involvement. In these tough economic times, fundraising is key, yes -- but so is administrative support and academic participation. I would seriously question any school that does not welcome parent volunteers. With such a wide range of opportunities available, it's possible for parents to help their children's schools while avoiding the social "politics" that might seem like a burden to some. Besides, studies have shown that when parents are involved in their children's schools, their kids tend to do better academically, even if the parent isn't directly involved with their kid's classroom. It's as if the students know that their parents are watching, and subsequently feel supported to work harder.
Humans have some nifty ways of organizing themselves, and what seems "political" to one person might simply be a "strong organizational structure" to another. In most groups, there's plenty of room for everyone -- leaders, extroverts, worker bees and introverts. There is also room for a wide range of talents. Artistic parents (I wish I were one, sigh) tend to work on school beautification, while more logic-based parents gravitate toward financial or legal roles. The bakers run the bake sales, and the computer-savvy help lay out the yearbook.
When groups become "political," they're either rigid in their opportunities or unforgiving when a parent drops the ball and doesn't fulfill his or her promise. That's when school's PTA needs to sit back and remember their purpose, which is to support the school community -- especially time-strapped single parents. Volunteer organizations don't pay money (obviously); they pay in kudos. My advice is that you find your niche and then put your blinders on. Don't compare yourself to the trophy-winning "supermoms" who are so high-achieving they seem to exhibit symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Likewise, don't cast disapproving eyes at parents who can't keep up with your pace. We're all in the village together and need to support each other!