When my youngest child entered first grade a few years ago, I made a tactical mistake: I volunteered to be the room parent of her class. As a working and somewhat disorganized mother of three, I wasn’t terribly eager to take on that position. But the parent-teacher organization’s “room-parent coordinator” had cornered me and revealed, with horror, that Mrs. C’s class was the only one without a designated parent volunteer. How could I say no?
In the modern elementary school, the room parent is the politically corrected version of the room mother, a kind, generous and endlessly patient figure who serves as the liaison between teacher and students. Chief duties include organizing parent volunteers for the classroom, buying presents for the teacher and arranging holiday parties – activities, I should note, that all fall in the lowest quartile of my skill set, along with baking cupcakes and crafts of any sort. But, I reasoned, I didn’t have to frost or glue to be room parent; all I had to do was delegate.
Wisely, I convinced another, much more spreadsheet-savvy mother to be my “co room-parent” – rather than have one of us serve as “head room parent,” as some classes did – and she did an outstanding job of tracking parent donations and volunteers. Still, the vastness of our undertaking soon became apparent when the room-parent coordinator sent a packet of sample letters we could email to the other parents in the class: one introducing ourselves, one explaining the fall fundraiser, one about the Halloween party, and so on. Rather than appreciate the help, I felt demeaned. It was my first taste of extreme room parenting, the latest entry in what seems to be an epidemic of well-intentioned people making things more complicated than necessary.
Indeed, like so many aspects of life with children, from after-school sports to the college application process, room parenting has spun out of control. What no doubt started out as a few mothers helping the teacher by passing out cookies and juice has turned into a competitive, high-stakes operation, typically involving dizzying chains of Reply-to-All emails – “I’ll bring the napkins!” – and careful tallies of who chaperoned which field trip.
Just look online. Websites like roomparentsonline.com and familyfun.go.com offer all sorts of advice and earnest suggestions for room parents, like how to make apple cider with your class or “Build strong parent bonds by emailing pictures.” (On my favorite site, coolroommom.com, a laid-back blogger half-heartedly urges her party suppliers to provide “healthy” snacks, while making cupcakes herself.) Oak Knoll elementary school in Menlo Park, Calif., features expansive room-parent resources on its website, including downloadable sample sign-up sheets for class parties and playground volunteers, and a three-page schedule of room-parent activities by month; in January, first grade room parents are advised to coordinate with their teachers “to plan and execute Lunar New Year celebrations,” and kindergarten room parents should approach their teachers in November “to see if they would like any assistance with Native American Day.”
It’s hard to know where to lay the blame. The room parent has more constituents making demands than an incumbent governor: the teacher, the students, the parents and the PTO, for starters. The children themselves are perhaps the harshest critics. After this year’s third-grade Halloween party, I overheard one of my daughter’s friend say bitterly to her: “Your class got donuts, cookies and candy? All we got was donuts and candy.” No room parent wants to be regarded as slumming it while the other classes are feasting on caviar.
And while the other parents can be a room parent’s best friends, they also can prove the biggest obstacle to getting things done. When my friend Carla (not her real name) graciously offered up her room-parenting services for her son’s fourth grade class, she methodically went down the class list and called each family, requesting a specific contribution for the upcoming Halloween party. One mother, asked to supply the juice boxes, flew into an insulted rage. “You may not know me,” Carla recalls her saying, “but I’m a baker and a maker, not a juice box provider!” She went on to blast the teacher’s planned activities – which included bobbing for apples and relay races – and showed up at the party unsolicited, bearing craft supplies.
Another room parent had her powers usurped by an eager mother who introduced her own freelance teacher’s gift idea at Christmastime: a bracelet composed of two dozen birthstones, one for each child in the class. She sent around an email asking everyone to submit their child’s birthstone so she could construct the bracelet. This prompted griping from at least one mother in the class, who first had to figure out what her son’s birthstone was. Besides, she said, she harbored grave doubts that Ms. K would really glance down at her wrist in future years and think, “Awww…. amethyst. That’s Timmy!”
The concept of the room parent has trickled down into other arenas of the overscheduled child’s life: I have had dealings with the football parent, the basketball parent, the baseball parent, the soccer parent and the Hebrew school parent. (None of my kids sings or dances, but I’m told those activities also require a chorus or theater parent.) Their function is essentially the same as the classroom parent’s: to make sure the coach/teacher/director is appropriately acknowledged for his or her efforts and to organize parties, generally laden with junk food.
As my kids have grown up, they’ve stopped asking me to serve as the “parent” for anything they do – partly because they are increasingly embarrassed by my presence around their peers, and partly because they are more aware of my shortcomings. Indeed, in December, when the Hebrew School room parent sent an email listing the items our children had offered to bring in for the Hanukkah party, I was pleased to see that my daughter had volunteered store-bought Cheez-Its. She knew full well that the hand-frosted cupcakes would have to come from someone else.
Susan H. Greenberg is the culture editor of Newsweek International.