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The 7 Rules Every Parent Volunteer Should Know

How to fulfill your obligations without sacrificing your sanity.

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women volunteering at their children's event standing near the dessert table
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I have three children in three different stages — elementary, middle and high school. That means our family receives volunteering requests from three schools, three Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs), three swim teams, two drama clubs, one dance studio, one scouting troop, one neighborhood association, one youth sports organization and one house of worship.

If we were to fulfill all of our family’s requested volunteer obligations from these organizations, my husband and I would need to violate international cloning laws and both quit our day jobs.

Therefore, I have developed a set of rules that allow me to be present for my kids and the communities in which they participate, while still working, sleeping and — oh, you know — parenting.

If you are looking for tips for benevolent volunteerism, I can tell you I don't have that. With apologies to Liam Neeson in Taken, what I do have is a very particular set of skills. These are rules I have acquired over a very long career of parenting and half-assing it.

Never be a reluctant leader

The only reasons anyone should agree to a place on a board or any officer position are if you feel personally and passionately about building that community. Or you’re feeling lonely and want to make friends with other parents. New to the school? Offer to serve as PTA Membership Chair and your dance card will be full.

But never, ever take on a role because someone says to you: “If you don’t do it, no one will!”; or “You are the only person who can do it!”; and especially the big one, “Unless you take this on, we will have to dissolve.” That’s patently untrue. If every pore of your being is telling you not to take on a role, run.

Here’s my infallible answer that will get you out of any situation where you’re feeling pressured: “I feel called to serve in another way.” The vaguely spiritual tone will exonerate you completely. Be sure to channel Mother Teresa.

Sign up for napkins

When your child receives a sign-up for the French class potluck, which one would you rather him put you down for — traditional crème brûlée for 35, or a pack of paper napkins? Remember, you will only learn about this assignment the night before he needs to bring it in, or even on the drive to school that morning. Napkins are the busy parent's ace in the hole. Start telling your kids about your family’s awesome napkin tradition, dating back for centuries. Tell them the story of the napkins in preschool, daycare, kindergarten, in utero. And for goodness sake, open every sign-up email immediately to snag the napkins’ slot first.

One-off jobs are your friend

Bringing donuts for the safety patrol team every Friday morning from September through May? Nope-nope-nope-nope. Bringing donuts for the singular Teacher Appreciation Breakfast on May 6? Hell, yes.

Knock out your obligations early

If your family is involved in a school or organization that has a volunteer-instance minimum, get them all out of the way as early as you can. You’ll get first dibs on the jobs you like best (see napkins, above), and the beginning of the school year is chock-full of volunteer opportunities at events you already are required to attend. Which leads us to …

Do something if you have to be there anyways

The Back-to-School carnival makes you want to claw your eyes out, but your kids insist it’s the elementary set’s version of the Met Ball. So, you might as well offer to tear tickets or work the ring toss. It’ll make the time pass more quickly. I learned this lesson from my friend Kim, who always volunteers to be a timer at swim meets. She clued me in that even though you are on your feet the whole time, it makes the event go faster. I joined her with a stopwatch on the pool deck and learned that she was right. The event took four hours and felt like four hours, instead of the 12 hours it lasts from the stands.

Your volunteer visibility should be in inverse relationship to your kid’s age

Serve as the kindergarten class Mystery Reader at story time? Absolutely! You will make your child’s entire year. Perform Hamlet’s soliloquy for the AP English fundraiser? Get thee to a nunnery.

Do what makes your kid happy

This is the most important rule of all. The first person you should consult before volunteering for something is not your PTA president or Sunday school superintendent. It’s your kid. If he loves it when your family works the baseball team mulch sale or when you talk about your job on Career Day, then that’s the volunteer role you take on. Everything else isn’t that important. Except the napkins. Always get first dibs on napkins.