Schools expect far too much from parents

My mum never worked in the tuckshop. She occasionally came on excursions if the teachers asked for helpers. She did lift club (we mostly caught the bus), and would bake for our class cake sale once a year.

We had a concert every two years that my parents would attend.  And at the end of the year, Christmas carols and prize giving were rolled into one.

Other than that my mother was not expected or asked to do anything more for the school, even though, like most of my peers’ mothers, she didn’t work until I was in high school.

My sister and I never felt unsupported, and did fine at school, so why do schools now ask for so much more from parents, even though both parents are far more likely to be working?

Our kids go to the local public school, a good school, with a supportive community, where most of the parents work full or part time. 

We know they want to see us in the crowd, but resent how time consuming school events are.

In any given year we are asked or expected to, make hats for the Easter parade, sell raffle tickets, donate Easter eggs, bake a cake for the school fundraiser, man stalls at the school fundraiser, buy our own Mother’s Day gift, pay for our own Mother’s Day gifts, wrap our own Mother’s Day gifts, serve Mother’s Day morning tea, serve Father’s Day breakfast, help with reading groups, attend two teacher meetings a year, be present when kids get certificates in assembly, be present when kids perform in assembly, be present when the band performs, be present for the school dance performance, create costumes for book week parade, volunteer as class parent, remember nude food day, pay for a sausages when it’s the athletics carnival, fill out the forms for crap school photos, complete a survey for the You Can Do It programme, return all the forms for camp, in-school sport, medical needs, enrichment programmes, ICAS and more, help cater for the Kindy orientation, donate prizes for the Halloween Disco, remember Jersey Day, and Bandana Day, turn up for Education Week morning tea, send them to school in mufti for the year 6 fundraiser, get the little one to the Kindy playdate (with a plate of eats), support the Premier’s Reading Challenge, support the Principle’s Reading Challenge, attend the Triva Night, and recover from the Trivia Night.

Homework can challenge both child and parent. 

That is on top of helping with homework, getting them to their two activities each (the middle one only got one this year because I couldn’t fit another one in) and just getting them to and from school (no easy feat when you have three, both parents work and sometimes travel).

And legally we are required to feed and clothe them too.

Plus, don’t get me started on fostering resilience, watching out for depression and anxiety, making sure they are developing a healthy body image, and are enjoying their childhood.

All on top of maintaining a thin veneer of professionalism.

A few weeks ago I was in the office doing just that, when the school office called to tell me our youngest didn’t have any lunch.

When kids start school, it's not just them who struggle to keep up with the busy schedule.

I was puzzled because that morning she had proudly shown me the lunch she packed, and so I said that she just needed to sort it out herself (that’s how we foster resilience.)

They actually suggested that I could make it to school in time for recess, expecting me to drive across town, during work hours, with a freshly-made sandwich in tow.

Of course there are parents for whom involvement in the school community and their kids’ schooling is a source of great enjoyment.

I salute them and thank them for their dedication and community spirit, and I’m sure our hardworking teachers are very grateful for the ways in which they help ease their load.

But we need to find a better way of supporting our kids’ schooling, because I believe the current model adds undue stress on already overburdened parents.

When I recently realised I had an anxiety problem, and with the help of my GP and a counsellor found a way to deal with it, I suddenly noticed how many other mums were suffering the same thing.

Most women have more productive things to do with their time than making Easter bonnets.

I decided to be open about what I was experiencing, and discovered at least five other women in my circle of mum friends who were facing the same issues. 

At some points we found it debilitating, other times it gets in the way of productive work, or enjoyment, but most consistently it transfers stress onto other members of our families, the very people we are trying to support.

The pressure to constantly do extra stuff for the school is only one cause of these symptoms, and there are numerous other ways we could look at relieving the pressure on working parents, but given that what’s expected from the school is supposed to benefit our kids, we need to acknowledge that there may be unintended consequences.

So here is what I propose: let’s reconsider the need for each and every event on the school calendar and weigh up its value against what is expected from parents.

And you're also expected to deliver treats for the whole class on their birthdays.

Let’s look long and hard at the Mother’s Day gift stall and ask whether it is building community and raising funds, or is a dispiriting event that exploits women’s time in return for unwanted, thoughtless trinkets.

Chocolate raffle? Really? Let’s think about that one a bit harder.

If there’s a need to distribute vast amounts of certificates, can they be done on one day, so parents with three kids and a job don’t have to pick favourites?

And let’s send the certificates digitally, to spare us having to clap for every child who’s getting an award for risk-taking in spelling.

Can't we rather spend the time running free on the beach.

Then let’s find out from the school community what skills they do possess and harness those, so that instead of our kids seeing highly skilled and qualified women whiling away a morning wrapping chocolate hampers, they instead see the trained landscape architect thanked for her beautiful contribution to the school grounds, or the web designer shown appreciation for making the school website more usable.

Each of the events on the school calendar may seem important in their own right, but add them up, and many get in the way of much more important things - like doing paid work, taking the kids to the beach, returning to university, having lunch with mates, or sitting on the couch reading a good book.

Try this mantra to lessen your domestic load

A school friend recently posted a picture on social media showing a large pile of teenage boy washing in a heap in front of the machine with the caption, “Ryan’s home for the holidays!”

Ryan needs to learn to use a washing machine, I thought.

Ok, I didn’t just think it, I posted it as a comment, because if he can handle first year university, drive a car, and buy his own beer, he’s old enough to do his own laundry.

Proof that you don't need excessive skill (or height) to do your own laundry.

I get that my friend might have been pleased to have her first-born home and didn’t mind showing him a bit of motherly love, but for anyone else out there who feels overburdened by housework, and sick to death of cleaning, tidying and cooking, perhaps this mantra can help.

Just don’t do it.

Say it quietly in your head when confronted with dirty breakfast bowls abandoned on the table. Chant it mindfully when the compulsion arises to repack an unruly sock drawer. Repeat it obsessively when thrust an empty chip packet or snotty tissue.

There is no reason why kids can’t put their own rubbish in the bin, clear their plates, and tidy their rooms.

And while we are at it, they can also, put on a load of washing, empty the dishwasher, pack their own clothes away, make their school lunch, help with dinner, set the table, feed the cat, clean the bathroom and pick up a duster once in a while.

But why would anyone in your house do any of this, when they know you’ll do it instead?

That’s why you need to stop – because you could be complicit in your own enslavement.

Got milk? We are all entitled to our own priorities.

Got milk? We are all entitled to our own priorities.

The sky will not fall in if there’s no milk for the morning, your kids go to school with traces of yesterday’s lunch on their uniform, or the wrong kind of cheese ends up in the weekly shop. 

In fact, you might find others in your house unleash skills you didn’t know they have, like milk monitoring capabilities, the power to book a babysitter, or a sixth sense for when the oven needs cleaning.

Sure, they might not separate the whites and the darks correctly, or give your specially coated frying pan the royal treatment you think it deserves, but is this really how you want to spend your time?

We all have have skills and accomplishments, and our time has value, so there are other, more productive places we could be directing our energy. And it’s up to us to do that.

Of course, no one is suggesting you let your home descend into chaos and filth, but you can make progress towards more a more equitable distribution of home chores when you step back here and there and necessitate others stepping in to bat.

Or, as my good friend calls it, when you resign your role as Master of the Universe.

There is nothing about most people’s ability, training, experience or genetic makeup that deems them more suitable than anyone else for managing the tedium of home life, but the hard truth is that domestic chores are not evenly shared.

Not everyone values a beautifully made bed, but if you do, make it for you.

Not everyone values a beautifully made bed, but if you do, make it for you.

We could spend hours debating how much of that is caused by social pressures, cultural norms, or how family income is earned, but a small part of it is also the result of some people being faster to pick up a broom, more experienced at rustling up a family meal, or more likely to have a range of babysitters numbers in their phone. 

And when one person habitually jumps in, others see less need, don’t develop the skill, or lose the resources needed to complete the myriad of mundane tasks needed to keep a family moving forward.

I’m not suggesting anyone completely abdicates from home duties, but I do think reconsidering how much we are willingly take on is important.

A good place to start is to stop taking briefs. We all have busy lives.  No one’s life is busier than anyone’s else, so it’s fine to support a project in principle, but to decline from getting involved because you don’t have time.

If it’s suggested the aircon needs fixing, the pest control people should come in, or the kids’ cupboards are full of clothes they’ve grown out of, a useful response could be, “You’re absolutely right. I’m flat out at the moment so I can’t take it on, but let me know how you go.”

All your major food groups? Close enough.

All your major food groups? Close enough.

Another option is to let standards drop once in a while. Too tired or uninspired to thrown together another gourmet, fully organic, nutritionally balanced family meal? Instead, tell the kids they can make what they like for dinner.

My kids once served themselves pea, ham and jam sandwiches, which is so close to containing all the major food groups that I notched myself a win.

Weet-bix and cheese with an apple for desert? Perfect.

And then there’s redoing things others have already done, because they weren’t done properly. What’s with that?

No one ever died because the dishwasher wasn’t stacked your way, or the laundry wasn’t folded to your exacting standards.

Sure, there are things you like done in a certain way for a reason - no designer bras in the drier, only low-sugar snacks, tea-towels washed separately - but if that’s your thing, you’re going to have to own it, wear it and live with it.

I used to insist all beds were changed once a week. With three kids it was a monumental task.  Now I change only our sheets every week, and I do it for myself, because I like clean sheets.

As for the kids, I stand at the top of the stairs and yell, “Who wants to wash their linen today?” Then I wait for the silence and go back to what I was doing.

Give up the grocery shopping, and have a cup of tea.

Give up the grocery shopping, and have a cup of tea.

If we are confronting an infestation of parasitic creatures, it’s a different story, but now that we are out of the phase when every tummy bug and respiratory infection seemed to cycle through our family, I reckon I can slack off a bit.

And don’t think you’re going to get others in your house to help out, if you constantly score their efforts. A little bit of positive affirmation goes a long way.

After all, what difference does it really make if the weekly shop included a fresh lettuce and there was already one in the fridge. So long as you didn’t have to spend an hour doing the groceries, you’re winning.

A lettuce costs $1.90, so even if you’re earning the minimum wage, you’re $16.39 up, and had a free hour.

Over a year, that’s more than two days of your time, just for not mentioning the reusable bags were in the boot all along.

In the end, all we really have on this planet is time, and I am pretty sure no one ever said when theirs was running out that they wished they had vacuumed more often.