Peer Pressure Charity

One of the things I absolutely do not miss about public school is the peer pressure–and I’m not talking about the pressure among students, but rather that which other parents put on the others. I’m still surprised with what I let myself get pressured into, one of which was buying Christmas presents for a family I didn’t even know, and which in retrospect, had a rather dodgy backstory.

My son was in second grade, and one day, I received an announcement that on the suggestion of one of the parents, the teacher had assigned all the parents into small groups. Each group was to confer amongst itself for an appropriate Christmas gift (or set of gifts) for a member of a mystery family. None of us, save the parent who’d brought this project up with the teacher, knew this family, but the story was it was the family of the pastor of her church. They’d hit on hard times, and without our generous contributions, they would have no gifts for Christmas. So we would bring the spirit of Christmas to them, and be filled with the Christmas spirit ourselves as a result.

It was impolitic to ask: why was it this mysterious family couldn’t afford presents? Were they spendthrifts? Were they spending all their money buying Christmas gifts for other families? Why did a supposedly Christian family need presents, so much they had to become a commercial charity for strangers? Why were we recruited to buy stuff for them, when they probably entire church congregation who knew these people and capable of getting together a collection amongst themselves? And given that this family was in such desperate straights, wouldn’t they be just as happy if the parent who wanted us all to go shopping for that family just bought $5 of trinkets for them at the dollar store?  But I couldn’t opt out–the best Peter and I could do was find a $9 alternative to the $35 easel one of the other parents in my group wanted to get, so we wouldn’t have to pitch in quite so much. And even then, I was nervous, since it was important to look generous amongst my peers; the other parents would be judging the amount of my contribution, and for all I knew this supposedly-Christian family would be posting a report on the quality of their community-provided gifts so everyone could gasp in shock that some parents had bought an IKEA easel instead of the professional $500 easel the artistic son really wanted.

Note again, this was an activity I was corralled into, without being asked whether I wanted to take part in it or not, at a public school. And I knew that if I opted out, the other parents would talk about the fact that I’d done so, while they’d all blissfully opened their wallets. It continues to surprise me, now that I have my daughter at a private religious school, which has far less in resources, and a community undoubtedly with some needy members, how far less frequently I receive requests for money, and complaints about the lack of it, either for the institution or its members. And for that matter, how discreet the school and church are about how much each family is contributing financially. There’s opportunities to give, such as a weekly chapel, and required church services, but there’s no “minimum suggested” donation, no listing of how much each person gave, no differentiation between students with a scholarship and those without, and certainly, no showcasing of a family who wants us to give ’em stuff they don’t really need and can’t afford.

I think, if a pastor at my daughter’s church school opted out of having his family receive gifts one Christmas, it would be to place emphasis on the religious aspects of the holiday, rather than an announcement of poverty and an expectation that strangers in one of the classrooms would take care of getting Christmas present. And I would hope (and I do think) they wouldn’t turn to a public school classroom to save themselves the embarrassment and get gifts anyway.

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