As far as I can tell, there are no how-to manuals on the subject, no weekend seminars, no instructional videos you can check out of the library.
As with so much else in life, the best guide is just old-fashioned experience – though I'd happily buy the book, attend the seminar, or watch the video if it helped me form a coping strategy for the notes, newsletters, and fundraising appeals my 9-year-old son, Brian, regularly brings home from school.
Some days I get the feeling that learning the three R's isn't the reason he's there at all. I'm convinced his primary mission is to serve as an apprentice courier, whose day isn't complete until another school-related message has found its way into his backpack.
Of course I jest – but only just. In fact, standing in the kitchen in front of our family bulletin board, I can see that Brian has been a very busy messenger boy of late. Those notes I'm able to read – the board is three or four sheets deep in places – include:
• A school sports and vacation schedule running to the end of the academic year.
• An update on safety concerns about the school's "Walking Bus" initiative – a program that encourages younger children to walk together each morning under adult supervision.
• A reminder about an upcoming Family Quiz Night organized by the PTA.
• Separate half-page notes – which I plan to relocate to the fridge door and fan out for emphasis – about a school-sponsored clothing drive and cake sale.
Not exactly overwhelming stuff, I know, but that's just the tip of an ever-expanding iceberg. In addition to all this hard copy, I receive weekly updates via text message from my son's soccer coach about the times of his games and practice sessions, as well as e-mails from his Cub Scout leader to alert us to any future hikes or off-site meetings.
I shouldn't be grumbling, mind you. When I learned that I was going to become a parent, I understood that my future role would be a multidimensional one. In the years it would take to rear a child, I would be mentor, teacher, coach, and counselor.
It's only recently, though, that my duties and responsibilities as personal secretary to my son have begun to dawn on me. (Better now, I suppose, than when the college applications and financial aid forms start to come along.)
There's another reason I have no right to complain when it comes to the amount of official correspondence my wife and I are expected to handle on our son's behalf. Over the past few years, my voluntary pursuits have included coaching a youth baseball team, leading a local Boy Scout group, and serving in the school PTA. (If you're seeing a pattern here, you're obviously an involved parent yourself. Or maybe just a foolhardy one who hasn't yet learned how to say no.)
Anyway, at times in these positions I've been complicit in several rounds of text messaging, e-mailing, and old-fashioned ink-on-paper note distribution.
So I can see the situation from both sides. (Consider me a double agent – or a collaborator, if you'd prefer – in this well-intentioned struggle to keep parents informed.)
I can appreciate the vacant smiles you sometimes get when you try to hand an information sheet to the moms and dads picking up their kids from an organized activity. But I can also sympathize with school officials and coaches who try their best to inform parents about upcoming events, only to be greeted with parental astonishment when their child shows up for a game or field trip without the necessary gear or clothing.
So what has my dual status taught me about the value of all these homeward-bound announcements? Well, for starters, I've learned that a lot of paperwork could be eliminated if we cut out just a fraction of our kids' after-school activities and allowed them simply to play more among themselves. (And please, while we're at it, could we dispense with the term "playdate"?)
And second, I've observed that sometimes the most effective way to hand out information is to restrict its availability. The trick here is to leak some essential details – about a meeting or an activity, say – to a few well-chosen recipients. Soon, human nature will take its course, and those not in the loop will express a willingness to write and distribute a note themselves.
I can't say I've ever used this technique myself. But the next time my printer's ink is running low, I just might give it a try.