I grab my bag, all packed and ready for the day. Throw on my uniform, my internal dialogue raging on spin cycle – “Maybe I should wear my hair this way. Will Emma like me better if I wear the blue shirt or the white?” I’m kinda dreading the before school ritual, played out on the fringes of the quadrangle – “Will Isabel be my friend today? What if she ignores me and I have to walk to class by myself? What if NO-ONE talks to me?”
Then I remember. I am the parent and this is not my school day.
I think as school parents, we share this experience with our kids – the minefield of social belonging. We navigate through their school-hood looking out for them, trying to help them fit in, teaching them how to avoid being bullied and being a bully. But we are also on a similar battlefield as we try to build relationships and find our place with other parents who are, ostensibly, going through the same thing as us.
When Scout started Prep last year, I bonded with a smallish group of mums I’d never set eyes on before (and a couple I had known previously). They were all first-time school parents, either stay at home mums (I had a newborn Inky at the time) or part-time workers, often brutal in their accounts of motherhood, dropping F-bombs liberally, loyal and dependable folks who quickly became the fabric of my school mornings. During drop-off I gravitated towards these women and very quickly the association bled out to after-school get togethers. Importantly, we all made the effort to get to know each other outside pickup and drop off.
Toward the end of the year I committed the cardinal sin of suggesting a camping trip for some of the families, with the understanding that the invitation be extended to “whoever”. Clearly I managed to piss some of the extended group off as it was suggested that I should have included all the prep parents in the initial invitation, leaving no-one out. We are talking about 50 preppies, so 100 parents give or take. In my opinion, this simply wasn’t practical. I had no interest in organising potentially 100 people (worst case scenario) on a camping trip. A picnic in the park, sure, but not a 3 day camping trip.
At about the same time, one of the mums I was close to told me that another of the mums who was not part of this group (she had an older child at school and was already well-versed in schoolyard life) had referred to us in conversation as “the impenetrable clique”. As I consider myself a reasonably empathetic person and not a complete arsehole, this truly horrified me. The criticism did allow me to ruminate (no cow’s jokes, please) on how I was coming across at school (and beyond) and whether the friends I had made were, indeed, a bunch of impenetrably cliquey bitches. The answer was a clear “No”. We were a bunch of friends with a shared outlook, but it wasn’t exclusive by any stretch. Like any friendship group, it swelled at times, it dwindled at times, with the natural rhythm of busy mums whose priorities and work or home timetables change. But it was always mums whose perspectives on parenthood, and life in general, were in sync and, importantly, parents who made the effort to be involved.
And with that, I realised something. You can’t be friends with everyone. I will be kind to people, even if I don’t particularly gel with them, but I won’t be close friends with everyone, in fact, relatively few. I am an extrovert, so am more than happy to chat to whoever (and geez, I love a chat, so spare pity for those parents) but the fact was, the mums in this group were my core people. The ones I had built trust with and with whom I’d made an effort to get to know.
There were plenty of other first-time Prep parents who I really liked and they themselves either congregated into their own little groups of like-mindeds, or were perfectly happy not structuring any kind of social circle around the school (through either choice or availability). There was also the subset of mums who had older kids at school and had already developed their own little groups. I really enjoyed the company of many of these women and caught up with them individually or as part of Playgroup, but I never expected to be part of their tight-knit circle. Theirs was a group that had been cemented over many years. It didn’t mean that they shut me out of conversations, but I definitely got to know them one-on-one as opposed to part of that group. I think there is a natural splintering of larger groups into smaller friendship circles, but it still broke my heart a little that other school mums thought we were shutting them out.
Now Scout is in Grade 1, I’m finding myself developing closer bonds with some mums I wasn’t aware of all that much last year. I’ve also put some distance between myself and the social politics of school, partly through choice, but also because I returned to work part-time in February and I simply wasn’t as available to that group. I think the schoolyard is very much a microcosm of society and it is with that perspective that I will be guiding Scout through the sadness, joy and stickiness of her school friendships.
I think over the past decade or so, there has been a shift towards the educational mantra “all kids should be treated equal”. Whilst I doubt our schools have become communist hotbeds exactly, there is a move away from singling out children as “special” and god forbid a student receives a certificate for something outstanding whilst others miss out. Although I think this has been done with the best of intentions, I don’t necessarily agree with it.
In life, there is hardship as much as there is opportunity and pleasure. There are people who will make fun of you. There are people who you will fall in love with, who won’t love you back. There are people who will want to flush your head down a toilet. Those who will want to snog you behind the shelter sheds at lunchtime. That’s life. I want Scout and Inky to navigate life’s shitstorms as resilient kids/adults and to understand that not everyone will want to be their friend, just as they won’t want to play with kids they don’t have anything in common with. I have my Bully Radar set to a healthy frequency, and will intervene if there is a pattern of bullying or ostracision, but as a parent I’m not altogether concerned if Scout is excluded occasionally from other kid’s games. We will always be her soft place to fall, but I think it is an important lesson for her to learn. We teach her to be kind to other kids (even if she doesn’t like them) but it’s OK if she doesn’t want to play with them. I don’t think friendship should be forced on kids any more than it should be on adults. But for a 6 year old, with all the shades of grey of social interaction, it is a difficult message. Christ, it’s difficult enough for their parents.
From my observations, Scout’s school has an extremely accepting parent community – it’s one of the things I most love about the school. It is a mix of professionals, inner-north fashionistas, artists, musos, students, full-time mums and dads and urban dags, but it’s not nearly as diverse as it was say, 10 years ago. At the risk of generalising, the local demographic has certainly changed and whilst not as homogenous as the eastern suburbs or as alternative as St. Kilda folk, there is a certain similarity in the socioeconomic thrust of the school community. I don’t know if this is the reason for not having experienced any “in” group looking down on the “minions”, but I’m extremely grateful for it.
Not everyone is so lucky, though.
I’ve heard stories of schools being ruled by a head “clique” – women (usually) who have formed a tight clan, a Mummy Mafia if you will, and literally turn their backs on those not with the “in” crowd and bitch about whoever the fuck they please, behind their backs and/or to their faces. These women are often fairly high up in the School Council hierarchy too, making school life even more unbearable. Grade 5 anyone? I find it a revolting proposition and suspect these parents are missing a vital humility gene – the acceptance that whilst you are not going to be friends with everyone, you can at least try to be kind – even if it is just to make small talk occasionally. It must be awful for parents subjected to this type of treatment to be plummeted smack-bang into their school days, missing out again on getting in with the Cool Crowd, and with it, that coveted school captaincy. I think this breed of “derisive clique” is very different, though, to the natural faction splintering that occurs in a larger group (but then, perhaps I was never meant to be a Sociology major).
My friend “S”, who lives a happy, hippy lifestyle, has a daughter who goes to a school in a wealthy eastern-suburb. “S” doesn’t perceive the cliqueness as intentional, but does notice a real difference between her and the more typical and fashionable “mums that lunch”. “S” is a person very comfortable in her own skin, so whilst she is aware of the difference, I doubt she’s really bothered by it. Similarly, another friend, “N”, reckons that the ‘clique’ at her school is often superficial with no genuine connection apart from availability. Availability seems key here – parents who work outside the home often find it difficult to make time for other parents. But working less is not always an option.
I also think when we walk into school at the beginning of the day, we can battle with the nagging 10 year old “us” trapped in our psyche that whines, “You’re not COOL enough. No-one is going to LIKE you. Why did you wear the BROOCH when all the cool people are wearing HEADBANDS you IDIOT“, but I’ve no doubt that every other parent is thinking the same thing (unless, of course, you’re Miranda Kerr, but we’ve already established that she’s probably not human). That being said, differences will always exist between people and we will be attracted to those coming from a similar place. If that place is one of bitchy exclusivity, then that is one choice. I have no interest in being a part of that crowd and am not likely to respect those in it, but that is my choice. In my opinion, a clique is only as powerful as those not in the clique make it. As parents, I don’t think we need to be scared of them. I think ultimately we all have the desire to belong, but we also need to make the effort to belong to the right people for us.
On one hand, we should perhaps ignore the inner “us” telling us we won’t fit in, but also remember that everything that awkward whippersnapper experienced in the playground 30 years ago, good and bad, has made us who we are today (sorry for the cliche – I just did a little self-inflicted vomit in my mouth).
And if all else fails, we can leave the grounds at 9.00.
Have you experienced cliquey behaviour at your school or been accused of being cliquey yourself?