Sarah Tucker explores the gossiping world of the playground mafia working under cover in our children’s playgrounds.
Having spent most of the past ten years at some time of the day in a playground picking up or collecting my son, I have observed how little has changed since I first published my best selling novel The Playground Mafia, about a single mother who moves to a new area and a new school with her four year old son Ben. Despite giving advice and top tips over the years about how to deal with small minded gossip amongst hippies (high impact parents) who have too much time on their hands, I still hear the sort of experiences that would make the obnoxious characters I wrote about in PM pale into insignificance. I recently heard about one mother, on learning that someone else’s child was up for a place at the same school her son was applying to, how she had invited the other child to a play date at her son’s house, encouraging the child to eat lots of caffeinated drinks and sweet stuff so they slept badly and weren’t best prepared for the interview the following morning. I learnt of another mother who refused to give the homework details to another parent whose child had been ill that day. Another mother went one step further and advised that exams started at a later time than they did, when another mother asked to confirm times. It was only when she met a teacher in the street the morning before the exam she learnt of the right time. She did the right thing, called the mother thinking she had been misinformed only to learn that she had known the right time all along. Then there was the one about spreading rumour about another mother sleeping with a teacher when they know it’s not true. The stories are never ending and become increasingly mean spirited – the mothers of daughters being decidedly more spiteful and calculating than those of boys.
It all seems so petty, so small minded and it is, but it’s more important than office politics because it involves our children. You can resign from a job but not your role as a mother and I heard of so many tales of parents moving their children to another school not because there was anything wrong with the school or the discipline in the classrooms, just that the other parents were as one mother from Barnes put it succinctly ‘arseholes’.
‘There is only so many times you can move schools. And it’s ridiculous explaining that you’re moving school not because your child is getting bullied but you are as their mother. The point is the school can’t do anything to effectively ‘discipline parents behaviour. If your husband was an MP or CEO or someone ‘famous’ then you were alpha mother. If you or your husband was a nobody it didn’t matter how wonderful your child, they weren’t invited to anything.’ She told me.
Another mother from Clapham, one of the many nappy valleys in and around London, told me that she googled all the parents in her daughter’s class when first meeting them and only invited those parents who could provide her company (she was in PR) with prospective business. She saw nothing wrong in it. ‘I am a career mother and it seems a waste to use the ability to network even in the playground to full effect.’ Quite.
I realised from very early on that mothers subconsciously point scored against each other, even before they got to the playground stage – who had the smallest bump which mum had no stretch marks, who gave birth without painkillers and so forth. The talk was as small as the babies they held. When my own son Tom went to school, I became aware of an unspoken ‘points system’ that applied to the parent as much as it did to the child. I realised as a single mother of one, I already had more crosses to my name than ticks. Father works in the City: tick. Divorced: cross. Single child: cross. House in France: tick – that sort of thing.The ‘mine is better than yours’ rule in the world of the playground mafia applied to the child as much as it did to the house, the car, the hairstyle, the husband, the income the holiday, the accent.
One of the psychologists I interviewed suggested the behaviour was similar to a pack of wolves. Consider the alpha female of the wolves, who is very clever. In order to maintain her position, she psyches out all the other female wolves so they can’t breed. We’ve got research saying we’re spending too much money on our children/we’re not spending enough on our children. We spent too much time with our children/we don’t spend enough time with our children. Full time working mothers are bad/stay at home mothers are bad. It’s confusing and no one, least of all the children, win. What I say within a fictional book is not to judge one sort of parenting style over another, because I don’t think that anyone has the right to. One mother I interviewed on her daily trip to the playground said that it was like a social minefield. ‘I wouldn’t say that anyone is particularly unpleasant, but you have to put up with the competitiveness and the yes but my child does that better than yours syndrome, she told me. Whether or not its actually the case, you get the distinct feeling that everyone is judging you. If you work, you’re a selfish bitch putting yourself before your kids, if you stay at home all day you’re lazy and stupid. And stay at home mums get extremely annoyed when those mothers who work in an office call themselves ‘mothers who work’. As one stay at home mum said to me last year ‘what the hell do they think I get up to with four children and no nanny?’
So how do you recognise the playground mafia?The mafia is predominantly, but not exclusively, middle class. It is as rife in state as it is in private. The mafia uses the networking structures of the PTA and parent governors not only to ensure their children mix with the right sort of child (nicely spoken with parents who work in finance, law, or at a push the arts – although admitting your dad is a banker these days is tantamount to saying you are related to a NAZIs war criminal) but also that the parents are potential business contacts. The Mafia mums breakdown the mothers into categories – the worthies and the unworthies. The unworthies are parents who have nothing to offer either financially or socially, and who have children who are not as bright as those of the playground mafia. The other categories of mothers in the playground include the Sweaty Bettys, who wear sports gear and look as though they’re just about to go for a five mile jog but never break into a sweat.
Then there are the Mini Mums, described as such not because of the car they drive but their height. Any woman under five four according to many of the parents and teachers I interviewed, are usually more ruthless and quietly ambitious for their kids than those of a taller disposition. ‘A lot is said of the chippy little man having an attitude, but what is true of a little man is doubly so of a short woman.’ Says one head teacher who refuses to be named. As such Mini Mums they tend to stick with their own kind (and height).
Have I experienced the Playground Mafia? Well yes and no. My son is fortunate to go to a private school and taking his tests for the next stage of schooling.The schools are tough to get into. Tough as in the boys all need extra tuition. Of course all the mums had been hot housing their children for years, but in the playground assuring all the other mothers that there is no need for extra tuition and how it’s silly to overload their children as they need some down time as well. What rubbish. The names of tutors were kept secret and children were told under fear of grounding, not to mention a word to their peers. Only when their offspring had gained entry to the schools were they able and willing to share details. I found this out when I went to a tutor myself (I told parents about it in the playground) and found out half the class had already seen her. Forget the idea of nurturing sharing and caring. The playground is a minefield and it’s still resolutely every mother for themselves.
Of course, apart from that little incident, I’ve never experienced the playground mafia myself. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?