Are school mums really cliquey?

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 Photo: Getty Images

In the years leading up to my eldest starting school I heard a lot of negative things about what I had coming.

School mums got a bad wrap – online articles warned of schoolyard cliques and books (such as Liane Moriarty's The husbands secret) painted a picture of mums fighting it out to rule the school.

During that first term I braced myself for conflict, but none came. I found other parents (there are always a few dads but it's mostly mums) at afternoon pick up friendly and approachable.

My fellow kindy mums were all keen to make friends. Our class representative drew up a contact list and organised a night out. Cliquey was the last word that came to mind.

Over the last few years, definite friendship groups have developed. In some ways we are at the mercy of our children – my closest friends at the school are the mothers of children that my daughters like to play with.

We are the same crowd standing around at birthday parties while our children throw themselves around on trampolines or fling themselves in ball pits. We're not cliquey though.

Or so I thought.

But when Liane Moriarty's book (and subsequent TV series Big Little Lies) came up in conversation I was surprised that one of my school mum friends compared the bitchiness between mums to our own schoolyard.

"It's so true – all the different mum groups and how competitive they are," she said.

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It turns out that to my friend Anna* our schoolyard groups that huddle in cosy circles discussing the news of the day (sometimes on an incredibly local scale) are actually cliquey. She confessed that she prefers to collect her children from outside their classroom and said that she dreads descending the stairs to the playground.

I was genuinely flummoxed – I like to go to pick up early so that I can have a chat (being self employed and working from home means that by 3pm I am craving human interaction) and have found the school community friendly and welcoming. It started to dawn on me that while I found those huddles friendly, they may not appear so friendly from the outside. Another horrible question started to sink in – what if I'm a cliquey school mum?

I did a lot of soul searching that week. At school I tried to take a step back and see if the group dynamic that I perceived as friendly and welcoming could seem cliquey from the outside. It struck me that in reality - it could be both.

I spoke to psychologist Jocelyn Brewer to learn more about group dynamics. She tells me that cliques are a hangover from our ancient ancestors who relied on community living to survive.

"In modern life it is our social survival that is at stake, not our physical survival. The group identity then creates a sense of outsider or 'otherness', which is then felt to varying degrees and importance by others," Brewer explains.

Group dynamics can often be fraught, but this can be felt especially keenly in school communities. "Parenting is a very sensitive area with lots of emotions involved and at play with kids, friendship and their wellbeing - this plays into the interactions of parents and the sporting and school communities," says Brewer.

Is it possible that two people could perceive a school community in totally different ways? "Absolutely," says Brewer. "We all want to belong, be liked and included in communities that are important and central to us. One person might feel different to other parents - either from a culture, interests, values point of view and therefore feel apart from the others."

On top of this, we all bring past experiences to current situations, which can alter our perceptions. I relate to this, having had poor experiences in team sport as a kid I am quite weary of sports teams now.

What can we take from this? For me the answer is simple – while I am enjoying my friendly chats in the schoolyard I'll be more mindful about the parents on the sidelines. If I don't want to be in a cliquey school I have to make sure that I'm not part of the problem.