Mothers Can Still Be Mean Girls

Parents at Sydne Didier’s son’s school treat her with disdain for challenging the status quo. Turns out, the parents have cliques too.

When my son started school nine years ago, I walked him to his classroom every morning. Hand-in-hand, we skipped like a television version of what parenting and childhood should be. I smiled and said hello to everyone, a Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood routine where the sun was always shining and my child greeted the day with wonder and enthusiasm.

These days when I drop him off and pick him up, I stay in the car. I talk to no one. It’s easier that way. I don’t have to say hello. I don’t have to navigate the politics of who says hello back, who looks away as if they don’t see me, who smiles artificially and pretends they still like me.

I’ve learned a lot over my son’s years in school. Primarily, I’ve learned that little changes as you get older. The same 6th grade girls who made me cry when I was young are still in power at school and still make me feel as small as I did then.

At my son’s school, there are parent cliques, the most powerful of which is the group of mothers who stand together in the drop-off circle. The ones I call the “Prom Moms” always have someone to talk to. They travel in a pack, work carefully with the school administration, and volunteer for all school events.

I am part of a different group, one I call the “Misfits.” We are the freaks and geeks of the parent set, the ones who are not passive, whose kids aren’t happy-go-lucky about the school experience, and we are the ones who ask questions.

My son attends a “progressive” school where the language of “kind and safe” is bandied about on a daily basis. The curriculum includes “Steps to Respect,” a program to counter bullying, and the school describes itself as an environment seeking to teach kids: “to collaborate and that each person has something to offer…they learn to be good listeners and to respect each other’s opinions…Coming together, students can learn compassion, resolve conflict, and recognize acts of fairness and kindness.”

It’s a fantastic set of goals. But the expectation of the culture we want our children to create is, sadly, not replicated by parents and the administration. The very things we teach our children to be critical of, to speak up if they see, and to work to change are often exemplified by the adults surrounding them.

For me, it’s an unacceptable hypocrisy and I speak out about the things I find troubling. I ask for us to assess and evaluate our practices to ensure that they truly are the best for our children. I believe it is my job as a parent to do this and in addition to making sure I thank and appreciate my son’s school for all they do well, because there is a lot they do well, I question things.

This act puts me on the outside of Prom Moms and school administrators who have a symbiotic relationship. Prom Moms do not cause trouble. Their children are engaged and active academically in a traditional way, and their voices are deemed more relevant than our Misfit misgivings. We are more easily disregarded and often, treated with disdain.

The disrespect is noticeable, and public. At one school meeting, I watched an administrator sigh and roll her eyes when a particular mother was mentioned, a mother I admire as a strong, vocal advocate for her child’s needs.

Recently, a Misfit called me after another school meeting where a Prom Mom had labeled me “unsupportive.” There were more eye rolls, and no effort to “learn compassion” or “resolve conflict” in the way we expect of our children. School administrators at the meeting did nothing to address the inappropriate behavior and did not follow up to learn why I had misgivings about a certain school activity. Instead, the comments were allowed to stand, and I was pushed farther away.

Prom Moms send school administrators screen captures of Facebook conversations they deem divisive, and once, the Head of school, having been forwarded a private conversation she was not a part of, told me I was potentially in violation of a school social media policy for even discussing an issue on Facebook. (In point of fact, I was not.)

Rather than engendering commitment to the school, this breeds mistrust, suspicion, and that high school feeling that people are talking about you in the hallways because, well, they are.

Increasingly, the administration and Prom Moms lament a lack of parent volunteerism, express disbelief that more parents aren’t stepping up, and question the numbers attending school functions. (And yes, they did actually coordinate an adults-only “Parent Prom.”) None of these problems come as a surprise to the Misfits.

The Prom Moms and administrators plan the events they would want to attend, never asking the community if it is right for them, if it is what they want, or if it will work for a variety of families. Then, they judge the rest of us for not participating according to their expectations.

Unlike me, my son has done well at this school. He has many friends and an active social life. He is inclusive, supportive of those in his cohort and I learn a great deal from his complete lack of judgement of others. If you are up for fun, he will count you as a friend.

As I watch him navigate social challenges, I wonder how we, as adults, can teach our children to treat each other with kindness and respect when we do not have the same expectations of ourselves. It seems a small thing to ask of the adults who surround my son at school. And yet, it is not.

I also wonder what would be different if the Misfit Mothers were fathers. Would a man challenging the status quo be evaluated harshly or would he be deemed an involved parent? Lauded for being a real part of his child’s education? Appreciated for raising substantive questions and ensuring quality in his child’s experience?

When a Misfit Mother questions the process, asks for accountability, argues for change, or demands transparency, she is considered one of “those” moms and a threat, and is dismissed accordingly. She is ignored, or criticized, and the group of women who stand together at drop-off make it clear that she is not part of their circle.

When I posted about my frustrations with this on Facebook, Misfit Mothers from all over the country responded with empathy because they confront the same issue in their own schools. And my own mother remembers her Misfit days as a single, divorced, working mom who did not belong.

Unlike in 6th grade, I don’t cry about it. But when I know I’ve been talked about in a school meeting, when I walk past a school administrator who won’t acknowledge me, or when I hide in my car to avoid the bother, it feels wrong.

Last year, my son’s school hosted an event with a nationally recognized writer on issues of bullying and how to end the culture of meanness among girls. I wonder if school communities might be better served by hiring people to help us take a look at ourselves, evaluate our own behaviors, and ask what we, as parents and educators, can be doing better to lead by example.

Sydne Didier is a writer living in Western Massachusetts. She is currently at work on a memoir about her family experience with international adoption from South Korea. When not writing, she enjoys swimming long distances in open water and running as far as her dog will go.

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