Are you bullied by the playground mafia?
SARAH Tucker's novel has the incendiary properties of a match tossed into a box of fireworks.On the surface, all is jovial. Little cartoon-like drawings of poised women and a toy alligator create a sense of light-heartedness.
SARAH Tucker's novel has the incendiary properties of a match tossed into a box of fireworks.
On the surface, all is jovial. Little cartoon-like drawings of poised women and a toy alligator create a sense of light-heartedness.
However, underneath is a swirling mass of intimidation fuelled by insecurity. Bullies stalk Britain's playgrounds, Sarah reckons - and she's not talking about the children but the mothers who should know better.
The playground mafia want what's best for their children and are out to get it.
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They look down on non-members of their clique, freeze them out of the information loop, stop their offspring playing with non-M youngsters, and aren't adverse to spreading damaging gossip - anything, in fact, to stay one step ahead. At least.
Sarah's fictional story of newly-divorced single mum Caroline Gray is amusing and poignant, but there's a serious point underpinning the tale - one that became clear during the hundreds of interviews she carried out for research.
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For instance, there was a mother from Norwich, in her 30s, who was targeted by other mums. They thought her skirts were too short and her vowels too flat. Soon, word was put about that she had male friends over to stay while her husband worked away.
After a while, her son said he didn't want to go to school because children wouldn't play with him; their mothers had told them not to mix with him.
“At worst these women can be sanctimonious, Machiavellian control freaks, who during their working career fine-tuned to perfection the art of office politics and, since the birth of their offspring, are now forced to focus their scheming and power struggles to the confines of the children's playground,” says Sarah, like her main character a divorced single-parent.
“At best these women are merely pushy parents who play a proactive role in the school environment, helping teachers communicate with the parents more effectively and helping the school to achieve recognition in the local community, as well as much-needed funding to improve every child's education within that school.”
Sarah says mafia mums divide the other mothers into the worthies and the unworthies. Those judged worthy to speak to and whose children can be invited to play are those who have connections in industry, finance or, at a push, the arts.
“These worthy parents are perceived as those who would not only enhance their children's social life but theirs as well. The unworthies are parents who have nothing to offer either financially or socially to the mafia circle, and who have children who are not as bright as your own.”
Sarah, 42, says she had a taste of competitive parenting around the time of son Tom's birth in the late 1990s. At classes, she realised mothers subconsciously point-scored against each other: who had the smallest bump, which mum had no stretch marks, who gave birth without painkillers. “All incredibly inane stuff, but it mattered to these women.”
When he went to school, she became aware of an unspoken “points system” that applied to the parent as much as it did the child, “and 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. And that 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”.
She emphasises she's not a trained family psychologist, but she has interviewed plenty of them and reckons playground mafia-ship is down to two things.
“You've got mums who are having children at an older age, and consequently they've previously been in a working environment. They've been exposed to office politics. A lot of these women have been trained in assertiveness and NLP” - neuro-linguistic programming: an approach to personal development that focuses on the relationship between the mind, language and perception - “and they're very astute women. They've got more choices and they're educated.
“So the women going into the playground have this amazing skill-set and want to use it. They do do an awful lot of good. They can raise money for the school like that.” She clicks her fingers. “They can get in with the local community, they can improve standards in the school - and that's really good - but it's the tactics they use.
“One of the psychologists I spoke to said 'Compare it 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.'
“But, in a way, it's using the tactic of intimidation to make other mothers feel they're not as good; not informing them about stuff that's going on, or not telling them what they think about certain teachers. It's the same as office politics. In fact, it's much more important, because in the office you're just talking about recognition and earning more money, whereas in the playground you're talking about your children's future, which is a lot more important.”
It's also fuelled by the increasing pressure to be or have “the best” - the best house, car, holiday, child or a place at the “top” school - and by the deluge of often-polarised parenting advice and instruction that's swilling about.
“You've got programmes like Supernanny. We've got research saying we're spending too much money on our children/we're not spending enough on our children. We spend 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 bloody confusing! Really, what I say within a fictional book is not to judge one sort of parenting style over another - because I don't think anyone has the right to.”
She advises holding true to your values and not listening to too many voices. “I think if you are grounded and centred as a person, as a parent, things will be fine.”
It is hard to resist the sense of competition in the world of education, however.
When she lived in Chelmsford, and was pregnant with Tom, she recalls enrolling him at St Cedd's. “I was told we were on the waiting list - at number three! - but would probably get in. It sounds ridiculous, but it's what happens.”
She and Tom, who will soon be eight, now live in Richmond, London, where the scramble for an edge is almost tangible.
“Schools feed into schools which feed into schools, and if you don't get the right feeder school you don't get into the later school you want. Now, women with little bumps, and hopefully going to give birth to healthy, happy babies, are enrolling them in certain schools. It's absolutely nutty.
“Tutors are making money hand over fist because parents with the money to spare are trying to improve the educational performance of their children.
“Women have to be aggressive to ensure their children get on. It's the tactics they use that I question, rather than the motive. Basically, you should be fighting the system to get the best for your child, not other parents.”
Ambition is not a bad thing, she recognises, but what's happening is essential bullying. “Whether you blame the system or the personalities for creating it, it's got to be dealt with. As one of the psychologists said, it's giving a lousy example to the children.”
Children of the mafia mums risk turning out to be neurotic, because they're “never good enough”, she argues.
“The point is that no-one wins. People think they do, but no-one wins. In the book, I've given the first line and the last line to a child. There's the four-year-old son telling his mum not to be nervous on his first day at a new school, and she realises it's her first day at school too.
“Then I've given the child the last line. The heroines have gone to Hell and back, and the child looks at them, trying to explain something, and says 'You grown-ups always have to make everything so complicated.'
“We really do. What you've got now is mothers who are very, very bright, who are very, very bored. It's a bit like animals: they will make mischief. We are breeding a generation of people who want more - breeding a generation of discontent.”
The Playground Mafia is published by Arrow Books at £6.99.
Sarah Tucker's guide to spotting playground mafia mums:
Predominantly middle class
Mostly found at primary school level
Mostly parents of state primary school children: they feel they have to work harder to get a place at the “best” grammar or private school
Tend to have four-wheel-drive vehicles, new Minis or second-hand Golf GTi
Wear Jaegar and Per Una clothes
Usually the first to arrive in the morning. Position themselves in the playground so they can see who is coming in and who they are talking to
Their children are often tired because of after-school tuition
Sarah Tucker factfile:
Homes included Brentwood, then Chelmsford until about five years ago
Worked in international banking in the City
Public relations, broadcasting and writing followed
Travel correspondent for Classic fm and Sky News
Devised and presented Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? for Sky, interviewing celebrities about their favourite hotels
Devised and presented The Jazz fm Travel Guide
Presented reports on the BBC's Holiday programme
Anchored ITV show I Want That House Revisited, discovering how people have fared with their new homes overseas
Wrote two books about travelling with children: Have Baby Will Travel and Have Toddler will Travel
Won deal from Harlequin Mills & Boon for first two novels
The Last Year of Being Single was followed by The Last Year of Being Married, and The Younger Man
ONE of the alleged mafia mums Sarah Tucker spoke to - not in East Anglia - was a PR consultant.
The 40-year-old mother-of-two told her: “I don't see what's wrong in using the skills I learnt in the office to encourage support and standards from parents at the school and local community.
“I don't think we give a bad example to our children. It's a dog eat dog world out there and they learn how to play the game of life in the playground; perhaps so should some of the mums.
“The Ofsted reports aren't worth the paper they're written on and it's up to the parents to fill in the gaps and ensure the children get a good education . . . If you see the methods we use as intimidating, well it's the same in the office. Intimidation is sometimes the only way to get results.”