Mama Drama: 5 Ways to Handle Mommy Cliques
Curled into circles, some bouncing toddlers on their hips, mothers dot the school parking lot at pick-up time, laughing and talking together. I wave hello to a mom I met at a meet-and-greet the week before. She looks past me and continues with her conversation. I wonder, “Does she recognize me? Maybe not. We’ve only met once. Or maybe she didn’t see me.” Feeling awkward and vaguely rejected, I retreat to a spot near the school entrance and wait for my son to emerge.
Those feelings are not unusual. One local transplant, who prefers that her name not be used for fear that she will be further ostracized, wrote in an email, “I feel like I have a tattoo across my forehead that reads I’M NOT FROM HERE. I don’t look much different, and I don’t even have an accent from another place. But try as I might, making friends here in the Tulsa area has been close to impossible,” she said.
After living on the west coast, east coast and the South, this mom (we’ll call her Jane) and her family moved to the Tulsa area when her older boys were teenagers. In other parts of the country, Jane’s boys were popular and her family had many friends. “I found that in other parts of the country, families either had a culture of supporting and needing one another, or they were too busy living their lives to find the time to exclude others,” she said. “I was optimistic that I would meet new, life-long friends, just as I had in the other places I’ve lived…. Coffee dates, play dates and double dates…little did I know, those kind of friends were already reserved, and had been for a long time. I discovered that everyone from here ‘belonged.’ They each had their family, their friends and their own clique.”
“I am born and raised in Tulsa,” Cassie Moon, mom of two girls, said. “Although cliques exist everywhere, I feel that Tulsa cliques are like the little guy who always gets in fights to compensate for his smaller stature. Many Tulsa cliques are security blankets for acceptance and stepping stones for social climbing.”
Breaking into new groups is rarely easy. But, what do you do if you find yourself on the wrong side of a parent clique? Will the group impact your child’s social standing among his peers? Should you strive for acceptance for your child’s sake?
Cassie points out that parents should look at the reasons behind their behavior. Do they sign their children up for too many activities, hoping to achieve social acceptance, rather than thinking about what is good for their children? “Moms should model balance and fulfillment,” Cassie said, “not popularity or martyrdom. Perhaps the most important role modeling is how we handle exclusion. If our self-esteem is affected by exclusion, what are we teaching our children?”
Cliques among children begin forming between the third, fourth and fifth grades and usually settle in around the sixth grade. No parent wants her child to feel excluded. But before kids decide who’s in and who’s out, parents may unintentionally influence their kids’ social networks. Sports teams, neighborhood playgroups and other gatherings that always include the same group of families create a sense of exclusivity that kids pick up on.
Lara, a mom of three, says she is shocked by the behavior of a group of moms in her suburban neighborhood who have essentially “cliqued out” both her and her youngest daughter. “The moms are friends and that’s who determines who the kids are friends with,” she said.
She often sees Facebook photos of the families getting together for barbecues, birthday parties and other activities. But, what bothers her is the emotional toll the clique is taking on her third grade daughter. “The isolation is dampening her spirit. She used to be my happy go-lucky kid and not so much anymore,” Lara said.
Jane’s children also suffered from being outsiders. Her youngest son wasn’t “serious enough” about sports, and her oldest son had difficulty connecting at his new high school. “His sports were snowboarding, boogie-boarding and skateboarding,” Jane said. “He was ostracized. He would sit at whatever lunch table would let him, but he made no friends. No one would welcome him. It was cold water in the face for a boy who was formerly popular because he got along with so many people.”
Dr. Fran Walfish, a family psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, CA, and the author of The Self Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond With Your Child, has seen her share of cliquey behavior. “I’m not at all surprised that a group of kids would clique out a third grade girl. But, it’s stunning that moms would get involved in the cliques,” she said.
As a parent, what should you do?
Adjust your perception. Past exclusions or rejections can color your perception of an innocent situation. In my case, once I started to get to know the other parents at my child’s school and put aside my personal biases and assumptions, I found that they were very welcoming and accepting.
“Self awareness is key here in order to expand our options and then we do or don’t have to repeat what was done to us,” Walfish said. “Really ask yourself if there’s anything about you that might be a turn off and try to work on yourself first before you point a finger outward.”
“Whether we want to admit it or not,” Cassie said, “we’re all members of cliques…remembering that the definition of clique is a group of people with shared interests who spend time together and exclude others is not an easy concept for children to grasp. They tend to see only the exclusion part.”
Share your warmth. Parent cliques aren’t always a misperception, but don’t assume that everyone in the group is exclusive. Connect with individual members of the group who are friendly. Also make appropriate, friendly invitations and warm overtures. For example, if parent groups at your child’s school schedule informal gatherings, offer to host one evening or bring a baked treat to share.
“Try to do something that shows a generous effort at kind friendliness,” Walfish said. Volunteer to help with a school event or in the classroom, which is a good way to get to know a variety of parents.
Jane has found that making an effort to find other Tulsa area transplants and inviting them into her home and “into her heart” has helped her and the other “outsiders” establish meaningful friendships.
“Role modeling healthy relationships and activities is essential,” Cassie said. “Our time as parents is better spent nurturing the meaningful people in our lives versus spending time with groups in hopes that they will invite our children to the birthday bash of the century.”
Avoid mud-slinging. “Don’t bad-mouth the group behind its back,” Walfish said. “You just give them more good reason why a bad gossip is not welcome in.”
Seek out a receptive parent. Watching your child struggle with a clique, especially as a result of your exclusion from the parent group, is heartbreaking and maddening. “There’s no getting around the fact that it’s very hurtful to kids,” Walfish said. “Seek out and try to look for the most potentially warm, responsive parent in the group and invite her daughter for a play date with yours.” Make it a short, appealing play date like a stop for frozen yogurt after school. An hour-long play date when kids are getting to know each other builds in success.
Look outside the group. Not everyone is in the clique or cares to be. Model to your child the importance of developing strong friendships rather than working toward the tenuous goal of popularity.
“Growing up is a journey of self-discovery,” Cassie said, “finding out where our interests lie, joining some cliques and withdrawing from others. We should all exercise caution when it comes to pushing our personal agendas onto our children.”
Walfish advises parents to get to know other families outside the group. Also, connect with families whose children are involved in the same activities as your child. Encourage your child to befriend children at school who share similar interests and are warm and welcoming. Will she always find acceptance? Probably not, but she’ll develop resilience and value the friendships that come her way.
Freelance journalist, Christa Melnyk Hines, is a mom of two boys. She is the author of the e-book Confidently Connected: A Mom’s Guide to a Satisfying Social Life.