Playground politics: a guide to surviving the school gates
From play dates to teacher troubles, Kate Gunn has the lowdown for parents as they prepare the kids for the return to Primary
Debbie's house is immaculate. Cream carpets and colour-coded bookcases. Her children's bedrooms are straight out of an IKEA catalogue - organised, hip, with just the right amount of fun factor thrown in. It's a 40:40:20 algorithm that comes effortlessly to Debbie, but has always confused the likes of me.
My house, on the other hand, is a mixture of The Laundry Wars and an after-party at a play dough factory. Organised chaos, I like to call it - but it's really more just chaos. I used to frantically try to tidy up before Debbie dropped in with her kids for a play date, but it's hard to organise an entire house when you can't find the hoover…
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But then I was shown 'The Way' by an older and wiser mother. She explained that it's good for Debbie to see the mess. It shows her that she can lower her standards too. She doesn't have to be perfect - there are no Jones here to keep up with.
Once I adopted this philosophy, my life became 180pc happier and more relaxed. I soon brought it into all other aspects of my parenting life - and motherhood has gotten a whole lot easier since. So, here's my guide on the new rules for school-gate parents. Follow these and you too could have a less stressful, more carefree parenting journey ahead of you.
The first day
If your child is starting in a new school, the nerves will be very real. Take the same advice that you give to them. Smile at everyone, be nice and don't pretend to have everything under control. Friendships will develop over time - so don't expect to be BFFs with anyone by the end of the first week. Which leads on to…
So many parents worry about being the outsider to all the different groups they see and hear about. There's the sports mums, the working mums, the hippie mums, the PTA mums, the older mums, the younger mums. Where do you fit in? And what if you are a little bit of all of them? Most of us don't live a one-dimensional life. Sometimes we're sporty mum, sometimes we're high heels and lipstick mum and sometimes (quite a lot of the time actually) we're pyjama mum. What we see at the school gate is just a 10-minute insight into another person. The only way you'll see who you'll really fit in with is by getting to know them. So you do you and see who fits in with that.
Once friendships are established in the classroom, the play date requests begin. It's often best to keep these to Fridays. Staying for dinner? Don't try to impress the poor kid, or their mother. Chicken nuggets and chips. Pizza. Ice cream. All perfectly acceptable. If your inner Mrs Jones is struggling, then you can always pretend that Friday night is treat night and the rest of the week you eat kale smoothies and quinoa bake. (They won't believe you anyway).
Be nice with lice
No one enjoys scraping a metal comb through three heads of tangled hair every night between 7pm and 8pm while the screams get louder and louder. But we do it because we have to. And we ALL have to. One weak link in the chain and the lice return to the classroom - confining every parent back to the bathroom for another 10 days of torture. Do not be that parent! Do the time. Retain the chain.
Panicked about class coffee mornings? What to wear? Who to talk to? What to say? What if you don't go? Will they all bitch about you behind your back? No. They won't. If you want to go and strengthen ties and possibly make some friends - then go. Be yourself, not Mrs Jones. If you're working, too busy, have enough friends already or just can't be bothered, then that's fine too. There is no mandatory checking-in committee and you don't need a note from your parents excusing you.
It's not just the kids that need help navigating the nuances and pitfalls of social media. Nowadays, you're as likely to know another school-gate mother from their Instagram profile as you are from the local playground. You feel like you know them. Tread carefully - and don't cross boundaries you may not even realise exist. "You should never have got rid of that beautiful sofa - I much preferred the old one…"
And then of course there's the Facebook and WhatsApp groups. Be respectful. Don't bitch about anything. Keep it to information-based discussions - 'What page is their English homework tonight?' - and positive parenting messages - 'Good luck to everyone in the school play tomorrow!'
If you're having issues with the school or a particular teacher, then the class WhatsApp group is not the place to tackle it. Maybe talk to one trusted parent as a sounding board - then go direct to the office and have an adult conversation about the problem. Explain your position, listen to theirs, work it out.
Invites: Often difficult to navigate because so many emotions are involved. Every school, parent and child will have different views on this one. The only rule that every parent can live by is to not transfer your own hurt and anxiety on to your child. Don't get offended and outraged because DD didn't get invited to the pony-painting party (seriously - it's a thing). If you casually brush off a non-invite, then your child probably will too.
Gifts: When it comes to gifts, less is definitely more. 'Fiver birthdays' have become more and more common in recent years and are a relief to everyone involved. The birthday boy or girl gets a heap of cards all filled with a fiver and every parent gets to give an affordable and easy-to-do gift. It's a win-win for all.
With more and more Dads taking on the school run and/or stay-at-home parent role, they need to be included too. Whether it's the coffee mornings, the school-gate chats or the Facebook groups, Dads need friendship and interaction too. Don't forget to see if they want to be included (and don't let them off the hook from the baking committee either!)
No, little Johnny is not gifted. He's eight years old and spends most of the day with a pencil up his nose and a hand down his trousers. But if he's your child, then he's gifted to you. As mine are to me. As Debbie's are to her. But does anyone else need to know their grades, teacher's comments and test results? You know the answer to this one already.
So that's it. The rules of the school gate are pretty simple, really. Be nice. Don't compete. Play fair. And live and let live. Except when it comes to lice of course…
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