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Beware the "MA" fia!!
Meet the mummy mafia
By SARAH TUCKER Last updated at 08:14am on 16th November 2006
Playground name-calling, gangs of spiteful bullies lying in wait for their victim at the school gate. No, not the children, their scheming mothers:
Heather Collins, a 34-year-old mother-of-two from Hampstead, North H London, wasn't considered 'suitable' by some of the other mothers at her son's primary school.
Several of the class reps and PTA members felt her skirts were too short, her vowels too flat and her son, Ben, too scruffy. Heather was well aware of their disapproval, but decided to ignore it as idle gossip from women who had too little to talk about in their own lives. Plus, she figured, Ben was happy at the school and she didn't have to mix with these women.
But the gossip didn't end there.
'I remember clearly the day when Ben said he didn't want to go to school because the other children wouldn't play with him because their mummies wouldn't let them,' says Heather.
'His teacher spoke to me about the situation. She said she couldn't do anything about the bickering among the mums, but would be able to help Ben and discipline the children.
'After a few weeks, it came to a head when two PTA members sent their husbands round to tell my partner that I had been having a series of affairs with men while he was working abroad and that it was letting down the reputation of the school.
'I think it was at that point I felt the petty playground politics had gone too far. I wanted to kill the bitches. I wanted to take Ben out of school that minute.
'Fortunately, the teachers were fantastic with the children and, ironically, the mothers who sent their husbands round to my home have moved their children to another school.'
Have you heard of stories where competitive parenting takes on a new dimension of ruthlessness?
There are thousands more stories about over-zealous, competitive mothers all over Britain who have taken on the role of a playground police force - the Mummy Mafia — rooting out any parent who doesn't make the grade. I know, because I've interviewed many of them - and their victims.
'There's nothing wrong with wanting what is best for your child,' says Jill Curtis, a family psychotherapist.
'But when it extends to using bullying to humiliate, intimidate and undermine the parenting skills of other mums in the playground, it's gone too far.'
According to the mothers I interviewed when writing my novel, the Playground Mafia are the equivalent of schoolyard bullies, albeit slightly more sophisticated in their attacks on other parents.
At best, these women are merely pushy parents who play a positive, proactive role in the school, helping teachers communicate with parents more effectively as well as raising much-needed funding to improve every child's education.
At worst, though, these women can be sanctimonious, Machiavellian control freaks who have fine-tuned the art of office politics and, since the birth of their offspring, have focused their scheming and power struggles on the playground.
Even when I was pregnant with my son and attended meetings of the National Childbirth Trust, I realised that mothers subconsciously scored points against each other.
Who had the smallest bump? Who gave birth without painkillers? Incredibly inane stuff - but it mattered to these women.
And when my son attended nursery and then got a place at the local state primary, I became aware of an unspoken 'points' system which applied to parents as much as it did to children.
I also realised that, as a single mum, I had more crosses against my name than ticks. Father works in the City, tick. Divorced, cross. Single child, cross. House in France, tick. That sort of thing.
I asked chartered clinical psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew, who specialises in child and family psychology, if the Playground Mafia is widespread.
'Every mother and teacher in the country will tell you it does exist,' she said.
'We are not talking about healthy competition here. When we talk of the Playground Mafia, we're talking about blind ambition.
'The mafia has grown because we are witnessing a generation of not just competitive mothers, but highly ambitious ones. They are ambitious for themselves, but hide it under the guise of being ambitious for their children.
'The irony is I don't think these Mafia Mums help their children by behaving in this way. I actually think they hinder their children's development.'
Hugh Sutherland, a deputy head at a state school in Bristol, agrees. 'It happens in every school in the country. My concern is for the children, who are overloaded with extra tuition and after-school clubs. The children come to school physically and mentally tired,' she says.
'They are often overly anxious about doing well, as their parents put undue pressure on them. It sounds weird but they are yearning for a day off.
'And although I'm sure the intention of these parents is to help their children, it's actually harming them.'
So how do you recognise the Mafia Mums? Those like Heather who've experienced their wrath tell me there are ways to spot them in the playground.
The mafia is predominantly, but not exclusively, middle class. It is to be found in every playground in the country, and not exclusively in private schools.
In fact, the Playground Mafia is less likely to take hold in private schools because it's the parents at the state primary schools who realise they have to work harder to ensure a place at the best secondary schools.
The mafia uses the networking structures of the PTA and parent governors not only to ensure their children mix with the right sort of child (nicely spoken with parents who work in finance, law or, at a push, the arts) but also that the parents are potential business contacts.
The Mafia Mums do the school run in four-wheel-drive cars, new Minis or second-hand Golf GTIs. They wear Jaeger and ask lots of leading questions about everyone else's well-being, but don't provide any information about themselves unless it makes other mothers feel inferior in some way.
The Mafia Mums break down the other mothers into categories - the worthies and the unworthies. The unworthies are parents who have nothing to offer either financially or socially, and who have children who are not as bright as those of the Playground Mafia.
The other categories of mothers in the playground include the Sweaty Bettys, who wear sports gear and look as though they're just about to go for a five-mile jog.
They may be considered worthy or unworthy by the Playground Mafia depending on their income and husband's job (which is still regarded as more important than your own).
Then there are the Mini Mums, who are always perfectly groomed, only marginally taller than their offspring and look ridiculous in their four-wheel-drives. They are usually second wives, who appear submissive in public, but in private they rule the roost.
Then there are the Page Three Mums, who dress like their 11-year-old daughters in short skirts; and the Absent Mums, who send their nannies and au pairs to drop off and collect their children.
From this playground of parents, the Mafia Mums choose their victims and sift out their allies, so it's best to recognise them before they spot you.
Out of school hours, they call the headteachers by their first names and frequently attend the same social parties as they do.
Just like in any gang, there is a leader - and the godmother of the Playground Mafia is usually a member of the PTA or, more likely, a parent governor who is privy to information not only about the school but other schools in the area.
This information is extremely important in ensuring her child is in the right position to move to the school of choice in the battle for secondary school.
Shameless behaviour, but the Playground Mafia is unabashed. Diana Gerrard, 42, a banker's wife from Barnes, South-West London, with two children at primary school, admits to exploiting playground politics.
'I use play dates as a way to network,' she says. 'I'm an interior designer and it's a brilliant way of getting new clients. I don't bother with those who don't have the cash or the style.
'Those children who don't have useful parents wouldn't be invited round, even if my two got on with theirs. It's simply not cost effective.
'I've gained more business from the play dates than I have from some of the exhibitions I've attended. For the price of a few Waitrose gingerbread men and some Earl Grey, it's a good little earner.'
Caroline Davison, a 40-year-old mother-of-two who owns a PR consultancy and lives in High Wycombe, Bucks, admits: 'I care about my children and their education - and I don't see what's wrong in using the skills I learned 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.'
Of course, my playground doesn't have a mafia. Every mother behaves impeccably, and if they have petty power struggles they keep it to themselves. Or perhaps I've just perfected the art of keeping myself to myself.