Back to School: Playground Politics
So, you know those articles about playground politics — the minefields, the cliques, Queen Bees and style stakes? Well, the good news is that they are mostly silly exaggeration.
The bad news is that they are only mostly so, and not entirely. Learning to navigate a crowded physical environment, populated by small people who do not much care that until now you have been Lord of All You Survey and indulged by everyone around you, is probably the harshest lesson a child can learn, and among the most necessary.
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Most of us want our children to be happy more than we want them to be rich, successful, famous or whatever. And happiness, we know, is better fostered by small things, like warm, pleasant human interactions, close friendships and caring social groups, than any of the aforementioned riches, success or fame. The ability to forge these kinds of relationships is one of the vital things learned through playground politics. That and the fact that if you can’t tie your own laces, no one is going to do it for you.
In my experience, girls do playground politics with far more dedication and psychological astuteness than boys do, and from a very early age. Boys seem fairly well able to kick a ball or wrestle each other in large groups fairly amicably. Those who don’t wish to play the prevailing game, simply don’t. Girls, on the other hand, have a far more sophisticated social set-up to negotiate, including various minefields of ‘best friends’, who has the prettiest dress or hair, who can play and who can’t, and what games are allowed. No wonder they come home in tears some days.
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However, they also have a sophisticated ability to spot distress in another child and respond with kindness, to look out for one another and police social settings in terms of what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Swings and roundabouts really.
It is not easy learning to be one of many. Even less easy to learn that there are some kids who seem ‘mean,’ or ‘dumb,’ but that you are going to have to find a way to deal with them anyway. But this is the stuff of life. Playground politics are the politics of the world writ small, and better learned at a young age. Of course, some children struggle with this more than others. If a child is truly overwhelmed, to the point of being unhappy, then a different kind of response is required.
There are politics for parents too, even if it’s only of the ‘I can’t believe she gave them nothing but jellies to eat at that party...’, along with factions and popularity contests. Unfortunately, it's not just your child who goes to school, it's you too. This is chiefly evident in the matter of playdates, which may be a total pain, but aren’t going away. And, here, crucially, the lesson is, kids don't decide play-dates, their parents do. No matter how popular your little darling is, if the moms and dads don't warm to you, your child will not be invited very often.
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So, how to project 'caring, fun, responsible parent' in three-minute interactions...? Tough, but not impossible. Never criticise anyone else’s child, even subtly; there is no subtlety that can get past a mother’s radar. Ditto do not boast about your own child, no matter how brilliant they are. Always return play-dates, but not necessarily the very next week. The rapid-response return unit can feel a bit forced. Don’t go on and on about your child’s allergies, even if you find the topic fascinating; you will scare off other parents. Be approachable and helpful. And mostly, keep your mind open. Among what at first looks like a homogeneous mass of identical Other Parents, there are some, many perhaps, who are far more like you than you know. Who will be friends, allies and the support you need, just as their children will be to yours.
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