HomeHealth & BehaviorSocial Skills

Parent cliques

Sure, they make other parents feel left out. But the biggest surprise is the damage an exclusive group has on parents, kids, and an entire school community.

By Leslie Crawford

Almost 20 years later, it's still a painful memory for Sandi Pilon. To hear her describe it, her daughter’s school sounds more like an exclusive club than a popular public elementary – one known for its energetic parent body that raised tens of thousands dollars every year and had helped transform the school into one of the most “it” schools in San Francisco — then in the process of expanding from an elementary to a K-8 school. Says Pilon: “I remember talking with another mom who also felt excluded, about how difficult it was to infiltrate the group. You'd go to a meeting and they'd ignore you."

A mother who had previously worked full-time but now had a part-time job, Pilon was looking forward to having time to volunteer at the K-8 school where her daughter had just transferred in as a fifth grader. "I was naively excited to help out at her school," says Pilon. "I knew that the more participatory a parent is, the better for the child." But she quickly discovered a school culture where a tight-knit group of women – a can-do cabal of stay-at-home power moms – ran the show.

"They were pretty opinionated about the working women in the group. They had this opinion, 'We know better.'” At meetings, says Pilon, “They'd be making arrangements to do something social [for the school]. I would offer to help and they'd say, 'No, we're fine.' It was very subtly done, not mean, but very clear.” Except for the time she was “allowed” to help out at the school auction, she was otherwise politely dismissed from participating. "[The school] could have had a much bigger [parent teacher organization]," says Pilon. But probably like many others, she adds, “I gave up.”

Feeling excluded, giving up on a school

Pilon acknowledges that she’ll never know what was behind her sense of exclusion, but it hardly matters. Whether it’s a real snub or simply a misunderstanding, when a parent feels left out at their child’s school, it’s beyond dispiriting. Adolescent insecurities reawaken like a dormant virus. Suddenly school is a place where you feel obliged to interact with “friends” you no longer trust. Ultimately, if parents don’t feel they can form bonds with other parents, they're likely to give up on the school itself. This can have long-lasting effects on a child’s school experience – social and academic.

According to Pilon, this is exactly what happened to her daughter. The girl  thrived academically, but suffered socially for four years. Pilon believes that her own unrelenting outsider status had a trickle-down effect on her daughter’s social situation that “took on a different tone because I couldn’t talk to the parents.” 

Finally, at eighth grade graduation – an event organized by teachers and the familiar group of mover-and-shaker parents – awards were handed out to every single child in the graduating class — except Pilon’s daughter. An oversight, perhaps, but, says Pilon, one that had a lasting effect that her daughter took with her to high school, where she lost her drive for academic success. "That experience in middle school scarred her. Middle school is a tough, tough age. But I think if there had been a better parent dynamic, it might have helped mitigate that."

Kathy (not her real name), endured similar outcast status for the 11 years her two now grown boys attended The Town School, a private K - 8 boys academy in San Francisco. She was at least 10 years younger than the other moms, working full-time, and Asian – all possible factors against her ever feeling welcome at an exclusive school where the majority of moms didn't work and hailed from a rarefied socio-economic class. "It was an exclusion kind of meanness," says Kathy. "It was constant, really grating. There were so many times when I'd walk down the hallway and say, 'How are you?' and they'd look up and say, 'Oh…hi.' Certainly, you know when there is distain in their voice, and the fact that they never acknowledged me."

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.