Are you a member of the car park mafia?

Article by Catherine Lambert and Elissa Doherty /
The Age /
August 5, 2012 /
Click here to view original /

SPATS between school gate mums may appear to be as childish as schoolyard politics but they are harmful and damaging, experts say.

Some mums are so intimidated by cliques of mothers, also known as the car park mafia, they hide in their cars until the bell rings.

Competition over fashion, who has the flashiest car and even parenting styles is turning the school gate into a place of dread.

Professor of Medicine at Monash University John Murtagh said studies have shown women make nastier bullies than men, although women who are bullies may be in troubled relationships with men.

“It’s not all women’s fault,” Professor Murtagh said.

“It’s symptomatic of the fact they are not being treated properly, are feeling isolated and are often not in a good family environment. “Women need a lot of support from their husbands.”

Professor Murtagh also said there is evidence that women who work are less inclined to engage in school gate gossip and bullying simply because they are otherwise occupied.

“Behaviour from people who are stressed and busy is different from women who are idle and have time on their hands,” he said.

“If they’re busy, they don’t tend to have time to engage in the enormous amount of gossip that goes on.”

University of Melbourne social researcher Dr Lauren Rosewarne said school gate cliques are an extension of a competitive society.

“There are reality TV shows about catfights and trying to get one upmanship,” Dr Rosewarne said.

“That perpetuates into wider society. It is going to be more common where status is put at a premium so it’s not just in the eastern suburbs but wherever there is gentrification or ostentatious display of tastes.

“There is also a sense that you are a good mother if you keep the house well, keep the kids in line and look good at the school gate.

“It’s part of this performance to appear to be on top of everything which doesn’t mean you are better than anyone else, you just have better trappings.”

School gate cliques are also a symptom of hyper-parenting, where a child’s needs are attended to, often to the point of detriment.

Clinical psychologist Dr Simon Crisp said the average number of children in a family is diminishing.

This can make parents both over-involved in their child’s world but also time poor, so any contact made with other parents is fleeting and more prone to quick judgments.

There is also a sense that your child’s needs are paramount and everything else seems to come second.

Dr Crisp said the transference of behaviour from the schoolyard to the school gate may be a social condition known as parallel process.

If children are being bullied or bullying another child, the parent identifies with her child and carries out the same behaviour.

“It’s understandable that parents will be ready to protect or defend their children but unfortunately it can happen before being aware of the facts and escalate the situation rather than resolving it,” Dr Crisp said.

“They jump to conclusions rather than understanding things can be quite complex.”

The effects, though, can be highly destructive.

Professor Murtagh said it is a terrible problem often causing depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, concentration difficulties and insecurity in mums.

There is also evidence of poor self-confidence, work performance and low self-esteem.

“This is a great worry to us,” he said.

“And a lot of it comes from envy and jealousy.

“It might be financial or physical appearance.

“These people feel they are in competition whether in looks, or material things like clothing, their refinements or their cars.

“There really is a fair bit of competition that goes on.”

One solution is to talk to a health professional about this very common problem.

This is why Professor Murtagh insists his medical students ask patients if they are suffering bullying at work, in the family or at school.

“As a GP I’m talking to people every day and about a third of my patients feel they are bullied,” he said.

“It’s a very pervasive, terrible problem.”