When parents are the bullies

PUBLISHED: 15:54 23 March 2011 | UPDATED: 19:04 20 February 2013

Essex born Sarah Tucker, now living in Suffolk, courted controversy five years ago with her book The Playground Mafia. Now it's being made into a Hollywood film, and Sarah hasn't given up on the battle to beat the mafia mums

Essex born Sarah Tucker, pictured below, now living in Suffolk, courted controversy five years ago with her book The Playground Mafia. Now its being made into a Hollywood film, and Sarah hasnt given up on the battle to beat the mafia mums

A can of worms. Thats what I opened when I wrote a novel called The Playground Mafia five years ago, which is now being made into a Hollywood film. I didnt anticipate the impact of writing a fictional book about a group of women who have too much time on their hands and so many issues they brim over into what should be the nurturing environment of the playground. My son, now twelve, will soon be heading to Big School being primed for interviews and prescriptive tests which I doubt will do him any good in later life but witnessing the competition and the behaviour of the parents I feel will stick with him for a lifetime and one day hell even read his mothers book.

The novel, about a single mother with a four year old son who moves to a new area (autobiographical so far) and meets up with two friends who warn her about a group of women called the Playground Mafia, (fictional) resonated strong when it was published. Selling over 16000 copies in the first week, I remember producing a report on BBC London News, having interviewed clinical psychologists, parents, teachers about how damaging and insidious this form of politics is only to be confronted by author, journalist and mum herself, Daisy Waugh who emphatically disagreed that it existed in the first place (and very vocal she was about it too). Critics at the time decribed the novel as wickedly honest, recognising themselves and certainly others between the pages. Others were less complimentary, perhaps feeling personally vilified. The magazine Good Housekeeping ran an article which drew more debate on their blog than they had experienced for the past five years. The Playground Mafia hit a nerve and five years on, over million books sold, I still receive emails and letters every week from mothers and fathers whove read the book and identified a situation which they have found themselves in, and want answers to know how to deal with it. So although Im no expert on psychology I decided to take action.

Ive developed an apps for the iphone and ipad due out later this year which is a mix of common sense and practical advice on how to deal with hippies (High Impact Parents) who create more trouble for the teachers than their children do. Its a guide on how to recognise mafia and the games they play, how to avoid becoming one (more difficult than you think) and how to deal with mafia when confronted by their antics.

Plus, sharing some of the horror stories that mumsnet and other mum websites only brush upon, I present talks at schools, womens institutes and third age groups around the country (the latter of which is full of retired folk many of whom are grandparents and tell me the mafia is worse than it was in their day those who survived the war are just happy to be alive!) and find audiences nodding quietly in agreement, heads usually turning to a group of women all resolutely looking stone faced at me as though Ive just told everyone theyve farted.

I even quizzed my own mother on if there was a playground mafia in her day, and she said no. There were fewer opportunities for girls and boys, and there wasnt the communication there is now. There was less opportunity to covet the lot of others because what you didnt know about you didnt miss and couldnt aspire to. You didnt get the upside or downside of competitiveness. The celebrities were confined to those you saw in Hollywood films and the Royalty who we knew very little about. Nowadays, anyone can be famous, successful and realise that everyone has an opportunity which they need to take and it starts with getting the best education and begin in the right place at the right time, and that starts as early as in the nursery.

And dont just think the mafia is UK based - I receive emails and letters from overseas as well. PM is a global phenomenon and no playground is without its clique of women who try to make the life of others hell (and Im afraid it is mainly the mothers). Clinical Psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew, claims were not talking about healthy competition here. When we talk of the Playground Mafia, we are talking about blind ambition. These parents are ambitious for themselves, but hide it under the guise of being ambitious for their children. The truth is I dont think these mafia mums help their children by behaving this way. I actually think they hinder their childrens development.

Hugh Sutherland a deputy head at a local state school, also added I dont feel the schools that are due to be run by parents is a good idea. You will be confronted by the possibility of mafia actually taking over the school.

So how do you recognise the playground mafia? The mafia is predominantly, but not exclusively, middle class. It is as rife in state as it is in private. 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 although admitting your dad is a banker these days is tantamount to saying you are related to a Nazis war criminal) but also that the parents are potential business contacts. The Mafia mums breakdown the 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 theyre just about to go for a five mile job but never break into a sweat.

Then there are the Mini Mums, described as such not because of the car they drive but their height. Any woman under five five according to many of the parents and teachers I interviewed, are usually more ruthless and quietly ambitious for their kids than those of a taller disposition. A lot is said of the chippy little man having an attitude, but what is true of a little man is doubly so of a short woman. Says one head teacher who refuses to be named. As such mini mums they tend to stick with their own kind (and height).

Have I experienced the Playground Mafia? Well yes and no. My son is fortunate to go to a private school and taking his tests for the next stage of schooling. The schools are tough to get into. Tough as in the boys all need extra tuition. Of course all the mums had been hot housing their children for years, but in the playground assuring all the other mothers that there is no need for extra tuition and how its silly to overload their children as they need some down time as well. What rubbish. The names of tutors were kept secret and children were told under fear of grounding, not to mention a word to their peers. Only when their offspring had gained entry to the schools were they able and willing to share details. I found this out when I went to a tutor myself (I told parents about it in the playground) and found out half the class had already seen her.

Forget the idea of nurturing sharing and caring. The playground is a minefield and its still resolutely every mother for themselves.

Of course, apart from that little incident, Ive never experienced the playground mafia myself. But I would say that, wouldnt I?

For a signed copy of The Playground Mafia please email madasatucker@aol.com. Or buy in any good book shop or supermarket. The apps for PlaygroundMafia will be operational in May. If you want Sarah to visit your school or group please email her at madastucker@aol.com. For more details www.sarahtucker.info

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