When children start school there are new friendships to be made, and not just between the kids.
According to one survey, mums typically acquire five new good friends through their children's school years.
But this can be easier said than done, certainly initially. Standing in the playground at dropping off and picking up time is similar to the early days of antenatal classes – there are probably lasting friendships to be made, but you won't know who with yet.
The daunting difference with school is that if things go wrong, you're stuck having to see each other every day for the next seven years.
Tips for the early days and weeks...
Smile, be friendly and make an effort, even if someone doesn't look like the type of person you'd normally hang out with.
If possible, attend school or class social events - coffee mornings or nights out for new parents. If there aren't any, maybe organise something, although you might want to consult with the PTA rep if there is one, so you don't tread on her toes.
Stick around at birthday parties your child is invited to (at the start of reception, it's usually still the done thing to stay rather than drop the kids off). In my son's class these were a real ice-breaker, especially for parents who didn't do the school run. We'd all hover at the back of whatever hall the party was in, cup of tea (or glass of wine if we were really lucky) in hand, having a natter (or trying to, above the din of 30 over-excited children running around).
Drop any stereotypes – you might be surprised that the mum from 'the other side of the tracks' is someone you really hit it off with, or the posh mum with the flash car and the mansion is actually really down to earth.
Take things slowly – too much too soon can be disastrousif later on you find you don't get on quite as well as you initially thought. Hold off on making too many arrangements until you've got to know each other a bit better, or you could find extracting yourself from the friendship awkward. It's a bit like dating colleagues - proceed with caution, as you will still have to see them if the friendship doesn't work out.
What not to do...
Don't boast about your child. In an ideal world we'd be able to discuss our children's achievements without someone getting all judgemental and thinking we're showing off. But it's not an ideal world and all too often this can be perceived as gloating. If you're bursting with pride and need to tell someone that your clever little person has moved up a reading level or won a special award, hold off and share it with your partner/ the grandparents later on.
Avoid getting competitive – see above. Try and rise above any discussions of reading levels/ who is on the top ability tables or the like. If you need to gauge where your child stands and how they're doing, you'll get a far more accurate view from the teacher. Other parents might not even be telling the truth about where their child is at anyway! Don't, whatever you do, resort to snooping in the book bags of visiting children (yes really - it does happen!) If you get outed, because little Joshua or Chloe spots you and tells mummy, word will spread that you are uber-competitive – a one-way ticket to unpopularity.
Don't be too controversial. As with any new social situation, it's probably best to hold back with contentious opinions about politics, religion and the like, at least until you get to know people better. Be guarded too about any concerns you have about the school/ opinions on a particular child or family – if others don't share your views this sort of thing can be divisive.
Be careful of doing business at the classroom door...
School can be a good place for gentle networking but too much pushing your own business can make other parents uncomfortable, as Karen Harper (not her real name) found out: "There's one mum who constantly invites us all to her party plan events. It was nice enough the first time but it gets annoying being asked so often if we want to host a party or buy more Tupperware or jewellery or whatever she's flogging this time. I have to say most of us try and avoid her now if she heads over."
If you work full time...
Clearly lots of parents don't do the school run themselves, and if your child is picked up by a childminder, nanny or grandma, you can feel quite isolated from the rest of the parents who might chat most days at the school gate.
If this is the case, make an extra effort to attend kids' parties and any evening events in the first term or two to get to know people. It might take a bit longer but you'll get there and there are bound to be other working parents in the same situation.
If things get cliquey...
A certain amount of cliqueness in any large group is, let's face it, human nature. Try not to take it personally if two or three of the mums get close and you aren't invited when they get together. If you feel unfairly excluded, you have a choice: rise above it and focus on other friendships, or find a way to break into the clique if you think it's worth it. (It rarely is!)
What about the dads?
Stay-at-home dads are ever more commonplace, but some mums do still find it intimidating to make friends with them – especially amid worries that their partners or the other parents will think they're hitting on said dad! Spare a thought for the poor bloke in this situation and give it a go. If you feel awkward about it initially, why not stick with somewhere neutral the first time you meet up, such as a trip to the park with the kids or going out of your way to encourage him along to a night out a group of you are having.
And if you're a dad, why not organise a night out for the dads from the class down the pub?
Be yourself and relax. Seven years is a long time to keep up a pretence. If someone wants to judge you for who you are, or something like your school run outfits, do you really want to be best mates with them anyway?
Next week: limiting tears (yours and theirs) on the first day.
Last week: What children learn and how they learn.
Liat Hughes Joshi is author of Raising Children: The Primary Years, available for pre-order on Amazon.
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