Surviving the School Gates

With parent politics, charity fundraisers, and playdate planning, navigating a school environment can be just as tough for parents as for kids. Guest author Emily Hourican has 5 tips for surviving the pick-ups, the drop-offs, and everything in-between.

QDT Editor
May 30, 2014

Life at the school gates is far less terrifying than a thousand magazine articles about cliques, Queen Bees, and style stakes would have us believe, but it’s not as simple as just dropping off and picking up a child, either.

Besides the sheer boredom of making that trip twice a day for what seems like ever, there are factions, popularity contests, and politics to contend with – even if it’s only of the "I can’t believe she gave them nothing but candy to eat at that party…" variety.

To a degree, you will inevitably be drawn into a life of the school that is separate and distinct from your child’s school experience. Parent councils, fundraising, event organization, and sponsored everything-from-cake-bakes-to-polar-marathons will rear their heads, and you will need to work out how much, or little, of this you wish to be involved in.

There are mothers and fathers who fit naturally into this habitat, who effortlessly surround themselves with like-minded (though often less strong-minded) souls, and to whom the words, “We need to discuss use of the parking lot” are music, rather than a blast of fetid air.

Then there are those who squirm at every second they have to spend at school, who long to eject their children from a moving car as they cruise past the gates, in case Janine’s mom buttonholes them and asks if they would like to be playground monitor.

Most of us sit somewhere in between, giving it our best shot (or the best shot we have to spare after all the other claims on our time), but without viewing it as a new parade ground for our super-organizational talents. If you are one such, here are 5 tips to make negotiating the school gates a whole lot easier:

Tip #1: It's Not Just Your Child Who Goes to School, It's You Too

You may not like it, but these parents are going to be a part of your life for several years, so you may as well try and make it pleasant. You will need allies in the daily cycle of waiting to collect; attending school social functions; organizing playdates and – especially – after-school activities in a way that doesn’t leave you spending every spare second behind the wheel of the car.

And you will find them. Somewhere in what can look like a homogenous mass of overachieving parents are people like you, with your sense of humour and attitude. Find them. Throw out hints, see if any fall on fallow ground. I find that gently mocking the characters in my youngest child’s grade-school book does the trick; if the other parent is prepared to poke fun at Len and Jen, we stand a chance of being pals.

And if they look shocked at the sheer iconoclasm of it, well, that is probably a fair indicator of deeper incompatibilities. 

Tip #2: Kids Don't Decide Play-Dates, Their Parents Do

This is important, because it could affect your child’s happiness. Essentially, this means that no matter how popular your little darling is, if the moms and dads don't warm to you, your child will not be invited over very often.

So, how to project "caring, fun, responsible parent" in 3-minute interactions...?

Tough, but not impossible. This probably deserves a section all its own, but in the meantime, the speedy version: Never criticise anyone else’s child, even subtly; there is no subtlety that can get past a mother’s radar. Also, do not boast about your own child, no matter how brilliant he/she is. Always return play dates. 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.

Tip #3: Decide on Your Level of Involvement and Stick to It

Are you the type to fundraise effortlessly and head up a subcommittee on Yard Renovations?

Or are you more the bake-a-cake-once-a-year type?

It doesn't matter, as long as you know your limits and have a handy reason not to get further involved. Firmly saying, “I really can’t now, but would certainly like to help out more when work is less busy/the baby is older/I’m finished with this house construction” is perfectly acceptable. Just work it out early. You don’t want to be caught without an excuse when Alpha Mom descends with a spreadsheet and the poisoned question, “What role would you like to take in the annual charity fundraiser?’

Tip #4: It Matters What You Wear, But Less than You Think

The whole school gate style thing is not nearly as pressurised as the magazines make it out to be, but it's not nothing either.

If you constantly appear in pajamas and unlaced boots, with a coat thrown over the top half, other mothers will start to wonder just what you are doing that you can’t get it together in the mornings.

However, if you are constantly dressed in immaculately matching pastel twin-sets, you run the risk of appearing uptight and alienating the more fun moms. Keep it simple and casual. Then, every once in a while, you can turn up looking fabulous and say you’ve just come from lunch or a meeting, so everyone knows you can glam-up when you feel like it.

Tip #5: Despite Everything, It’s Not Actually About You

Every school has one – the drama queen who turns every pick-up and drop-off into an opportunity to update anyone in the vicinity on the latest installment of her soap opera life. She can be heard loudly confiding details of her affair/break-up/argument with the decorator to the group who constitute her Greek Chorus, eyes rolling to see who else might be listening, voice rising accordingly.

School, for her, is just another opportunity to show off. You don’t want to be this person. Remember, the whole point of the school gates is to smooth your child’s path through the system, not use it as a new stage for your fabulousness. And as a bonus, you may well find you make a couple of lifelong friends while you’re at it.


Emily Hourican is a journalist and mother-of-three based in Dublin, Ireland and author of the recently-published book How to Really Be a Mother. Check out emilyhourican.com for more.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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