Parent bullies: The dark side of parental involvement in schools

A recent discussion in an online forum of mothers laid bare a dirty little secret many school parents deal with but few schools like to address head on: Parent-to-parent unkindness.

Let’s just call it what it really is—bullying.

This isn’t just a suburban mom issue, either. Even the urban moms on the forum said it’s rampant enough. It usually centers on intentionally excluding or ostracizing certain parents (ok, usually moms), but it can also involve harassment of the parent and/or their children and other forms of bullying.

I’ve never heard educators publicly address the issue and I haven’t located academic research on the subject. Privately, though, educators acknowledge it’s a problem. One former public high school principal told me that he spent more time refereeing parent conflicts than he did conflicts between kids.

Some time ago, I had an experience that changed my notion of the root of much parent bullying. A very popular kindergarten mother decided to target another kindergartner and his family, who’d recently immigrated to this country from Iran. This child had limited language skills, health issues and could be rough. The teacher was working with him, and the other children in the class liked him, regardless.

Unfortunately, the opinions of the kids didn’t satisfy the bullying mother. Her solution was to single out the child as a problem and to rally other kindergarten parents in support of her shaming. She started an email campaign with relentless criticism of the child and his family. Other parents jumped on board, sharing stories of the child’s every move—all the while ignoring similar behavior from other children in the kindergarten class, such as not sharing or not following directions.

Some parents refused to play along with the bully mom’s campaign, but too many did. The parents of the “problem kindergartener” were harassed and essentially became social pariahs in a class that required parents to volunteer weekly.

The staff was concerned and tried to intervene, even organizing a conflict resolution session, but nothing seemed to help. Now it looks like both children will be leaving the school—the child of the mom bully and her target.

I observed what few in the middle of the situation could, though. We didn’t attend the same school, but I knew the family of the so-called “problem child” through other activities. I saw the anguish it caused the parents. I also knew the bullying family and some of her “supporters.” I participated in a discussion in a parent class where one of the supporters explained her thinking and behavior. She spoke in a heartfelt way of trying to protect the other kindergarten children from this boy’s harmful influence and how she rallied support from other like-minded parents.

It was a lightbulb moment for me. Parents who bully other parents (and their children) very often function in a way that psychologists might even call “prosocial.”

Parent bullies are often some of the most ardent supporters of the school, the biggest donors, the parents who create the “tribe” that essentially runs the school activities. Their attitudes and actions very often look –and truly are at times—beneficent.

The author/speaker Seth Godin advocates for tribes and says tribes can change our world for the better. My view is that parents navigating their child’s education also crave the tribe. They want to put their weight into something that matters, and it’s very natural and healthy to decide to focus on their child’s school and the parent friends there.

So parent involvement – parent tribes — can be a great boon to schools and deeply satisfying to parents. But they can also be a problem.

We all need to be a little cautious when it comes to parent tribes. Irene Levine, a psychologist and the producer of The Friendship Blog, says:

“Bear in mind that you are thrown together with these parents and just like many of the friends you left behind in high school and college, many of these friendships may be transient.”

And, just like high school, the social dynamics are really complicated, because these relationships intersect with the relationships among often children, teachers and other school staff.

I’ve also had experiences where I felt the wrath of certain parents. I tried to act as if I didn’t care, but it was always painful. I did what most adults do in rocky social situations. I smiled politely, sucked it up and waited for it to blow over. But now after hearing more and more stories of parent-to-parent bullying, I’m wondering what else we can do.

I think it’s time for PTAs/PFAs and even educators to discuss this publicly. We need parent campaigns focused on inclusiveness and kindness. Kindness Counts, a campaign designed for kids, is a great place to get ideas. And the people at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center have excellent research-backed ideas about how to create an inclusive school atmosphere.

We’ve focused a lot of energy on teaching kids about bullying. Now it’s time for parents to learn.

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Victoria Clayton

Victoria Clayton

Victoria loves research, reading, writing and talking to people. Her biggest asset as a writer is insatiable curiosity. She’s worked as a columnist covering parenting, health and education for MSNBC.com and many other publications. She’s currently an education contributor to TheAtlantic.com. Victoria’s essays have been published in The Midwest Review and Barrelhouse literary magazines. She’s completing her first novel, a family drama set in the Midwest. A child of working class poverty with parents who quit school before finishing eighth grade, Victoria is especially proud of her experience as a long-delayed graduate student and now a part-time professor of communication. Her husband and she have two sons, a middle schooler and a kindergartener. Victoria has been a parent volunteer at a traditional public elementary school in their far-flung suburb of Los Angeles as well as in a charter school devoted to whole child and social/emotional-centered education. Besides reading and writing, she's obsessed with yoga, cooking and Isaac, the family's 8-pound Chihuahua mix. She still believes, despite what some critics say, that education is the most powerful force we have against ignorance, violence and despair. Find her on Twitter @vicclay.

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