Parties, Playgrounds and Project Updates

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The case of Alex, a 5 year old, his parents and a missed party invitation was widely featured this week (19th Jan 2015). From coverage in the family’s local paper, the story appeared amongst other places, on the BBC, Sky News, the Guardian, The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Sun, multiple internet forums, and also travelled abroad. In case you managed to miss the details, Alex’s father had accepted a party invitation for his son at a local, Plymouth, ski centre over the Christmas holidays. Alex had not gone on the day and no message was relayed to the party-hosting mother. When the children returned to school, there appear to have been some attempts at communication between the mothers that failed, and so a week later an invoice for £15.95 – the cost of the party package – appeared in the child’s book bag, having been sent by the party-hosting mother. There was also some talk of reclaiming the money through the small claims court. Alex’s father went to the local press, and events spiralled from there.

To say it was a slow news day is only a partial explanation of the interest the story generated, as it doesn’t take into account the huge volume of on-line comments across print media and other forums (e.g. the Guardian has, at the time of writing, 1600 comments on the story). Certainly the tale allows for discussion of several themes: the nature of parenting today (elaborate parties for young children), the nature of our interactions (a general decline in manners), the legal system (the workings of small claim courts, and the story as evidence of an increasingly litigious society), and the effect of media, especially social media, in quickly generating massive attention and publicity.

As we have been researching adults’ and children’s friendships using the primary school as a source of those friendships (albeit our case study schools have diverse populations, which is not the case for the school in Plymouth), this story caught our attention. The events illustrate how emotive a place the primary school playground can be – for adults as well as children. As children are picked up and dropped off at primary schools, the smoothness of everyday routines is often punctured by small events which are meaningful to the participants, but which are rarely publicised beyond their immediate circles. Parents in our research told us that often they do not discuss difficult topics – a missed invitation or quarrels between children – with the ‘other’ parent. It is too socially awkward and there is a concern about potential confrontation, so usually silence prevails. However in this case, instead of silence, there was commotion, and this is what made the story so unusual and captured our attention.

The norms of civility governing interactions between parents in the school playground were clearly disrupted here, by the respective families’ actions of sending the invoice and going to the press. The relationships between parents at any one particular school may be frequently superficial, and not extending beyond a greeting, but what Granovetter called ‘nodding relationships’ (Granovetter 1973 p.1361), and Henning & Lieberg (1996 p.18) call ‘acknowledge contacts’ (p.18) are, parents told us, important in terms of recognising people and validating their presence. What is clearly absent from the tale of these two families is that there was very limited, direct, face-to-face communication, and no existing relationship to fall back on.

Parents in our research had differing experiences of interactions with other parents in the playground. For a few – often new parents – the playground was an isolating place, but for some close friendships developed, both within and across ethnic groups, but less often across social class groupings. Connections were made based on clear commonalities such as language spoken, places of origin, or the children’s own friendships, or, occasionally, based on serendipitous happenings, walking away from school in the same direction, for example. Our data shows that the existence or the rupture of parents’ friendships can affect the children, although luckily we haven’t come across a case as extreme as the parents of Alex and his friend.

Project Update: Our project is now entering its final phase – slightly frightening when you consider the amount of data we have to analyse! But we have finished all the fieldwork, apart from a small number of re-interviews in our third school, and the coding is nearly completed. We currently have three new papers nearing completion and submission to journals, and we have given feedback to two out of our three schools, and the respondent parents and children there. We have an advisory group meeting planned for April and are planning our dissemination events for June.

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