The “Hidden Rules” of Moms’ Groups

The presentation I mentioned a month ago had a lot of blog-worthy ideas– to the point of over-load. So I never took it anywhere. Recently one element has come up and I spent some time thinking on it while trying to sort myself out.

Hidden rules was the resurrected element. The authors of Bridges out of Poverty describe how every human group has unwritten rules that all “true” members of the group follow, just because they are a part of the group; sometimes to keep the peace and to prove they belong to the group.

When different groups collide, or a person is new to a group, mistakes can be made that damage relationship– not because the offending party desires to offend, but because s/he doesn’t recognize the land-mines.

In a spirit of community-service and a healthy effort to avoid future explosions, I have compiled the following list.

I must point out that some of these will seem infinitely *duh!* to some of you, and my pride compels me to say I did not learn all of these the hard way. But All of them are based on interactions I’ve observed since my first moms’ group two years ago.

Some might just get you a cold shoulder or a nasty look, and (adding to the confusion) people with similar strengths– e.g. a good marriage– tend to overlook similar rules as unnecessary.

If you know them all without thinking, Congrats! You’re already “in”.

I have never spent a lot of time with groups of women. I’ve always been the “loner” (the type with just a couple close friends), never one to run with “the herd.” In high school this had its uses, but it also inhibited my picking up some key rules.

My current collection of The hidden rules of Mothers’ Groups (mostly what you shouldn’t do), beginning with “The things I can’t say:”

  • “I really have to be careful about what I say when I’m with you.”
    • Says “You don’t understand me.” or “I can’t be myself around you.”
  • “Wow, you raise your kids really differently than I do.” (Not a criticism!!!)
    • Any comment that’s not a complement or asking for advice can make people defensive.
  • “That time/activity doesn’t work for me.”
    • Can make it sound (arrogantly) like I and my availability carry some great weight.
      • This is tricky because on the one hand I’m supposed to be quiet rather than negative, but other I’m supposed to participate. One of many balancing acts.
  • “Hanging out with a group is not my most favorite thing to do– even if it is a break away from the kids.” (Did say this one once– to a very cold reception).
    • They could’ve heard, “I don’t enjoy being with *this* group,” which, for me at least, isn’t true, since I wouldn’t be there. ;)
      • Should treat it like a date: i.e. don’t let on there’s anywhere else you’d rather be.
    • It can be taken as devaluing those who find getting-away is their favorite recreational activity.
  • Anything to contradict a contradiction. It’s like a white elephant gift exchange. You can only turn things around so many times or it looks ugly– like you’re fighting or something.
    • It’s too bad people have a hard time disagreeing without taking offense. Too often the rejection of an idea is taken as a rejection of the individual or her experience (see “contradicting experience” below) and there’s no ‘clean’ way to do it.
  • Any unsolicited advice when someone is under pressure.
  • Advice works best when it’s recommending a book or class
    • It allows someone the chance for their own Aha! moments apart from your direct initiation.
    • This also makes it more likely for the information to be accepted and absorbed– coming from a neutral source.
    • It takes a very strong individual to accept advice without feeling made less by accepting. Changing acknowledges a deficiency.
  • Contradicting someone else’s experience.
    • Can be taken as an attack on their truth-telling ability.
    • This one can be tricky– mainly when it is your own experience that contradicts. You should be quiet unless you know it’s an issue worth fighting about. Just in case it goes that far.
  • Complementing/ bragging on your husband in *any* way beyond the general “I’ve got a great guy.”
    • *Especially* if his strong suit is anything like what another woman has been complaining about.
      • In two years I have only heard one complement that wasn’t amended with a negative *but…* as long or longer than the complement (in a moms’-group context).
      • Is unabashed, overflowing thankfulness now putting others down?
  • About complaints: Unless she asks for solutions, she doesn’t want them. She is looking for affirmation of where she is. Where ever that is. Proof she’s not alone. One may comply (“Of course you’re a good mom…” “I know exactly what you mean.” “You’re doing everything you can…”) Or not.
  • Complainers aren’t to be rebuked (even if they aren’t encouraged)
    • I would, as a believer, amend this one to say unless it proves to be habitual, then the complainer should be taken aside and rebuked in private.
  • Self-criticism is better received than self-confidence
    • Confidence is often mis-read as arrogance
  • Juggling “I did…” and “I know someone who…” is tricky but essential.
    • Need to prove you’re open enough to share about yourself without seeming egocentric.
    • The know-someone-who is also a subtle status-card. It implies (especially when conversing on heavy topics) that someone finds you trustworthy enough to give you that information.
      • Of course, if your audience is the skeptical type they might wonder if the telling of such details negates your trustworthiness. (Many people don’t go this far in their reasoning, though.)

Not all matters of unintentional offense are the result of missed or unknown “rules.” Often it’s basic thoughtlessness (which, by definition, precludes malice aforethought) that still needs to be dealt with. Unfortunately another few “rules” circulating beyond mom’s groups (I would say especially in Christian groups):

  • don’t confront
  • don’t act offended

can prevent the basic Matthew model of reconciliation from playing out and neutralizing the problem.

The rules can have their uses, and for better or worse they are here to stay. Even so, folks like me would appreciate the benefit of the doubt as we learn to navigate new waters.

10 thoughts on “The “Hidden Rules” of Moms’ Groups

  1. I think I have a good moms’ group for the most part. I’ve been in Mom2Mom at my church for a year now (although I totally forgot it was Thursday today and unintentionally missed it!). I don’t think our group holds all those rules, although I think they do hold a few, which I have somewhat intentionally broken. With this group of people, I don’t necessarily desire their good opinion, so I have spoken up about things that probably broke some of the rules.

    Matthew and I have worked overtime to get open dialogue in our couples’ group…when I recover from being completely emotionally drained from spending all of yesterday resolving a group conflict, I’ll have to tell you about it. Revolves a lot around Matthew 18.

  2. I need to add that not all of these rules are equally important in all groups, but I didn’t make any of these up. Going into a new group is always intimidating for me (if you can imagine me intimidated), because I seem to violate so many rules inadvertently.

    Thankfully among the ladies in my church, none of these rules have come up– which may be why I get thrown so utterly when I come to places these seem to be in force.

    At least I’m sometimes observant, right?
    The definition of experience: The thing you get right after you need it.

  3. I think that’s probably a pretty good list. I definitely know what you’re saying. At the same time, I often find the reverse to be true – I’m often shocked at how people are willing/able/comfortable with complaining and taking negatively, and self-focusedly, even entirely running over everyone else and dominating the conversation for what can seem like forever. It seem that for most people THIS would be offensive – but yet, it seems that it is the glue that holds people together. I don’t know…

  4. I think I’ve experienced all of these situations in a play group. It really depends on the group of women. I get really annoyed by husband bashing and so I tend to avoid groups and people whre that happen. I also echo Catherine’s statements. I think most of this comes down to comfortable people are with themselves and how happy they are. If you are happily married and feel good about yourself, then its easy to give others the benefit of the doubt.

    Ultimately it all comes down to the golden rule.

  5. Wow – who knew there were so many rules? I really haven’t participated in many groups. Outside of bible studies at our church, I associate with the moms at the dance class and get together with other moms from church from time to time.

    Amazingly, the one rule that I know I’ve broken you haven’t listed here. :P DON’T BRAG ABOUT YOUR CHILDREN. All of my children were born within 6 months of babies of very close friends. I realized early on with child number one that my friends were taking my excitement about some early development as bragging that my child was advanced and that my ability to stay home with my children was somehow a part of that. I’ve tried to be more careful with babies #2 and #3, but it’s always a sensitive subject.

    However, even with my limited experience, I have learned this: As the others talked about, it all depends on the other ladies you’re spending time with. I’ve noticed that if I’m chatting with other home-schooling moms we can easily chat about where our same-aged children are scoring in each of their different subjects, and we can discuss our concerns or excitements about their challenges and successes without either party being offended. We’re both in the same boat.

  6. Amy Jane,
    You’ve made some interesting observations. As with any human interaction, it is so easy to misinterpret and be misinterpreted, as you’ve illustrated here.

    I do feel there has to be some balance in being true to your thoughts and feelings while demonstrating sensitivity.

    You’ve given me and presumably the rest of your readers some food for thought . . .

  7. I think I share these mostly in frustration. I have learned (sometimes uncomfortably) that if I don’t do any of these things wrong (thank you Prov31 for that addendum) I don’t step on any toes.

    The issue, of course, is that there’s too much here to always remember (and I, like Becky, am apt to want to contradict a couple of these just to make a point.)

    I don’t ask, “Why can’t we all just get along?!” I enjoy a healthy argument.

    Frustrated at being misunderstood I ask, “Why can’t you just assume the best of what you hear?”

    I think the point is that we’re not able to figure each other out. What better way for God to show His exponential highness above our thoughts than to prove we can’t even penetrate the thoughts and motives of those on our own level?

  8. I really enjoyed your observations, but I don’t think they are limited to mothers’ groups. I think many of your rules could apply to womens’ groups and womens’ dialogue in general. :)

  9. Amy,
    *very* interesting. It made me think of my own boundaries in my women’s groups, and where I can *stretch* or be quiet. *smile* There are certainly *rules* in women’s groups, but I think it also depends on the women and how close you are to them or how well you know them. I currently do a bible study with4 other women who I am close with, and though we “abide” by a lot of these rules, I do break them sometimes, too.
    Good post.

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