If your child’s name is Ariadne, will her best friend be Helena or Charmaine?

Carol Vincent 

Kate Hopkins, a past contestant on reality TV show The Apprentice, caused some controversy last week by stating in the press and on television that she maintains a tight control over the friendships her children make at their state primary school. Suitable friends are those from “like-minded, high achieving families”.

She told the Mail: “I have absolutely no intention of letting my two precious daughters get dragged down into the quagmire of underperforming children. So I work hard at targeting the right sort of friends for them“.  Hopkins claims that her interest is in ensuring her children’s friends are “clever, ambitious children, a euphemism seemingly, as her description of the children of whom she does not approve is infused with class judgments; pink leggings, soft play areas at local leisure centres, electronic toys, and names such as Charmaine are all indicators which spike Hopkins’s disapproval.

“At the risk of sounding snobbish, I also favour children who have good old-fashioned Victorian names such as George, Henry and Victoria. And, if a child has a name with a Latin or Greek derivation such as Ariadne or Helena, all the better. It indicates the parents are well educated“.

A new research project at the Institute of Education, conducted by Sarah Neal, Humera Iqbal and me, sets out to explore whether and how children in primary school, living in diverse inner London areas, make and maintain friendships across social class and ethnic difference. How do their parents view these friendships, and do they seek to manage them in any way? What are their own experiences of friendship as adults?

In socially mixed areas, people often live parallel lives, living close by others from a different ethnic or social class group, but having little engagement with them. Primary schools, especially in inner urban areas, are among the few settings where children and adults do have an opportunity to interact on a daily basis over several years, with those who are differently socially positioned to themselves. Many parents take a more positive view of this than does Ms Hopkins.

Emily, a white middle class mother in our pilot project, said: “When I think about being in London, I think ‘oh it’s great for [son] because he’s exposed to life in all its different ways, and different groups of people, and he knows that everybody is not the same”. However, despite the stated enthusiasm for social mixing, we found in the pilot a tendency for friendships made at school to stay at school, unless the children were from similar backgrounds, in which case the friendship was more likely to cross over into visits to the family home.

Social mix does not automatically lead to social mixing. Efforts to change this situation required open and positive attitudes on the part of parents, usually mothers, and a willingness to make a determined effort to cross social and ethnic boundaries, and to make and sustain contact with families different from one’s own.

Our pilot study was small, and our main study, starting this month, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, sets out to explore these issues around friendship and diversity in more detail and on a greater scale. We aim to generate qualitative empirical data on how friendships are made, maintained, missed and interrupted in social environments characterized by extensive social difference and division.

Friendship is often assumed in policy and political terms to have an informal “social glue” quality that has the potential to bring individuals together despite disparities and differences in their background. We aim to explore the extent to which friendships across difference can contribute to social cohesion, or whether the desire for distinction and separation, as voiced in a somewhat extreme form by Ms Hopkins, is widely shared.

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Posted in Carol Vincent, Social sciences and social policy
6 comments on “If your child’s name is Ariadne, will her best friend be Helena or Charmaine?
  1. Beth Budden says:

    This is very interesting. I wonder if working class mothers might prejudge kids called Henry in Boden cardigans as much as the Chantels and Darrens are by middle class mothers? I wonder if individuals might seek to ‘better’ themselves by actively choosing the right names etc? As a primary teacher my anecdotal based answer is yes!

  2. Beth Budden says:

    Reblogged this on bethbuddenteacher and commented:
    Very interesting! I see this in the playground all the time!

  3. Terrific article. It makes you think. It made me think about my own views on social mixing. I was born the second son to a Welsh miner and brought up in the Rhondda Valley. The most enduring feature of my social heritage I recall to this day. There were two kinds of families whose kids went to my primary school; those who knew that education offered life altering possibilities and those who hoped it might. There were no no-white families and no one lived in a big house. No fathers wore blue collars, let alone white, and most mothers stayed at home. Friendships were made on the basis of similarities. Despite the mono-culture, there were always those who, from time-to-time, were set apart. It could have been for nothing more than the colour of ones hair. In most cases it was no more than random selection. Chidren do it all the time. Big people do it all the time. Only when caried to extremes does it damage the fabric of society and harm individuals.

    Maybe it’s not so appealing when parents seek to control the social agenda for their children. However, it seems to me that it’s not what we do that should make the headlines, as in this case, but rather HOW we model the exercise of personal choice for and with our children. Maybe fcusing on the social development of children so that they learn repect for those they may never befriend is worth working at. Selection may be in our genes but it need not determine our attitudes.

    Of all the children I played with as a child, from socially similar backgrounds, I am actively friends with not one. Maybe it betrays the absence of some social skill in my makeup, maybe it’s because, as an adult, I moved jobs more than most, or maybe it is no more than a feature of life’s unfathomable flow. Good luck with the research.

  4. Paul Crisp says:

    According to the authors of Freakonomics, social class ’causes’ names – not the other way round..but made-up names (how about ‘Shithead’ pronounced ‘Sheteed’!) are persistent social markers http://www.freakonomics.com/books/freakonomics/chapter-excerpts/chapter-6/

  5. Suma says:

    A fascinating topic on many levels. From years of observation during school pick up times, two themes crop up year in, year out. First, that there are ‘Kate Hopkins’ types from other ethnic backgrounds. I know plenty of South Asian women who say simlar things about children and families from the same ethnic background as themselves, but different social class…often they don’t realise how class conscious their choice of ‘appropriate’ friends is – some will go as far as making sure they don’t send their child to a school where there are too many of their own type and actively seek out schools with ‘less Asians’. Secondly, when there are good friendships and visiting eachother across ethnic groups, it’s usually because the mother’s education and priorities are very similar and then the cultural differences are not a barrier at all.
    Will be really interesting to see what the data reveals about this, look forward to it!

  6. […] contestant in a British reality show called “The Apprentice” has indicated in an interview that there are certain types of children she will not allow her own kids to play […]

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