The long summer break from school is progressing with only two full weeks of the holiday left before the autumn term of the new academic year must be faced. My teenage children are acting bored at times but show little interest in suggested activities. The essential shopping trips have been completed, dental appointments and haircuts endured, bedrooms have been tidied and the clearout of last years books and papers accomplished. The main challenge still to be faced is exam results which are due at the end of this coming week.
Naturally I want my children to do well. They have high expectations and I do not wish to see their self esteem knocked. Whatever their results though, I hope that they will accurately reflect their abilities.
I did better than expected in the exams I sat at sixteen, largely due to the fact that the friends I had at the time were conscientious students who were willing to coach me in aspects of the subjects I was studying and struggled with. I was eager to impress and responded enthusiastically to what was, in effect, private tutoring. Whilst this did wonders for my eventual grades it did not make me any more clever. Once I moved on from this group and was left to manage purely on my own resources my exam grades fell. I felt, thereafter, a disappointment to my parents who did not realise that I had been helped to prepare for that first set of important, public exams.
I have read that straight A students struggle when they first fail. Whether this happens at school, university or the world of work, life is never going to be filled with unmitigated success. Learning to pick oneself up after a fall from grace and move forward with renewed determination to succeed is a life lesson that all can benefit from. It is, however, such a difficult experience to deal with at the time. The fear of failure can cause bright students to aim lower than their abilities could allow, leaving them questioning thereafter what might have been. The stress of overly high expectations can cause hard working students to burn out rather than flourish.
As a parent it is difficult to know how to approach the subject of exams. I know that my children are capable and wish to encourage them to stretch themselves. I do not, however, wish them to think that the results of exams will define them. In the world in which we live their exam results matter, but so too does personality and ambition. How we treat others and our attitude to the world around us can have a greater impact on where we end up than an A grade in a subject studied as a teenager. The exam result may be needed to get the interview, but genuine interest, determination and resourcefulness will impress an admissions tutor or an employer at least as much as a top grade.
I would guess that my children have heard all this before but do not perhaps understand just how important the ability to cope with set backs is. My son in particular has sailed through academia without much effort; I wonder if he will know how to apply himself when he reaches the point where this becomes necessary. He has an expectation of success without trying. He is not learning the importance of planning and preparation because, thus far, he has not found effort necessary in order to achieve.
These are lessons that I cannot teach. When I try to encourage more focused endeavour I am accused of nagging; when I try to talk about the importance of achievement I am accused of causing stress with my high expectations. I cannot seem to get my children to understand that it is not the absolute result that matters so much as trying to be as good as one is able. I do not need my children to shine so long as they have done their best.
Whatever the outcome of these exams, and they will be the first of many that my children will have to sit in the coming years, I hope that I can respond in whatever way they need. Whether we are celebrating a success or supporting a setback it is how they move on from here that matters.
Good grades may make things easier at this stage in their lives, but the performance of schoolchildren tells us nothing about the grown-ups that these children will turn into. Whatever their abilities and potential, how they use and develop these, their attitude, treatment of others and how they manage their life experiences matter more. The people they become may be shaped by the options available based on exam results, but how they utilise the opportunities available will define them.