It’s the last week of school. And what a year it has been!
The December holidays are around the corner and most parents I know are either breathing a sigh of relief that this Covid-disrupted school year is finally coming to an end, or are stressing out over how to keep the kids entertained for the full six weeks without a short holiday to break the monotony – or both.
But before we get to that finish line, there’s that last hurdle to cross. (In fact, it’s still not the end yet for the A-level students… hang in there, guys!) That’s the progress reports aka “the moment where you decide if it’s time to send your kid for more tuition”.
To be fair, by now, most of our children’s results would already be known and most of us parents would have already had that dreaded chat with their teachers. Well, at least this year, we could do that troublesome parent-teacher meeting online (I’m ashamed to say that I missed mine because another virtual meeting overran, ahem).
For sandwich generation-ers like myself, having to worry about my kid’s results is yet another bad-tasting cherry on top of a very sour sundae that is 2020.
Thankfully, she’s doing okay at school so I can happily go back to stressing about the economy.
But there’s one last thing I haven’t done yet. Something which I daresay some of us tend to forget in our busy-ness of trying to get everything in order for our kids.
We are so focused on talking to the teachers, to our spouse, to our fellow parents, comparing results and tch-ing over that kiasu auntie or wah-ing over that oh-so-clever friend of your kid’s (every class has one), that we often forget the most important task.
That is, to talk to our children about how they feel about their results.
Not talk at them, mind you. Talk to them. Ask them if they are happy with how they did or sad over something they didn’t, then stop and listen.
It is important that we do this, because it gives them a chance to share their hopes and fears with us.
Judging from the number of rants on online forums like Reddit, young Singaporeans do feel the stress of the exams. Would you rather them venting to total strangers (albeit sometimes with positive responses) or complaining to you, where you can do something about it?
Different children, different definitions of success
A good friend of mine and a fellow parent was confiding in me recently about the challenges that he faces. His older daughter is musically inclined but faces some difficulties in school.
My friend, a private-hire driver, has had a lean year and is torn over what to do. His finances are limited and he needs to provide for his wife and two daughters, not just the older one. And music lessons are expensive.
When I asked him about his plans, he just shook his head and sighed. “I want to give her the best but I don’t know how to balance. Times are bad now. Aiyah, just do my best lor, what to do?”
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Another friend was recounting how his two kids have rather drastic differences in expectations for their results and that’s alright with him. “My daughter gets grumpy if she doesn’t score above 90 in her subjects… my son however, when he got above 50 in his mother tongue, the whole family went out for a celebration!”
“We need to celebrate the little milestones. And we never compare with him with his sister. His sister also helps him in his work, in between their love-and-hate relationship!”
These anecdotes illustrate how different our children are. And how important it is for us as parents to celebrate those differences. Despite our best efforts, our society still tends to limit success, at least at primary and secondary school levels, to a narrow definition.
That’s why I am so inspired by educators who want to change this definition.
It reminded me of a popular quote widely attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Teach outside the box
I recently read Helen E. Buckley’s short story, The Little Boy. It’s a wonderfully poignant tale of a child who just wants to learn. You can google it, but to summarise, it goes something like this:
A boy went to a school and one day, the teacher said: “Today we are going to make a picture.”
“Good!” thought the little boy. He liked to make pictures.
He could make all kinds: Lions and tigers, Chickens and cows, Trains and boats.
And he took out his box of crayons and began to draw.
But the teacher said: “Wait! It is not time to begin!”
And she waited until everyone looked ready.
“Now,” said the teacher, “We are going to make flowers.”
“Good!” thought the little boy, He liked to make flowers,
And he began to make beautiful ones with his pink and orange and blue crayons.
But the teacher said, “Wait! And I will show you how.”
And she drew a flower on the blackboard.
It was red, with a green stem. “There,” said the teacher. “Now you may begin.”
The story goes on to describe how, through rote teaching without individual attention, a naturally curious and exuberant boy gets his excitement for learning curtailed to an almost a robot-like level. The story ends with the boy moving to new school, and having another teacher ask him to draw a picture.
When she came to the little boy, she said, “Don’t you want to make a picture?”
“Yes,” said the little boy. “What are we going to make?”
“I don’t know until you make it,” said the teacher.
“How shall I make it?” asked the little boy.
“Why, any way you like,” said the teacher.
“And any colour?” asked the little boy.
“Any colour,” said the teacher, “If everyone made the same picture and used the same colours, how would I know who made what, and which was which?”
“I don’t know,” said the little boy. And he began to draw a flower.
It was red, with a green stem.
Some have taken this story as a criticism of rote-based teaching and a one-size-fits-all approach. I agree. But instead of blaming schools and education systems, we should take a positive approach.
Educating an entire cohort of children requires a balancing act of time, resources and commitment. And teachers, wonderful as they are, should not be held responsible for the entirety of our children’s education. Neither can education systems, as comprehensive as they can be, totally cater to our children’s individual needs.
That’s why parents are so important in this equation. What our children learn in school, we must follow up at home.
Which is why I appreciate so much my private-driver friend’s commitment to giving the best he can to his daughter, even though she isn’t scoring as well as her friends in the classroom.
And why also I appreciate parents who don’t compare their children against other people’s kids, or heaven forbid, incite a sibling rivalry between theirs.
We need to sit down with our kids and say, to effect, “Wait! How do you feel about your results?” or, especially for the older ones, who may chafe at too much parental control, “Is there anything I can do to help you?”.
Encourage them to know that they are individuals in their abilities, interests and motivation. There may be a “one-size-fits-all” approach in the classroom, but there should be a “you-are-my-unique-child” mentality back home.
This may sound counter-intuitive but hear me out when I say this: Results are secondary. Character is what is important. Your child may not have found their niche in life. They may struggle with Physics or Chemistry, Geography or History; they may not qualify for an “elite” school or a six-year programme. But that’s just one possible avenue of success. If your child has found their path, wonderful! If not, even better – their calling is yet to be discovered.
If they are still searching for their way in life, don’t be too quick to dampen their spirits by labelling them as “difficult” or “failures”. Don’t be too fast to streamline and stereotype them into “science-y”, “arts-y”, or dare I say it, “farts-y” #dadjokes.
That’s what I do with my girl. In fact, I often say to her: “I’m not so concerned about your results so long as I know you have tried your best. You will find what you’re good at. And when you do, lean into it. Scoring is secondary. Finding what makes you interested and engaged is when you learn to fly.”
Now, if you don’t mind me, I’ve got to google for ways of how to spend the holidays working from home with a boisterous 10-year-old without involving copious amounts of screentime.