Shepping naches is, of course, not confined to Jewish parents. But it’s significant that we have a special phrase for it. Of course, most parents take pride in their offspring. It’s just that, for us, kvelling on every possible occasion is almost compulsory.
And when better to kvell than on A level results day - tomorrow - when children and grandchildren hear if they’ve achieved the grades they need to go on to university? Particularly when social media sites like Facebook give you the chance to let everyone you know join in the celebrations.
Hold on, though, before you post those A* grades. There’s an etiquette to shepping naches online nowadays and people might judge you if you cross the line. “I can’t bear Facebragging and Faceboasting,” said a friend, when I broached the subject on (where else?) Facebook. “The children get the results, it’s their achievement, not mine,” said another. She’s not Jewish though. I fear we don’t always separate from our kids sufficiently. Their successes are ours and so are their failures.
Posting about a string of A*s and a place at Oxbridge might hurt the feelings of others who haven’t been so fortunate, many pointed out. Generation snowflake? Not really. This batch of sixthformers (and, next week, pupils taking GCSEs) have suffered rapid changes to the exam system, with exams that are harder and with fewer resources to guide them. “The level of stress is horrific, “ says Tanya Charlton, head of department at a large secondary school in Hertfordshire. “We’re in the middle of a lot of changes to A levels and GCSEs and no one really knows how they will be marked. I feel really sorry for the kids. And I get angry when people say that A levels are easier. That’s rubbish. It’s just that as teachers we’ve learned how to prepare them well.”
She’s noticed a rise in pupils of sixth form age suffering mental health problems, becoming withdrawn and aggressive. So has Mia Lyons, who works for the charity ORT and runs ORT-JUMP, a programme for sixthformers, which pairs 250 sixthformers in eight Jewish and four non-Jewish schools with mentors. She’s seen “a real decline in the mental health of this age group over the past few years and the incidences of eating disorders and self-harming are on the increase. Most psychologists that I have discussed this with lay the blame at least partly on social media.”
Now, of course, the problems that teens might have with social media are greater than just the odd parental post on results day and many teens have fled Facebook anyway, leaving it to the older generations. But Lyons says parents should think twice about adding to the “incredible pressure” felt by children. “The schools are very results driven and university driven. In the noise made about Oxbridge and A*s it’s easy to miss that there are other ways in which teenagers can achieve their dreams, including apprenticeships and BTEC courses. We’re not really promoting them.” The mentors on her scheme often find themselves helping students deal with unexpected grades – sometimes even offering them employment and then sponsoring them to go to college.
Schools seem to enjoy shepping naches as much as parents, nowadays , parading their A* students for the media. It’s inevitable, in an age of league tables, but how much nicer would it be if they also singled out kids who did well to get Bs, Cs and Ds and have achieved their dream place to train as a nurse, say, rather than only shining the spotlight on the academic high fliers? Hurray for JFS who highlighted the success of the students on their childcare course a few weeks ago.
“I feel as though I’ve failed if I don’t get three A*s,” one teenage girl told me. “I really don’t want to disappoint my parents. They’re so proud of me, and they’ve done so much to support me.” Another said “It felt like the end of the world when I got my results. I was so shocked and disappointed, I just wanted to stay in bed for the rest of my life. I couldn’t think straight, but I had to get on the phone and call universities and try and make a decision. ”
Lyons and Charlton both emphasise that a blip in results isn’t the end of the world, and may well build resilience. There are plenty of university places available and many students end up retaking a year at college or school to get the grades they need. “There’s no harm in taking a deferred place,” says Charlton. “ Wait it out to get what you want.”
Leaving the kids aside, parents should also consider that shepping naches online might feel like a kick in the teeth to their friends whose children haven’t done quite so well. “I feel like they’re saying they’re better parents than me,” said one mother. “I’ve obviously done something wrong, whether it’s genes, lack of tutors or letting them have a TV in their bedroom.”
Maybe the problem is lack of context. If you don’t add the crucial element of ‘journey’ into your Facebook post then it’s easy to assume that this child has had a seamless path to his ivory tower. Whereas, of course, that’s not always true. My husband, for example, failed his 11 plus and spent miserable years at a secondary modern school, escaping - through the medium of incredibly hard work – to Oxford University.
There was no Facebook in those days but his mum went into naches overdrive and rang the local papers. In fact, his story was so well publicised that before I met my beloved, I'd had another Mancunian boyfriend who had adopted my husband's story wholesale as his own.
So, I’m firmly in the Silent Kvelling/Coping camp. One child has AS results due tomorrow. You won’t see anything from me that even hints how he’s done.
Footnote: to 'shep' - derive - naches or to 'schlep' - drag - it? The first is strictly correct, the second is often used. In this case, naches might be more of a shlep than you realise