Life & Culture

What type of exam mum are you?

Why being ‘helpful’ during your kids’ exams can actually be pretty unhelpful


Under pressure: "We're" in the middle of GCSEs

If you now know all 42 founding members of the League of Nations, 15 factors that have caused deforestation and how to say you play the guitar in French, Spanish and maybe Russian too, you’ve been mum-revising too hard.

Exam season is upon us and it seems many of us just can’t help getting into the revision trenches with our kids, whether we’ve been actively recruited for duty or are just enthusiastic volunteers. Does the sentence, “Let me know when you need testing!” have an overly familiar ring? You know who you are. Admittedly, I also found myself deep in eroding soil, before writing this column.

My daughter began her GCSEs this week and with many of my friends’ kids also sitting "real” exams for the first time, I now realise it’s a very revealing parenting moment. Are you just letting them get on with it? Or are you “just letting them get on with it”  but also ensuring that every factor under your own control is 100 per cent optimal at all times? These optimal conditions involve keeping your exam-sitter well fed while keeping the rest of the household churning away under the 30-decibel threshold.

Creating optimum conditions for some parents also involves putting all social arrangements on hold in case you are called up for testing duty – or to make a snack. After all, it’s possible to learn at least three quotes from Of Mice and Men in the time it takes to wash that bunch of grapes. And those three quotes could make all the difference – grade boundaries are very narrow, after all.

I hate to racially stereotype but… my observation is that a disproportionate number of Jewish mums seem to fall into this latter category of attempting to engineer laboratory-calibrated optimum learning conditions. A quick litmus test. If your response to “How are you?” has become “We’re in the middle of GCSEs”, you may have crossed a line. If you’re not yet at the exam stage of parenting, there may already be some clues indicating which genre of exam parent you are likely to evolve into.

If you know every Biff, Chip & Kipper book off by heart and can anticipate what happens at the ending as soon as the “magic key” appears, when it comes to GCSEs, it’s likely you will be more invested than the average.

Caring about education is, of course, a positive attribute in a parent. And certainly something deeply ingrained in our culture. Throughout our history, knowledge under the belt has been a tried-and-tested route to better opportunities for future generations whether in post-temple Babylonia or in post-war Britain. Culturally, education is key.

And who better to comment on that culture than the man who knows more Jewish parents in this country than anyone else, the head teacher of JFS, Dr Moody. I recently heard a talk by him where he said he’d never come across a cohort of parents who “care so much about their children’s education”. This is, he was asserting, a wonderful thing. A very gracious take as I’m sure having thousands of “caring parents” to answer to also has its downsides.

Because, let’s face it, there is such thing as too caring. Despite our instincts when it comes to parenting that being helpful is helpful, there is also the undeniable fact that being too helpful is actually pretty unhelpful. Perhaps not in terms of the grade that pops up in relation to any specific subject, but in terms of the wider picture. Learning to fail, as modern psychology tells us, is the secret of champions. It’s having a little grit that gets you far in life.

Hearing from two of the Telegraph’s most successful female journalists recently got me thinking along these lines too. One gave a talk to female colleagues and another wrote a heartfelt article, but there was a common theme. Both had faced real adversity growing up. Both women are now at the top of their game. It didn’t feel like a coincidence. Obviously, I do not want to inflict true adversity on my own children and I would not want to minimise or trivialise any reader’s adverse experiences now or in childhood. But it was a useful reminder that smoothing the path for my children is not necessarily helpful in the long run.

So as GCSEs come careering along, I really will try to “just let her get on with it”.

When it comes to testing, it’s all about “blurting” nowadays anyway, making parents pretty much surplus to testing requirements Blurting, for the uninitiated, is basically doing a brain dump onto a whiteboard. The only downside is that if you find yourself in Madrid or, less likely, Moscow this summer, you might not know how to ask to get to the station, or whether they joined the League of Nations in 1920 or even whether the ground beneath your feet is slowly eroding. But one can only hope, if they’ve been blurting successfully, your teenager will.

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