One of the Dilemmas of Modern Parenting that gets up my nose the most are the subtle, or not so subtle, comparisons. It starts everso innocently, while we’re all asking each other when to start with the solid foods, wondering when they will sleep through the night and what their first words are, and before you know where you are, you are caught in the quicksand of parental competition. You don’t mean for it to happen, but it does.
When Sam started school I was unknowingly protected from the whole thing – everyone knew that Sam was on a different track, and they knew me well enough not to want to hurt my feelings by boasting about the glories of their own children’s achievements when they knew that my son wouldn’t be getting anywhere near theirs for some time, if ever. Either that, or they didn’t know me at all, and they didn’t want to risk me having a tantrum in the playground, or worse, bursting into tears. But the longer I have waited for my children to bust out of the classroom (and I have three of them, so I have been doing this for some time now), the further away from that protected space I have travelled, the closer towards the quagmire I have slipped.
Take secondary school choices, for instance. When we were making decisions on Sam’s behalf, again, we were looking at it differently. An academic education isn’t the sort that he needs, and our search for a good school for his teenage years focussed on that. We wanted somewhere that would nurture his independence, tailor a curriculum to respond to him, not the other way round. He needed a place he could grow into, not get lost in. But for A, who is in Year 6, the landscape is more conventional.
He’s a bright little boy (I mean, I would think that, being his mother and all), so the discussion became whether we would be sending him for the grammar test? We did, as it happens, but I kind of regret it. Round here, there are a couple of grammar schools to choose from; there’s a rather posh co-ed in one nearby town, and two boys grammars in another (one of which is near enough to be a possibility – as a child who had a nine mile bus trip to her own secondary school, I wouldn’t wish a long journey on my kids). They are very popular schools and the competition to get into them is intense. It turns out that tutoring for the 11+ is big business.
In typical fashion, it was one I didn’t want to buy into. As a teacher, why would I spend all that money, when all the requisite skills lie inside of me? And what if he didn’t score highly enough and we had splashed the cash? How would we, how would he feel about that? So, after we, rather foolishly, took him to have a look around and he decided that he’d like to have a go at getting in because they had a railway club and he liked the colour of the uniform, I trotted down to the local book shop and bought him a set of practice tests. We sat down at the kitchen table and we practiced.
The thing is, though, I don’t want to be my children’s teacher, not in that way. All that formality, all that forcing my will, my set of values, my agenda, someone else’s curriculum on them – they are my babies, not my class. It’s one of the reasons I can’t abide homework. It forces me into an authoritarian relationship with my children that I don’t want.
This is not to say that I don’t discipline my children, but sometimes it feels that this is all I do. My mum has a theory. She reckons that with all this electronic plenty, my generation of parents have to say, ‘no’ far more than hers ever did. Children’s TV runs 24 hours a day. The internet poses a whole other set of problems and decisions we have to make, ‘no you may nots’ we have to say. And that’s before we start the Battle of the Homework.
I want to enjoy my children. I want to spend time with them, playing with them, relaxing, telling funny jokes, finding out about the people they are, who they are growing to be. I want to share my own enthusiasms with them, my joy in reading, my love for music, the fun of setting sail in a fine breeze. Bless them, they know how to behave in museums and cathedrals because I love these places. I take them and I tell them stories; they listen, enthralled, as they search for the random things I have told them are interesting, the angel playing a guitar, the Blue Peter Bosses. It’s not unlike the way I knew my way about Plymouth Theatre Royal; my mum’s still trying to take me to the latest show. I know bits and pieces about geology and bridges because of my engineering dad. No doubt my children will know loads about aeroplanes and space because of theirs.
I know that I am more responsible for my children’s academic performance than any school they attend, selective or not, but I don’t want that to be about sitting sweating at the kitchen table while I reprise my professional role. I want to catch their enthusiasm and capitalise on it, follow it up, let them lead the way, and if this means riding around on a bazillion heritage railways, or buying books about Minecraft, so be it.
Because I know, thanks to Sam, that you don’t just measure success in terms of academic achievement. I know that letters after your name, or numbers, don’t mean that you are a decent person, or a happy one. The lessons I want my children to learn from me aren’t the sort you find in books or in classrooms: how to make up after you’ve had a fight, how to help someone who is weaker and more vulnerable than you are. How to stop when someone says, ‘no’. How to have enough respect for yourself to say, ‘no’.
And OK, I have had my moments of frustration with their school. I have wondered what on earth those damn fool teachers think they are doing. I have itched to take my children’s education into my own hands because I know better, I know best. But equally I know that, when it comes down to it, the Learning of Stuff is up to them. It’s an active process, not a passive one, and in order for them to grow, to learn, to take their place, I need to step back.
I’m their mother, not their teacher. Or not their classroom teacher, anyway.