Who was told this as a kid? Isn’t this something all motivated children aspire to at school? But should it be what we want for our children? Or is doing “your best” getting all skewed? It certainly seems to be getting more and more tunnel visioned. More and more intense. Doing your best as a child seems to now mean getting the best exam results you can, possibly at the expense of happiness. It seems to be without context. Without boundaries.
It might seem strange to challenge such a seemingly wholesome mantra, but how do we really want our kids to approach their future exams and assessments; that will start aged six or seven (seriously?). Do we really want a four/five year old stressing about exams; such is the pressure on schools that the preparation starts long before the exams.
As a parent I now completely get why some of my students used to say “these exams are testing you not us” as we prepared them for the year 9 SAT exams. Those students had wise parents! Sure we want our children to try, and try hard, but their ‘best’? Is ‘best’ a bit too intense, especially when aged six or seven? What does ‘best’ mean? ‘Best’ seems to be a word that can carry too much weight by itself, as it’s a word open to implied pressure and an individual’s interpretation. We naturally want to prove that our best is worthy of respect, here enters the worst sort of pressure – the kind we put on ourselves.
So the questions we might want to ask include “What is best for my child?” and “Does this conflict with them doing their best?”. If you do want to promote them doing their ‘best’ on exams from the outset “How do you want to define their best?”. Would their best involve revision and past paper practice aged six?
Obviously we all want our children in happy, fulfilled jobs and careers; not sat on the sofa not being stressed, but eventually and inevitably getting stressed by their situation. Some stress is good after all. Isn’t it? Stress gets us out of bed and makes us do stuff. Doesn’t it? Couldn’t something else do this though? Conscience? Commitment? Enjoyment? Obviously every good parent wants their children to be happy, hopefully from the inside out. Happiness tends to include fulfilment and success to some degree, hence an inevitable quandary for us all.
Media seems to suggest that students are getting more and more stressed about their exams and academic/professional futures. Teachers want the best for and out of their students, but not I would argue at the expense of them learning how to have a balanced, happy life. The best interests of the child is a phrase bandied around a lot. Really? Is this pressure really in their best interests? Best interests surely means happiest and healthiest now and in the future? Isn’t mental health at the centre of this? Closer to the core of us than career? It seems that it is better for the economy, society’s progress and our international competitiveness to keep trying to drive up results and standards, but for each individual child? Really? And the goalposts for some must seem to keep moving. Someone has to fail for others to succeed. Even if it works for some children; is this one size fits all exam factory in the best interests of everyone? How can it be?
We are all indebted to the superheroes of society – the doctors, pioneering scientists, men on the moon and other people at the ‘top of their game’ – all moving society forward, making discoveries, if not or as well as saving lives. If we don’t strive for the best in everyone, will we stop making so many heroes? Surely not. Surely we can still stretch and challenge within a healthier system. And surely we all need a balance? Clearly this balance is different for everyone and some people’s dedication is awe inspiring; but lets not forget one person’s happy balance could be another’s living nightmare. Furthermore dedication that grows and is balanced by an adult is very different to a pressure that is heaped on a child who hasn’t yet the skills to manage it.
Simply put with today’s pressures children need more help working out what their ‘best’ means. When you don’t know what pressure is being heaped on by themselves or by stressed teachers guidance from you such as “best with an hour/age appropriate/if appropriate amount of revision” or “best after we’ve gone for a walk and before we watch a comedy show together” could be crucial. Lets advocate trying – and trying hard. Lets help them look for their own happy balance, a skill which is so important in today’s pressurised world. (Can we also actively encourage a slight disdain for formal examinations at the age of six though? Please!) Lets not have our children feeling stressed, defined or limited by examination results.
If doing their best academically becomes something children want to pursue and dedicate more and more time to, lets talk to them about stress, happiness and all the different bits of the brain (I for one need to do some learning here first!) together. A best with nothing else to balance it out probably isn’t a best anyway, as its foundations will surely be too weak. Let them know that simply trying hard can be good enough and that it is okay for this trying to come with boundaries. These beliefs shouldn’t rule them out of being an amazing doctor (all doctors are amazing in my book!) or a pioneering scientist but it could make them a happier (and I’d argue more effective) one. Above all lets help them find the confidence and mindset needed to grow up to be happy and fulfilled adults, who can go on to add to the world as they are able to, in whichever way they choose.