Sunday 22 October 2017

Léigh anois go cúramach Leaving Cert parents: you are not the one being tested - so butt out of your kids’ exams

Adding to the stress: Microscope parenting is not helping your kids
Adding to the stress: Microscope parenting is not helping your kids
Leslie Ann Horgan

Leslie Ann Horgan

What do I remember about my Leaving Certificate? I remember stacks of books summarised into pages of notes, shortened to flash cards, then dissected by highlighters. I remember every word of the three CDs I used to block out background noise while I studied. I remember my hands stained blue with biro ink that wouldn't wash off.

I remember the disappointment of unexpected biology questions, and the elation of finishing my maths paper and knowing that my late-in-the-day decision to drop to pass had been the right one.

I also remember sitting in the school's courtyard with my friends between exams, exhausted but hyper, simultaneously dreading the next exam and eager to get it over with.

What I don't remember about my Leaving Certificate - at all - are my parents. What they were doing, how they were feeling, whether they were sleeping properly and eating nutritiously… I'm drawing the kind of blank that my brain once reserved for geometry theorems. And that's exactly how it should be.

Léigh anois go cúramach Leaving Cert parents: you are not the one being tested here.

Despite this fact, over the past few weeks - as the seconds ticked closer to yesterday's English Paper 1 - numerous 'survival guides' for Leaving Cert parents have been published. From managing your own stress levels to helping your child to focus and providing 'organisational support', psychologists and education experts have doled out advice on how adults can best tackle the exams.

It would be easy, of course, to blame the media for fuelling the fire of parental exam anxiety, if I hadn't seen it so often in real life. There was the mother who couldn't sleep for weeks leading up to the exams, and another who booked a fortnight off work because "we have the Leaving Cert".

And then there was the father who was so inconsolable that his future doctor had a bad Irish paper that he started to ring around schools to enquire about repeating the year…

Forget helicopter parenting, this is microscope parenting. People like this can and do have an influence on how well their child performs in State exams. Emotionally-intuitive teenagers soak up even unspoken anxiety like a sponge. (Show me a person with body confidence issues and I'll point out the parent who, intentionally or not, sparked them.)

There's no point in telling an under-pressure student that how they do in the Leaving Cert doesn't define the rest of their life if you don't believe it yourself.

Chances are that, for the most extreme cases of exam parent, schoolwork is not the only area of their child's life they are over-involved in.

However, it's not just their own offspring that they can influence - other parents are susceptible too.

Be it genuine worry or competitive parenting or a mix of both, exam panic can spread at the schoolgates.

If Mary down the road has been making brain-boosting meals and a minute-by-minute study schedule, should I be doing that too? If Brian next door knows the exact chances of Keats coming up, does that mean he loves his child more?

Rest assured, if your child fails the Leaving Certificate you have not failed as a parent - there are countless success stories out there for whom rote learning testing was a bad measure of their talents.

Instead of adding to exam pressure, the best thing that level-headed parents can do is to parent in the same way that they always have - perhaps with some additional cups of tea thrown in and a blind eye turned to stress-induced stroppiness.

They can also step back and give their child the chance to take ownership of the exams and, by extension, their own future.

A Leaving Cert student is on their way to being an adult, and no matter what grades they receive, the next few weeks will teach them real-life lessons about preparedness and pressure.

When I did my Leaving Certificate, I was fairly anxious, and I'm sure that my parents were worried about me too.

It's a testament to their parenting that I don't remember that worry - just as I don't remember all of the help and support that I've no doubt they gave me (sorry mum and dad!).

So that's my advice to the parents of the 59,000 students doing the Leaving Cert this month: butt out and be the parent they don't remember.

Besides, if having a Junior Cert, a Leaving Cert and university final exams all under one roof at the same time didn't break my parents, then anyone can 'survive' the next few weeks.

Irish Independent

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