A photo taken by Lillian Spibey entitled: Cranleigh Benjamin Chesser Geography Award-3803

I cannot remember the last time I went shopping with my mother – I confess I was no James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George du Pree. I do vaguely remember the last time I went I stationed myself somewhere near the cash desk… waiting… as I was doing again.

It was the second week of August, we were in a card shop and I found myself staring at two exams congratulations cards, taking them far too seriously and getting a bit cross. The caption on the first card read, ‘You’ve passed your exams, you’re BRILLIANT!’ The alternative offering read, ‘You’ve passed your exams, GENIUS!’

The issue with the latter is that I would like to reserve the title GENIUS for when I wish to congratulate a friend on winning a Nobel prize – or leave it for that dark, creamy nectar from the Emerald Isle, for which I am prepared to grant that level of specialness. However, there is a point to be made that we do use superlatives for praise far too easily and leave ourselves nowhere to go. Children actually see straight through it. They do not want praise for the average. They appreciate it for the special.

I learnt this early on in my teaching career half way through a double period late on a Wednesday afternoon in November. There was a muted cheer from the back of the class from Tom who had just given a good answer. ‘And the problem is, Tom?’

Slightly embarrassed, he claimed that the boys on the back row were playing a game of praise cricket. Every time I praised a comment, they got a run. If I used an adjective like ‘superb’ or ‘fantastic’, they got a 4. If I moved on, said ‘I am not sure’ or employed some other way of avoiding an outright ‘no’, they took a run off. Tom had just scored 50.

Of course we should praise far more than we criticise, but if we do not have a sensible measure and use the superlative for the ordinary, then we limit aspiration and then there is no better word to use when they make the improvements we want for them and they aim to make. Everything appears a little hollow. What I meant well for my pupils was actually having the opposite effect.

The issue with the first is far more important as it suggests there is a link between achievement in examinations and identity. In essence, because you have passed your exams you are brilliant. If we keep repeating this message to our children and we suggest that their achievements define them, what happens when they fail? Are they no longer brilliant in our eyes? This could be damaging.

We read about, and we are witnessing in schools, a great deal about exam stress and teenage anxiety. So much of that is down to the high stakes we attribute to examination success, some of it borne in the likely reality that better results provide an increased range of options. In short, it is generally the case that performance does matter in a competitive world and we should not hide that from children. Children do need to learn to cope with stressful situations.

However, any anxiety is exacerbated if the child somehow thinks that his or her identity is determined by what they achieve. They are really special if  they get all As and A*s or get into the first team at sport or play the lead in the play. They then begin to compare themselves with those who appear to have made it.  Rather than thinking that they may have other skills or need to keep trying or working to improve or simply enjoy being part of the team or the learning journey, they begin to define themselves as a failure rather than just failing, which we all do.

If you are an adult reading this and think this is not the case, think of those people you know who have defined themselves by their career or a role and when it does not work out everything comes crumbling down. Does this start at a young age?

I will never forget a conversation with my father at the end of my Lower Sixth. We were chatting about my thoughts for university and I said that I was considering sitting for Oxbridge. He paused for a moment before saying, ‘we will support you in everything you decide, but how will you feel if you don’t get in? Remember how you felt when you didn’t get into the 1st XI cricket team.’

Dad did not patronise me and hide potential failure from me as if it were my destiny to get in; and in that moment I realised, if I did not know it before, that whether I passed or failed I was still loved. My identity as their son was not dependent on my achievements, freeing me to try and to fail (which I did first time). Failure hurt but it was not catastrophic and was not ever likely to be.

So a few points to consider when you wish to praise your child or when they face tests and exams:

  • Praise efforts and attitude more than you do results – try ‘you have done really well…I am really proud…you worked so hard for that test’ rather than ‘you are’ phrases. It also means that when coaxing is required it does not become personal;
  • Use superlatives sparingly – for one of my tutors, Professor Eric Stanley, sadly recently deceased, ‘really quite good’ was praise indeed!
  • If you wish to give a reward for exams and are pleased with their efforts, why not give your child something after they have finished exams rather than after they have got their results?
  • Choose congratulations cards with care!

Remember that parenting is really difficult and we will all get it wrong quite a lot of the time – just look what happened to James James’ mother!

Further reading suggestions

Dr Carol Dweck, Growth Mindset

A.A. Milne, When We Were Very Young