With no end in sight for school closures, it’s time for parents to prioritise their children’s mental health over their academic achievement
By Tanith Carey
20 January 2021
It was just a few weeks into lockdown last March that eight-year old Oliver* started to declare loudly how much he hated Maths.
No sooner had his mother Sophie, 41, a business development manager from St Albans, put a worksheet in front of her younger son, than Oliver would complain: “I’m stuck.”
Soon even a gentle suggestion about how to tackle the question would be met by tears or even a 10-minute meltdown. On other days, Oliver just slithered down off his chair onto the floor rather than have a go.
Not surprisingly, as parents across the UK are once again home schooling, both Sophie and her husband Luke, an IT manager, have become increasingly exasperated as they panic about how much their son is falling behind the Year Four curriculum.
“I’m trying to keep work afloat so I admit I’ve been bad-tempered about the fact he just won’t get down to it,” says Sophie. “There have been moments when I’ve said all the wrong things like: ‘Just try’ and ‘Stop being so lazy.’ The other day I lost it with him, and he said: ‘But Mummies aren’t supposed to be like this.’ That just broke my heart. I realised my relationship with my child was paying a high price for the fact I thought he absolutely needed to understand decimals.”
When schools first closed 10 months ago, few people could have anticipated the heartache that would follow when parents switched roles to becoming their children’s teachers (while also trying to work). So the news this week that schools could remain closed until after Easter hasn’t just sent parents’ spirits sinking; it’s also sent their blood pressure rising.
This week, a study from Oxford University found levels of stress and anxiety among parents have continued to increase as the pandemic has worn on. The research, based on responses up until the end of December, cited rows and their children’s behaviour as some of the main reasons.
Indeed, as author of Taming the Tiger Parent, it’s clear that the real damage to our children is not whether they fall behind with fractions or long division, it is from the emotional pain a child feels when they feel like they are disappointing their parents. And it is this fall-out, which educational psychologists have long recognised can be internalised by children as negative self-talk, which many believe will be more difficult to fix
Panicked by fears their child is falling behind if they aren’t pushed, even the most loving parent can come across as impatient and exasperated.
To the ears of a child – who relies on their parents as their main source of protection and love – this can be heard as: “I’m not good enough”, which can lodge in a child’s mind.
Even before lockdown, the insistence that our children must catch up with those in the Far East on international PISA assessment tables meant our youngsters were already the most publicly tested in the world. It led to the introduction of a one-size-fits-all curriculum that was difficult for even teachers to keep up with.
All that pressure on children was magnified when the people who taught this punishing system stopped being professional teachers, but anxious parents.
According to Helen Warren, head of learning support at York House School in Hertfordshire, there is no doubt that home schooling is putting pressure on parent-child relationships. “The difference is that parents have an emotional connection with their child, more so than teachers. Parents also find it far harder to accept their child can’t understand tasks using the method they are trying to explain to them.”
In a period of uncertainty like this, former ‘super head’ and education expert Leon Hady at guidetuition.com believes it’s simply not worth sacrificing your relationship with your child for work they can catch up on when schools reopen. “Parents are trying to replicate what they think teaching is. But you can’t use the same techniques to educate them as you use when you want your child to tidy up their room. Teachers use a whole range of cues and techniques to engage children, which parents don’t have at their disposal.”
Instead, parents need to reframe how they see their roles in home schooling, adds Leon. “As a parent, stay on your child’s side. You’re not their teacher, you’re their teaching assistant. It’s an important distinction. If you have one loving conversation with your child, that’s more important than anything they’ll learn about isosceles triangles that day. Treat online learning like a buffet to pick from, not a doctor’s prescription.”
Family therapist Miriam Chachamu agrees it’s essential for parents to dial down the criticism. “Parents tend to have too high expectations of what children should be able to achieve. They often want them to submit perfect pieces of work with no mistakes. But the purpose of the work is for children to learn about a subject, not get a perfect mark.”
Far more important, says Chachamu, is that our children return to school as can-do learners. “If there are too many corrections and too many suggestions, the child can feel they are a disappointment to the parents. It’s not worth it because the last thing you want your child to internalise is: ‘However hard I try, it’s never good enough.’ Your relationship with your child is always going to be far more important than academics.”
Mental equilibrium, not perfect marks, should be the real measure of our success as parents during the pandemic.
Tanith Carey is author of Taming the Tiger Parent: How to put your child’s well-being first in a competitive world, published by Robinson. To order your copy, call 0844 851 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop