Are we robbing our children of their childhood?

In the English language, when two words are put together which are basically at odds with each other, it is called an oxymoron. A few examples are; seriously funny, act naturally, and military intelligence.

Whilst it isn’t exactly an oxymoron (although it is pretty close), I have, since about the age of eight, thought that one of the saddest combinations of words we have available to us is “Educational Toy.” I can remember living in fear that my parents would buy me one of them and whilst they never did, I felt (and still do) an overwhelming sympathy for any kid who received one for their birthday.

To me at least, a toy should be something to be played with and enjoyed, simply because it can be played with and enjoyed, not because it “will assist in the development of critical motor and language skills”. I’m sure there are valuable lessons to be learnt in any sort of play, but to make it so calculated just seems plain wrong.

A very good friend I had at school, would spend his weekends, doing what he described as “fun-work”. His parents were desperate for him to succeed in his education, and so he was encouraged to do maths problems and English comprehension when the rest of us were out skinning our knees, and falling out of trees. The reason that his parents were so keen for him to be one step ahead of his peers academically (if not socially) was that at the age of eleven we had to sit an exam called the “Eleven plus” which dictated whether your next school would be a comprehensive or a (highly coveted) grammar school.

He wasn’t the only one who was given extra work to do to help him along. My brother and I were sent for extra tuition on Saturday mornings with a local primary school teacher. We would each spend half an hour or so with her whilst the other would watch the television. As we didn’t have a TV at our house, we both looked forward to these little excursions. I don’t remember enjoying these extra lessons, but equally I can’t recall them being particularly odious either. The homework which was set for us however, seemed to me to be nothing but sadistic. Despite the countless Saturday mornings we spent swotting up on maths and English, I can’t say that I remember a great deal from those sessions. That having been said, I recall the smell of the tutor’s breath. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I was scarred by the experience but I have been left with a lifelong loathing of coffee!

I can remember the morning of the exam with alarming clarity. Pretty pathetic exam conditions were observed, so pathetic in fact that I was able to see my best friend’s responses to the questions. I couldn’t understand why we weren’t getting the same answers, but there was just no way that he was right. Was there?

As it turned out, my parent’s money wasn’t wasted as my brother and I both passed the exam and went to the local all boys grammar school, and perhaps needless to say, my best mate didn’t.

Things were pretty unsophisticated in those days, but now, kids in the UK start sitting exams at 7*. Apparently these exams (Standard Assessment Tests), are designed to show how a particular child is performing compared to their peers in a variety of areas, and as such cannot be passed or failed.

There has been a growing degree of concern about these tests though, and this year there has been a campaign of sorts, by some parents, who will be keeping their children away from school for the testing period.

Their argument is that, whilst there is no pass or fail, the school’s standing is reflected in the outcome of the tests. Teachers therefore, are encouraged to teach toward the test, rather than delivering a rounded curriculum. As a result, undue pressure is placed on students to do well, in a very narrow area of knowledge.

I understand that we all want our children to succeed, but I’m not sure that essentially pitting them against each other is the way to go. Your child may excel in a discipline which cannot be quantified using testing. I am something of an authority in this area, as I was without question the best in all of my classes at looking out of the window, and I never once received any recognition for that, at least none which was positive.

Now though, it seems as though kids get certificates for the most inane achievements. I went to an award ceremony at Fraboo’s school. I was really pleased that my daughter had been recognized for some sort of academic endeavour. The details we received were rather vague, but an award’s an award right?

Wrong! I can’t remember what the award was for but it seemed to be the day for giving out certificates. I think about 20% of the children there received one, and very few of those certificates were really meritous. I can understand teachers wanting to encourage children and reward them for hard work, but so often in our society, we celebrate mediocrity.

At school sports day, every one is a winner (be it first, second, third or seventy forth winner), and the problem is, no one is fooled. The fastest runner is still the fastest runner, and the kids all know it.

Equally, when someone does something really worthy of a mention, it gets lost in a sea of, well, dross!

Some kids are good athletes, some excel at school, while others bloom later in life. But unfortunately, that is life.

This all seems a very long way away from playing football in the park with my parents at a similar age. What is wrong with just allowing our kids to just be kids? Does there have to be an ulterior motive to every single activity they engage in?

It’s certainly true that some children really enjoy academic exercises. I know because Boy-boy is one of them, but I would suggest that he is unusual in this regard. And whilst I would agree that we should urge our children to do the best they can, should everything really be a competition. We are all far greater than the sum of our parts, and I am incredibly proud of my children regardless of their achievements or lack of them.