And if this mantra had any effect, my squirmy, dreamy eight-year-old son, Josh, would be on track for a Fields Medal.
Instead, he’s a middling student, on a good day.
To the baffled dismay of his mom, a Yale Law School grad with near perfect academic credentials.
When I was pregnant with Josh, I envisioned parenting primarily as a teaching role. While other moms2B flipped through Baby Boden catalogues, I devoured tracts on Fostering Your Child’s Numeracy or Rearing the Gifted Child, highlighter in hand.
I figured that I’d introduce my child to algebra, iambic pentameter and the periodic table years ahead of the curve, and then smile mysteriously when his teachers effused incredulously about his astonishing capabilities.
Instead, as the years went by, I was the one left incredulous by school reports that described him as “warm,” “friendly,” and “empathic” — surely, well intentioned euphemisms for “disruptive chatterbox” — rather than as “incisive,” “studious,” or “precocious.”
Josh hadn’t read my Brainy Baby books, you see — and responded unenthusiastically to their methods.
My niggles were confirmed last June, at the end of term, when Josh’s teacher summoned me for a meeting to discuss his shaky command of number facts (and, let’s face it, spelling, handwriting, and most other core skills).
Britain, where we live, imposes national testing early and often. This means that just as children are beginning to flex their intellectual muscles, and explore the complexities of their world, they are already being measured and judged based on the most superficial — and therefore, quantifiable — markers.
But this was hardly the time to question the ethos of standardised tests. I was more interested in acing them.
Commence Operation Under-scored.
My first response was, more leg work. Exhaustive preparation had served me well from primary school through my bar exam. Surely, it would work for Josh.
I drilled times tables. The careless errors multiplied, but my son didn’t.
I threatened. No badminton until you produce a neat row of answers, and check them twice.
So much for our favourite weekend sport.
In desperation, I lectured. “Don’t you understand that education is the root of opportunity, and that the skills you master now will determine your future impact on the world? Learning your multiplication tables may seem boring but it can CHANGE YOUR LIFE.”
Josh listened, and he really was eager to please. But when it came to actually doing the work, no distraction was too small to derail him.
It was after one of these thankless drill-threaten-rant routines that we set off for his year-end Sports Day. I was annoyed at the prospect of his undeserved afternoon on the track, and the unseasonable chill in the air seemed to mirror my sentiments about parenthood.
I had never bothered about athletics before, but that day, his lagging performance in the 600 meter race seemed darkly portentous.
Until the second lap, when one of his rivals stumbled and fell.
Hah! A chance to outpace the competition! Go, Josh!
That’s when my son stopped in his tracks.
And retraced his steps.
And held out his hand to pull his buddy back to his feet.
Woah . . .
His classmates cheered as the boys rounded their final lap.
For my part, I was so overcome that when I high-fived my pint sized hero at the finish line, I forgot to follow up with an impromptu spelling quiz.
Warm. Friendly. Empathic. Not empty platitudes after all, but the foundations of a worthwhile life.
Do I still drill number facts? Guilty as charged. And spelling. And writing. Despite his lack of discipline, Josh is intellectually curious, and I want him to pass the tests that will allow him to pursue his varied interests.
But now, I also recognize that those tests are blind to the traits that make him (or any other child) unique–the traits that will determine how our children make use of whatever opportunities come their way, and ultimately, their impact upon their world.
So these days, I am more likely to correct errors with a chuckle, or to reach for our badminton rackets after a particularly exasperating session. It’s not that academic success feels any less important, but rather, that I am more acutely aware of the importance of other values — the untestable essentials. There is more than one kind of (track and) Fields Medal worth winning.
Parenting is often about teaching — but is at its most rewarding in the moments when your child teaches you.
On the day when I finally stopped dreaming about prizes and championships, and paid attention to the person my son is becoming, I learned something that really could change my life.
An earlier version of this essay was featured in the Toronto Globe & Mail Facts & Arguments Section (Aug. 20, 2014)