Last week was a big week for us. My son took his first grammar school entrance test, and I spoke to my largest audience so far: 300 sales professionals at a corporate conference (although my son told me he wins, because he’s performed to an audience of 400 in a school choir)
We’ve never been pushy parents, and we decided from the outset we weren’t going to get a tutor or drill him for the test. After all, if he had to push himself to the limit just to get in, then he would have 5 years of hell, pushing himself every single day just to keep up.
We told him it wasn’t about getting it right or wrong, it was just to see if the school would be a good fit for him. We bought some exercise books and practice papers, just to get him familiar with the style of questions.
Even so, the days running up to the test were an eye-opener. We had tears, we had trouble sleeping, we had tears when he couldn’t get to sleep, because he wanted to get up early the next day to do part of a practice paper before school.
I realised my job wasn’t to prepare his maths, comprehension, verbal or non-verbal reasoning skills. My job was to prepare him – to be confident, resilient, to be at his best, so he could do his best work.
Here are some of the lessons we learned together:
1. I don’t know is ok
Isn’t it funny how as soon as we notice something we don’t know, we can find ourselves focusing on all the things we don’t know? Our weaknesses, our gaps, our uncertainties.
That’s exactly what I saw my son doing when he scanned down a practice paper, picking up on all the words he didn’t know the meaning to and questions he didn’t understand.
I told him to shift his focus. Go for the questions he did know the answer to first. Focus on the words he did understand, and see if he could work out an answer based on what he did know. Then come back to the rest.
There will always be things we don’t know, but if we focus solely on those things, we can end up overlooking what we do know, or running out of time to do what we can do. Don’t let the things you don’t know cloud what you do know.
2. You know more than you think
At the same time, when he got past his initial “I don’t know”, and read the question carefully, there were actually more questions he could answer than he realised.
Sometimes we jump to the conclusion that we can’t do something, when it’s new and unfamiliar. Often we can do far more than we think.
3. You need sleep!
On the run up to the test, we realised that the best way we could prepare him was to make sure he was well rested.
We all know that when kids are tired, they are more sensitive, grumpy, hyper, irrational, unreasonable, and likely to zone out or melt down.
We often forget that the same thing happens to us as adults too.
4. Mindset unlocks knowledge: how you think matters
It doesn’t matter how much you know, if you can’t think clearly. And it’s scary how quickly we can wind ourselves up. I stepped away from the table once for five minutes to help my daughter with something. When I came back, my son was in tears. He couldn’t even see the questions, let alone think straight or answer then.
I realised the best thing I could teach him was resilience. Ways of managing his emotions, so that he could do his best thinking.
How do you teach a 9 year old mindfulness? Keep it as simple as possible. Take a sip of water. Take five deep breaths, slowly in through the nose, out through the mouth. And if that doesn’t work? Use humour. (In through the nose, out through your bum…) Yes, I told fart jokes. It worked.
5. It’s not a point of failure, it’s a learning line
We often see tests as a measure of whether we’re good enough. That every question you get wrong is a point of failure. But what if it’s not about finding your limits? What if it’s just about finding your learning line?
We told our son it wasn’t about getting it right or wrong, it was just to see if the school would be a good fit for him. If the learning they provided would be pitched at the right level for him.
What’s more, it’s easy to confuse being good at something with being good enough. To let our abilities dictate our self worth. I know certainly I’ve fallen into that trap from time to time, but there’s something about seeing your child face the same thing that gives you such clarity.
Which is why the message I sent him before the test was “I love you, I’m proud of you.” I wanted him to know that before he did his test, so he knew he didn’t have to prove it or earn it.
And the mantra I shared with him the night before was one I picked up along my travels, and when I heard him speak it out – especially when he swapped the ‘you’ for ‘I’ – now that was worth more than any test result:
Be brave, be bold, because you are already enough
and perfect just the way you are.
Over to you. Which of these lessons speak to you? What would you add? Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to see your take on this.