‘We’re doing the VCE this year.’ Around this time of year you quite often hear parents say that. (You might be saying it yourself.) For those outside the magic circle, I should explain that the VCE is the Victorian Certificate of Education, Victoria’s name for the senior secondary certificate of education awarded to Australian students who have completed high school. The SSCE is called the Higher School Certificate (HSC) in NSW, the QCE in Queensland, and so on. Except in the more enlightened ACT, the award of this certificate is heavily dependent on one final, external exam at the end of Year 12.
Whatever the thing is called, the striking thing is the growing number of parents who say we’re doing it. What, the whole family? Yes, that’s exactly what they mean. This end-of-school external exam has become invested with such grotesque importance that more and more families are falling for the crazy idea that they are all in this thing together. No pressure, kids: it’s just that if you fail, mum and dad will feel we’ve all failed.
Sometimes parents are just saying they will have to learn to be quiet around the house while their exam-facing daughter or son is studying. (What were they doing for all those previous years of high school study? Playing heavy metal while the kids were trying to concentrate on their homework?) Sometimes they are bracing themselves for a year of in-home coaching, or perhaps a year of tantrums induced by the stress of facing the exams, the stress only heightened by the sense of solemn seriousness about it in the family, as if this were a once-in-a-lifetime moment; as if a less-than-satisfactory result would doom you to a life of street-sweeping … ‘which of course is fine, darling, if street-sweeping is what you have your heart set on’. The matter is treated so seriously in some families that one or other parent may decide to give up work for the year so they can ‘be there’.
Providing secure emotional support is the main thing parents can do for their children at every age. Assuring them that you are there for them, no matter what; making it clear you take them seriously as a person in their own right; influencing their moral and social development by your own example. Another important thing parents can do for their children is not to put up too much resistance when the battle for independence begins. By the time they hit puberty, most children are ready to rebel against the disciplines and the emotional intensity of the nuclear family (claustrophobic, many kids find it) and to behave in ways that seem like a challenge—perhaps a deliberate affront—to the values and mores of the family. Not all kids do this, of course, but it’s a common pattern and all kids must, in their own way, start to edge towards carefully monitored independence: isn’t that what we’ve spent all those years preparing them for?
So when I hear ‘We’re doing the VCE/HSC’, an alarm sounds in my head. Something is not right here. I suspect it all starts to go wrong with ‘school projects’. Mention projects to parents of primary school children and watch them twitch and sweat. Projects are like a contest between entire families—family feuds fought with projects as weaponry, more like projectiles than projects. When the finished products are proudly displayed at a parent–teacher night, there are no surprises for parents seeing the work of their own child displayed: they already know it intimately. The real interest is in seeing other children’s work—other families’ work—and picking which kids obviously have architects, journalists, designers or IT specialists as parents. And you can pick the ‘losing’ parents with downcast eyes, knowing they’ve been outclassed this time.
It’s not plagiarism, exactly, though it is good training in the idea that you can use someone else’s work and pass it off as your own. Heard the one about the parent who complained when her son was penalised for plagiarism? Her defence was that ‘You can’t penalise him—he didn’t write it. I did’. That was a university story, but I have no doubt the rot set in with that boy’s school projects.
In a culture as competitive and individualistic as ours has become, it’s probably not surprising that many parents have become emotionally enmeshed with their children’s performance at school—especially those parents with sons and daughters at private schools where they are making a huge financial investment in ‘positive outcomes’. Projects are one of the few ways parents can get in there and compete on their child’s behalf. You can’t kick a goal for your child’s soccer team—though many parents, shouting themselves hoarse on the sidelines, would dearly love to have a go. You can’t do a maths exam for them. The child will either learn French or she won’t: the whole family, no matter how brilliantly it may create authentic Gallic conversation over breakfast, can’t be wheeled into an oral exam (though the day may come). You can’t recite the lines for your child on stage in the school play: of course you’ll have learnt the lines in the interminable rehearsals at home, but when the time comes, your little thespian has to perform, alone and unaided. Ah, but school projects: one in, all in … and who’s to say who drew that frog?
Maybe it starts even earlier than that, when parents feel they have to carry their child’s bag to and from school, drive them everywhere so they’ll be safe, book them in for dancing, gym, violin and netball sessions after school or on weekends, so their every minute is both occupied and supervised.
No doubt there are many teachers who wish the parents of some of their pupils would become more involved in what’s going on at school, but an increasingly common complaint from teachers is that ‘the kids are fine, it’s the parents who make life difficult’. Forget the school report at the end of term, or an annual parent–teacher night: I recently heard a kindergarten teacher complaining about the extra workload she carries now she has to send daily email reports on each child’s progress, sometimes including video footage of the class in action. Whether fee-paying or not, contemporary parents seem to feed off their children’s performance at school, as if it is a reflection of the worth of the family itself. Was it ever thus? Looking back, I can confidently say ‘no’. In the modern world of parenting (a word that barely existed two generations ago), a child’s success at school is likely to be interpreted as a reassuring sign that over-worked, over-stressed and/or separated parents are still managing to do a good job.
More than enough has already been written about ‘helicopter parenting’, though you might not be aware of the latest development on that front: parenting from the grave. As I understand it, a parent writes a series of exhortatory and advisory—or possibly just chummy—emails to their child, but those emails are not sent at the time: they are stored in a cloud, somewhere in cyberspace, until after the parent’s death, with some in-built instructions about when they should be sent. The idea, I think, is that they should then pop into the child’s inbox at regular intervals throughout the remainder of the son’s or daughter’s life: ‘Hey! Here’s another missive from my dead mum! She says that, whoever you are, you’re not good enough for me.’
Parents take to the metaphorical helicopter for many reasons, perhaps mainly as a form of compensation for the reduction in the time they have available for hands-on parenting. The child who is cared for at home by a parent is now the unusual case, as ‘child care’ has become a euphemism for ‘institutionalised child care’, whether pre-school for children as young as 12 months, before-and-after-school care, or school holiday programs. ‘Day care’ is another popular euphemism, as if it’s the day, not the child, that needs care.
The clock ticks inexorably and there’s no turning back. This is the way it is; this is a revolution we have enthusiastically brought about. Indeed, many of us clap and cheer over today’s more ‘enlightened’ approach to child care—better for parents who are no longer bored out of their brains trying to fill in day after day with a pre-schooler, and better for children who now have access to a reliable supply of young playmates and are supervised and stimulated by well-trained professionals.
All true. The idea that a bit of both might be good—in-home care augmented by some bursts of away-from-home care—has largely been lost in the political debate about the rising cost of child care, the need for subsidies, parents’ entitlement to paid parental leave after the birth of a child, and even perhaps the assumption that children will be better off if they can start the formal learning process as early in life as possible. (Plenty of learning theorists would disagree with that, and some countries, including widely admired Finland and closer to home New Zealand, refuse to start children in preschool programs until the age of three. In Finland, formal schooling begins at age seven.)
The available research supports the idea that children raised under the influence of out-of-home child care do tend to become adept at forming easy, if fairly loose, attachments. Findings published by such eminent US researchers as Jean Twenge and Sara Konrath suggest that this ability is accompanied by a decline in closer and more secure emotional attachments. Based on their work with the emerging generation of young adults coming out of the child care revolution, these researchers are suggesting that children raised in this way typically develop high self-esteem, often linked to a more dismissive attitude towards others, combined with less ‘civic orientation’ (a polite way of saying they can be a bit self-centred) and a tendency to become emotionally dependent on social media—and whatever else you might want to say about social media, they are the classic platform for personal aggrandisement and loose attachments.
Ah, that old self-esteem question. We live in an age where parents have been encouraged to think that their main job is to nurture their children’s self-esteem so they will come to believe they can do anything. (In the process, children with towering self-esteem may also come to believe they are entitled to do whatever they want, and to have whatever they want, but that’s another story.) In any case, positive psychologists such as Martin Seligman and Roy Baumeister have long been reminding us that self-control—self-discipline—not self-esteem, is the best predictor of success at school, and a fundamental prerequisite for a satisfying life.
Once we unleash the self-esteem monster in our kids, self-control tends to be pushed aside. Of course, there are children who suffer from such low self-esteem that they might need some boosting, but even that needs to be accompanied by a healthy dose of self-control. Your self-esteem can be raised by the discovery that self-control brings its own rewards. You can learn to be proud of your restraint.
The biggest trap of all, in a world where parenting is part of an increasingly complex juggling act, is the idea that your job as parents is to keep your children happy; that happiness is the mark of a contented human; that our children are entitled to happiness… and even that success in the VCE is a pathway to happiness.
Rubbish. Don’t get me wrong: I love being happy—who doesn’t? I’m not an ‘anti-happiness crusader’, as someone recently accused me of being. But I do acknowledge the truth of ancient wisdom on this topic: if you pursue happiness, it will elude you; if you think you’re entitled to be happy, then you’ve missed the point of happiness; if you rank happiness above all other emotions, then you’ve failed to grasp one of the loveliest truths about the human condition; namely, that we have a full spectrum of emotions for dealing with what life throws at us—the highs, the lows, the disappointments, the triumphs, the sadness, the gratifications, the pain, the loss and even the tedium. Every point on that spectrum is as valid and as authentic as every other point, and every point on the spectrum has something to teach us about what it means to be human. (And, by the way, most people over the age of about 14 have figured that out.) Of course, we don’t welcome experiences that evoke the so-called ‘dark’ emotions, but we intuitively recognise that they have more valuable lessons to teach us about who we are than the bright shiny ones, even though the experiences associated with so-called positive emotions are obviously more enjoyable.
Here’s the other important thing: no point on the emotional spectrum makes sense without the context of all the others. So if someone could bestow perpetual happiness on you, you’d never be happy. This is why Victor Frankl, in his classic Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote: ‘It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.’ And it’s why teaching our children that they are entitled to be happy, or that we expect them to be happy—‘C’mon, give us a smile!’—simply sets them up for later disappointment, and even anger: ‘Why isn’t it turning out the way my parents said it would?’
Instead of all this cosseting, we could commit ourselves to fostering resilience in our children. Rather than constantly manufacturing positive experiences for them, we could concentrate on equipping them to go with the flow, take life as it comes, and deal with difficulties as they arise—including the difficulty of coping with tedium and an occasional lack of stimulation. We would be doing them a favour if we allowed them to discover that you can learn from mediocre teachers as well as brilliant ones; that you need to get along with people you don’t especially like; that failure is one of our most valuable teachers. We don’t need to create opportunities for them to fail: failure comes to all of us from time to time, with its sobering message that we’re not always as good as we think we are, that many things in life are not easy, and that people who love us securely will go right on loving us even when we fail.
Resilience is how we build wholeness in ourselves and our children. And giving a child the psychological freedom to learn their own difficult and painful lessons—including those taught by sadness and disappointment—is how we help them build resilience.
If, as an adolescent, you’ve been conditioned to expect happiness, and your parents have been devoted to smoothing the pathway for your progress through childhood, exams can come as a nasty shock. If you’re accustomed to receiving rewards, prizes, praise and recognition for everything you do, an exam can seem like a terrible assault on the world you thought you lived in. Hardly anyone enjoys exams, but they can appear especially threatening to children who have been taught to expect only positive outcomes and to believe that they can do anything (read: ‘everything’).
We are not doing our offspring a favour when we add our voice to the chorus saying ‘your whole future depends on your Year 12 score’. The fact is, it doesn’t. If university is in a young person’s sights, there are many alternative pathways to university study, especially now that we have so many universities competing for student numbers. If TAFE is the goal, the same thing applies. And once a Year 12 student moves into any form of post-school education, nothing will ever again carry the emotional freight of those overheated, overblown and overrated exams.
Some boys in my final year at school had known for years that they wanted to be doctors, pilots, army officers, lawyers, or to work on the family farm. And yet, throughout my life, I’ve been struck by the number of people I’ve encountered, both personally and through research, who were not ambitious for a particular career at the time of leaving school and whose working lives have seemed almost accidental to them: ‘I never intended to be a [journalist/bishop/builder etc.] … and I’m not sure how it happened. One thing led to another.’
Today, the probability that, at 18 years of age, you’ll know what you’re going to do with your life is lower than ever—mainly because the world of work is changing so rapidly that the job you do at 40 might not have existed when you were 18, and the job you dreamt of at 18 might not exist by the time you’re 40.
So Year 12, it turns out, is not a make-or-break year as far as exam results are concerned; nor is it the great life marker it’s so often cracked up to be.
Isn’t it time to back off? Isn’t it time to acknowledge that as our sons and daughters reach the final year of secondary school, it’s surely up to them. It’s their exam, not ours, though we have a right to expect they will receive guidance and support from their teachers. To the extent that parenting comes into it at all, only the long-haul effects will count. By the time your son or daughter is 18, the arm’s-length support of a parent who acts like an interested bystander—ready to help if called on—is likely to be far more beneficial than micro-management born of some frantic attempt to make up for lost time.
In other words, we need to treat Year 12 as the very opposite of a school project.
Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and bestselling author. His most recent book is Australia Reimagined. He is a Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society, and was awarded an AO in 2015.