Trust, clear and accountable


So here we are, approaching the mid year point of 2014. The northern hemisphere enjoys its summer break, the planet for the most part keeps a close eye on the world game in Brazil, and in households all over Melbourne mums and dads secretly consider a dilemma.

How do we urge our teenage child on to study for midyear exams and avoid being dismissed as nagging stressheads?

I’ve written before about the right of parents to be utterly subjective about their children. It is essential that they act as the ultimate advocate for any student.

But that doesn’t always mean families see eye to eye as regards to work ethic. From time to time – mostly exam time – emails arrive from concerned parents. They have tremendous love for the emerging adult that is their child but they also have their fears. They sense assessment deadlines exams looming and yet they don’t see much change in the academic intensity level.

As I say, from time to time emails emerge requesting advice on this.

Here’s my advice.

My suggestion to parents would be to balance trust with clarity and accountability.

Essentially, I think it is important for the long term that students be entrusted with the responsibility of managing their study and academic success. That said, it is equally important that they be aware that they won’t be allowed to fool anyone, including themselves, if effort is substandard.

I think it’s very important parents sit down with students if they have concerns about preparation for assessment. A constructive conversation where parents inquire how well their child understands what is expected of them by their courses need not be a cross examination but it should be detailed.

Students should know the rules of the assessment game. They should know their assessment timetable and should therefore be able to chart a study plan that caters for this. As the assessment period begins they should be able to map this out to parents. Similarly, students should be able to explain to their parents what the exam format in each of their subjects will give marks to. If their teachers are not in the habit of discussing this in class in the lead up, they should actively investigate this as soon as possible.

In other words they should be able to explain to their folks what tasks are, how to get the marks that are needed to achieve to a high level, and what skills need practice to make that happen.

Parents should be listening carefully to how their child, the student, describes these things. If they’re vague, generalized, or evasive, they should be challenged to be more specific. The metalanguage (jargon) of each subject is fundamental to success. Often success in exams boils down to how well a student can ‘talk the talk’. Parents themselves don’t need to know what every metalinguistic term means – they’ll almost certainly know instinctively if their child is authoritative or not.

Children should be able to articulate their goals and those goals should be to aiming high in all subjects. A plan of attack should never factor in mediocrity. By the same token goals should not be based on what the parents want, but based on the individual’s capabilities. In some cases an A+ average is not unreasonable. Not everyone is capable of straight ‘A’s though and parents need to appreciate this. Everyone is capable of aiming high and setting a standard that is both attainable and tough.

Now if a child can articulate what gets the marks in their subjects and how they plan to go about getting ready for each individual due date, then that should be respected. They should know that they will be trusted to see their plan through.

If they can’t articulate an understanding and a plan of attack, then they may need a little more time to work it out but they are at risk of losing the privilege of self-determination. I think it is entirely appropriate for parents to take an active role in the process if students chose not to. Yes, it’s their life but parents gave it to them in the first place and micromanagement/pestering/nagging/badgering is the price they may pay if they don’t take charge themselves.

I repeat though, if they earn trust then that trust must be respected. Children should know that once they can articulate an understanding and a plan, they will be trusted to see it through – even if they’re watching TV the night before an exam. 

That’s what should happen before. Here’s what should happen after.

It’s just as important that parents sit down with their kids in the aftermath and debrief.

Discuss their level of confidence with their performance by all means but, once again, aim for details beyond ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’.

  • Were they surprised by questions?
  • Were they confused by some tasks?
  • Did their preparation match the content they needed to address?
  • Did they execute their plan?

Once again this should not be a cross-examination. It absolutely must be constructive. If they make their targets it’s worth discussing how hard or easy that was. There is a double victory here. One is obviously the results that are rewards for effort. The other is the pride that comes in having shown faith.

However, should a student feel they’ve fallen short of their goals parents would do well to avoid demonizing failure. Any student who expresses some disappointment, concerns, worries, or even announces outright disaster is a student who is prepared to confide inconvenient truths with their parents and that cannot be a bad thing. In fact, it becomes the stuff from which real lessons are learned. If their goals were genuinely high in the first place then its completely understandable should a student falls short here or there. The real value was in learning what needs to happen next time to meet the challenge.

No one would dispute the advice that families should love each other unconditionally. What that looks like in the context of education is sometimes unclear though. I suggest students genuinely prepare, articulate, plan and execute while parents consult, challenge, trust and support.

All of which is completely in keeping with loving each other unconditionally.