Momfilter has gotten a handful of emails about the emphasis that schools place on standardized state tests, namely the math tests that start in 3rd grade in some states. The question to Dr. Maksik is how we as parents help our kids—and therefore ourselves—deal with this stress that many kids feel leading up to these tests. What is the right amount and right kind of “help” a parent should offer? Or said another way, how do we avoid fanning the anxiety flames in our attempt to help them prepare?

I’m afraid that blaming tests for stress is a little like blaming the sun for sunburn. However much we debate their wisdom and usefulness, tests are part of our children’s lives. At the risk of straining the analogy, just as it’s up to us to insist upon sunscreen, it’s up to us to teach our children how to keep things in perspective.

No third, fourth, or fifth grader should be worried about a test, and no adult—teacher or parent—should permit such worry. Can a test be a useful challenge? Does my daughter want to do well? Sure, just as she wants to do well on the book report she’s handing in. But none of it is important enough to cause a stomach-ache and it is my responsibility to make sure it doesn’t.

For some children pressure apparently builds from within; they seem to be perfectionists and won’t let go of anything until they have it right—all right. On the one hand, I think it’s true that every child is “wired” differently and some are prone to worry about success more than others, but I also think some children read subtle signals better than others. These are kids whose dad or mom or teacher doesn’t have to tell them to “do it right.” They are able to see clearly that for the adults who matter in their lives getting it right is important. It follows that those children try as hard as they can to win the approval of their parents and teacher.

In any case, your response should be the same: a sense of proportion and equilibrium. For one thing, we learn more through failure than success and, for another, if I can teach my third grade daughter how to maintain a sense of proportion and equilibrium when others have lost theirs, she and I will be a lot happier and a lot better prepared as we move towards the insanity, for example, of college applications. Need I say that in order to accomplish that task, I have to maintain my own perspective and equilibrium?

As for the specifics of test preparation, particularly in the early grades, you should probably ask no more of your child than you would for a regular homework assignment—something along the lines of “Do you need help with those times tables?”  What, after all, could possibly be gained by causing an eight year old to be anxious about a test? It is worth noting that there is no more effective way to create anxiety in your child than by communicating your own. And there are few illusions more seductive than believing in your ability to hide your anxiety from your children.

Tutors? Sure, but not for a specific test—at least not in elementary school. Maybe my kid loves science, but has trouble reading. Or loves reading and can’t add. If he’d be happier (Not if I’d be happier) and more confident evening out those skills, a tutor can be helpful. Again, though, it’s a matter of proportion and it’s up to me to gauge the relationship between struggling with reading and my child’s sense of herself.

But, what if my daughter’s best friend has a tutor or is attending some ‘help session’ with other children? Then it’s time for me to be a parent and to make a decision based upon how well I know my child. It will not be the last time I have to cope with the “everyone else does it” syndrome and, in this case, it’s an easy call. Elementary school is “important,” but not important enough to engender stress.

As time passes, all of this becomes more complicated and the stakes seem higher. Note that I use the word seem; whether or not they are higher is debatable and a subject for another time. What is not debatable, however, is that agitation surrounding school increases every year. There are state tests, special tests at every age level if you’re interested in private school and, lurking in the distance, the dreaded SAT. Lurking as well is the mendacious Test Prep Industry, eager to ratchet up and profit from your anxiety.  Nothing has a more profound effect on how your children cope with the tension and fear surrounding “the whole college thing” than your response to it. I have seen too many adolescents harmed by the people who love them most to take this lightly.

Educators and psychologists are fond of talking about ‘peer pressure,’ and the importance of our children’s ability to understand and resist it. Less is said about the impact of peer pressure on parents. To whom does it matter most, our children or us, how they do on those tests and what school they attend? Yes, we want “the best for our children.” “Yes, we want them to be happy” and “to provide them the greatest possible opportunities.” But how critically do we examine what we mean?  Is it true that the “best” for my child is a particular school or college or career? When I put that Yale bumper sticker on my car, is it because I know my daughter is proud of it, or is it—just a bit—because my neighbor doesn’t have one? How much of my daughter’s childhood did she spend for that bumper sticker? Was it something she wanted, or something I wanted? And, really, how much does it matter where she goes to school? She always wanted to be an artist. Have I thwarted that desire somehow?

And, how did we get here so quickly? Wasn’t it just yesterday that she was taking that third grade test?  She was nervous, I remember that much. Did I do that? And hadn’t she wanted to go to school with her best friend instead of going to Red Maple Academy? Did I talk her into that? It’s hard to remember; but it was such a great opportunity…

Once, during the years I was the Headmaster of an independent school, a worried mother came to my office to talk about her tenth grade son. He was a happy kid, a good athlete, and as popular with his teachers as he was with his friends. But he was also a C+ student who didn’t study more than necessary, and never enough to disrupt his social life. His mother was concerned that he wasn’t serious about school and that he’d never get into college, and no matter how much she and his father told him how important all of this was it didn’t seem to make any difference.  The more she talked the more distraught she seemed and after listening for a while, I interrupted her. “Peggy, is Johnny a good kid?” I asked. I’ll never forget how her face changed at that moment. The answer was obvious to us both. “So, isn’t that what’s really important?” I asked.

It has been fifteen or so years since that conversation and I occasionally run into Peggy. Each time I do, Peggy reminds me of that day and how deeply relieved she was. Johnny, as it happens, was graduated from an excellent university and is successfully working at something he loves. He is also a good man, which, of course, is what’s really important.

There are many ways we can protect our children; sun tan lotion is just one of them. Misplaced anxiety, unnecessary pressure, and the stress the world is geared to impose upon our children can rob them of something essential. It’s up to us to prevent that from happening.

Photo: Andrea Chu




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  1. Pingback: monday: best of last week | The Misadventures of Kelly and Kelly

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