This article first appeared in Malta Today
“Yesterday was a typical school day. My son woke up at 5.50am, school transport picked him up at 6.20am, school transport dropped him off after school at 3.40pm, he then spent approximately 40 mins to eat and play, at 4.30pm he started his written homework that was due today, he took a break of approximately 30 mins and eventually finished his written homework at 7.30pm. In one hour before his bedtime he had to eat, shower, do some piano practice and read for 20 mins in Maltese and another 20 mins in English! Not a day goes by that I don’t thank everyone and everything that are robbing my son (and other children) of his childhood.”
This was a message I received recently from the concerned mother of a nine-year-old boy. It is a message which will resonate with mothers and fathers throughout the country who can relate all too well with this common scenario.
Year in, year out, during every scholastic year, concerned parents wonder whether they are doing the right thing. Should pushing their children in their goals towards academic achievement always come first? Or should they ease up on the pressure because nothing will ever compensate for a lost childhood?
The fact that time for play has been narrowed down to less than an hour seems bizarre to me, because I think most of us can recall whole afternoons as children after school when (once our small amount of homework was finished) we were free to play.
There are a number of mitigating factors, of course, which have contributed to this shrinkage in leisure time, the most obvious being the length of time children spend being ferried back and forth to school. If they are being picked up by school transport, one has to factor in an even earlier pick up time, which is one reason many parents prefer to do the school run themselves. But let’s let that sink in for a moment. Children on bus stops at 6.30am – is this even sane? It almost sounds like something out of Charles Dickens. Especially when one considers that there are adults whose own workday does not begin until 9am.
The long journey back home after school as the roads become choked with traffic once again, means that it is already late afternoon before a child starts to do what always seems to me like an impossibly exaggerated amount of homework. This, after having sat through around 5 hours of lessons at school. The amount of homework debate is one that has long been raging in Malta, and is one of those vicious circles which has never been resolved: teachers claim parents expect it, parents claim teachers impose it in order to cover the whole syllabus and children just want to put their heads into their arms and cry. I had conversations with parents over the Christmas holidays who rattled off a whole list of projects and homework which needed to be done (and here we are talking about 8-year-olds) and even I became frazzled at the mere thought of having to do all that.
The thing about certain complicated projects in particular is that, let’s be honest, a lot of times it is the parents who end up doing them. So while an interesting project can help with learning and can even be a fun family outing if it involves visiting historical places, when it becomes a daunting task which is too difficult for a certain age group, it is defeating the purpose when it is Mum or Dad doing all the research and putting it all together. There is another thing to consider: what if Mum and Dad themselves do not have the necessary literacy skills to help their children?
Apart from excessive homework and projects, there are also certain times during the scholastic year which are met with annual dread by one and all – the exams. The learning by heart, the worry, the stress, the anxiety, the pressure – and that’s just the parents. To be exact, it’s mostly the mothers who, nine times out of ten, are the ones who usually take over this role. When children are too young to be reliably left alone to study by themselves, it is the mothers who take up the mantle and become experts in Maltese proverbs and lists of historical events and places as they quiz their kids in the hope that they will get good marks in the relevant exam.
But from what I can remember from my Psychology lectures in Child Development, our brains can only absorb so much at each specific stage as we are growing up, so it is pretty useless to try and cram more information into children’s brains before they are ready. My question therefore is: what are we trying to prove exactly? Unless a child is a protege, whom you will agree are far and few between, the average child is usually quite good at one, two, or maybe three subjects and well, just about average in everything else. Some children learn quicker than others and some take longer to grasp a concept but somehow get there in the end. Yet, here we are treating all children like race horses who all have to reach the finish line at the same time by the end of the scholastic year. As was pointed out so well in the book, Outliers: The Story of Success, even the month a child is born can affect their cognitive development when compared with other children, because at a young age, even a six-month age difference matters.
This is not to say that parents should not encourage children to study and take school seriously, but perhaps it would not be too bad if we were to relax when it comes to obtaining academic achievements by a certain cut off date. What is the hurry, really? Some people who struggled a lot at school and a typical classroom environment, have been known to go back to continue their education at a later point in their life, and have thrived, because they have acquired the maturity and appreciation of knowledge which they lacked as youngsters. Sometimes all it takes is the gritty experience of what it means to hold down a thankless job for a young person to finally make the connection that qualifications are the key.
And now that it has been announced that mid-year exams are going to be phased out, to be replaced by continuous assessments (news which has been met with mixed reactions), perhaps this might mean that after school hours will no longer be the tortuous ritual described by the mother at the beginning of this article. Who knows? Perhaps we will eventually find ourselves back to the time when children will once again be allowed time to really play.