Saturday 02 July 2022

Don’t beat yourself up over those exam results

This blog first appeared on Malta Today

As parents all over Malta (especially the over-stressed Mums) rejoiced and heaved a sigh of enormous relief at the news that their teenagers had passed their ‘O’ & ‘A’ levels yesterday, my thoughts automatically went towards the ones who didn’t make it.

I didn’t have long to wait before the official figures came out. Thousands, unfortunately, had failed their English, Maltese and Maths exams, the core subjects. It is a worrying statistic not only because we are such an exam-based country where everything depends on these blessed qualifications, but because of all the stigma and labelling which goes on when children do not pass.

In fact, one person on Facebook immediately suggested that all the parents “flaunting” their kids’ good results were making the ones who didn’t pass feel like a “disgrace” and failures. This comment was met with so much incredulity and so many objections that it was quickly removed. It raised an interesting point, however, because it demonstrated that sheer hard work leading to academic achievements can sometimes be met by a wave of resentment and yes, even envy, by those who do not make the grade. The solution, though, is not to whittle everyone down to the same status so that no one’s feelings get hurt, because children will eventually learn to their detriment that in the real world, life is simply not like that. Rather than trying to bring down those who “make it”, or chastising parents for boasting about their kids’ results, maybe what needs to change is the way we look at failure.

All of us have passed through some type of failure at some point or another: the crux is how we handle it, whether we learn from it, or whether we simply fall apart. It is here that parents of children who are not academically inclined need to demonstrate good solid support, but not by pampering or sheltering them or (the other extreme) by calling them derogatory names …after all, nothing has ever been achieved by calling someone a turnip. Simply let them know that the cliche is true and life does always go on. At the time it does seem like the end of the world and it is easy to fall into despair, but through the generations there are many who have similarly failed, but have picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and tried again, or just chosen a different path.

It is a hard truth to swallow, of course, because most parents usually hope that their kids will turn out to be geniuses, but the fact is that most children are average, and it is only a small percentage which turn out to be truly brilliant and gifted. Then there are those who struggle and are below average because of various learning disabilities or simply because their strengths lie elsewhere. Some only discover their potential away from the rigidity of our educational system when they start working and figure out what they are good at, even going back to school at a more mature age because they finally “get it”. Sometimes it takes more than one attempt to pass a subject in which one is particularly weak. That’s OK – there’s no shame in that, and it only goes to show that perseverance can be rewarded. It builds character, and God knows we need a lot more people with character.

Rather than beating themselves up into a pulped mess because their child did not pass while their friends’ kids have passed with flying colours, maybe what parents need to do is to shift their mindset and truly look at their child, discovering what they are good at, instead of bemoaning the fact that they are not “good at school”. Focussing on their abilities rather than their failures can go a long way towards making them believe in themselves. Otherwise they will end up in that long list of teenagers with little or no prospects who are leaving Form 5 absolutely loathing school, textbooks and exams, vowing never to set foot inside a classroom again. Despite the many new praiseworthy initiatives being introduced by the Education Ministry to target unskilled and unqualified school-leavers, there are still too many teenagers who shy away from any further training or education because they are convinced that they are “stupid” and “complete failures”.

This “failure” label, however, is not only misplaced but very relative. As complex human beings with a myriad of personal failings, who is to say what should be defined as a successful life or not? After all there are many very top achievers with high-flying careers who then go on to fail in other aspects of their life, whether it is a series of failed relationships, an inability to bond with others or simply a dearth of empathy or social skills, making them cold and unapproachable. And paradoxically, it is sometimes those who have floated through life without having to cope with failure in their education or career, who then come crashing down the hardest when something in their personal life goes haywire.

After all, it is when we are at our lowest ebb that we find out what we are truly made of, and sometimes it is that very failure which makes us realize that we have true grit.

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