Space to make decisions

In the US there is a test called the SSAT (Secondary School Admissions Test) which some kids prepare for by buckling down on vocabulary and math studies. Here in the UK there is the 11+ for children who are changing school when they are 11 years old. If the child is on the young side of the school year (like my son), he will take the test right after turning 10 years old, and will go into what I as an American think of as high school, just having turned 11. What‽ (Yes that’s an interrobang!)

The 11+ takes quite a lot of preparation. The questions are difficult and must be done quickly. There are lots of tips and tricks to learn. Private tutoring is expensive but still less than one term of private school fees. Here in Buckinghamshire there are some of the best public selective schools – the sought-after grammar schools. We quickly set out on the steep mountain climb of tutoring, with the test near the top, and entry into grammar school at the pinnacle…and do check in around the end of 2017 to hear that the pinnacle is just the start to another journey. I’ll find the right metaphor then.

A couple of months into tutoring I realised we hadn’t asked our son if he really wanted to have the tutoring. I’m glad we didn’t because he probably would have said no, so at least it was a discussion that didn’t happen.

He started off well, the novelty of it creating some initial momentum. But after the first few Saturday morning sessions, he started to think that lounging around in bed on a Saturday morning may have been a better activity. After the lesson he is always happy, maybe because it’s the true start of his weekend. But for me, from that moment, the dread of getting him to do the tutoring homework starts again.

The mountain climb is not just one of knowledge – it’s also learning discipline, working over a long time to reach a goal (which is fuzzy in my son’s mind but crystal clear in mine), and from the parents’ side, psychological tactics to coax this into being a positive experience.

My son’s school participates in occasional cross-country races – always held on Saturday mornings. He has been to a few of these in the past, and one or two happened during the tutoring mornings without him realising it. Then a certain race came up he really wanted to go to, giving him even more reason to hate the tutoring. The Wednesday evening before, I sternly said he couldn’t go to the race because he would miss his class. Have I mentioned that his tutor is very strict about attendance and homework? Even when it’s a break, she says, “The children MUST relax” in a way that implies we’ll get in big trouble if they don’t do so.

That night, thinking over psychology and reverse psychology and reverse-reverse psychology, I was wondering if a categorical ‘no’ was the right way to go. In the way a 10-year-married spouse does, my husband said out loud at the same time, “Shall we give him the choice? Otherwise it will really turn him against the tutoring.” The tutor apparently does not terrify him quite so much.

I had thought through the deceptive route: last-minute illness, anyone? But I didn’t like the bad example it would set for our son, and expecting him to lie as well. The decision was to give him the choice and then be truthful about it to the tutor.

The next morning, we asked our son if he’d like to run in the cross-country race instead of going to tutoring. And he replied, “No, I’ll go to tutoring,” creating for us one of those freeze-in-your-tracks, wide-eyed moments of parenthood.

Truly given the space, he made a very grown-up and responsible decision.

The homework is still a struggle – more than ever, and there are still five months to go (but who’s counting?). The tactic for next week is to go entirely against my nature and try to do the homework early in the morning with him. Wish me luck!

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