Dear Dave

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Some part of the slate is always blank

Dear Dave,

Don't do it. I know it will be tempting when you see all the trays laid out in a row like that but you just shouldn't do it. It's only going to end in angst and self-doubt. You will question your abilities as a housedad, your genetic heritage and the very future of your children. You may even get a ticking off from a teacher. It's simply not worth it.

When you go along to the parents' evening at school and you're hanging around, waiting for your appointment, resist the urge to take a quick shufti through the jotters of children who are not your own. Sure, some will be full of unintelligible, spidery scribble that will make Sam's back-to-front letters look like the work of a young Da Vinci. These will reassure you that he's doing OK. Unfortunately, those won't be the ones you open as you grab a book at random while checking over your shoulder for passing members of staff and little Amelia's mum.

Nope. You will be horrified as a pop-up version of the Sistine Chapel springs forth in your hands, light shines from the open page and somehow, impossibly, Handel's Messiah blares out, seemingly from the very paper.

This will be distressing, for any number of obvious reasons.

As you carefully put the book back, nonchalantly whistling to yourself under the suspicious gaze of everyone in the entire dining hall full of parents and teachers, you will understand beyond doubt that there are some competitions that Sam will never win...

Of course, you already know this to be true but the full realisation of it is still liable to be shocking. Although competition at parent and toddler is fierce, it's all rather meaningless. In reality, it makes no difference how many teeth a one-year-old has, whether they can say 'tractor' or how many blocks they can stack - barring a real problem, every child present is going to catch up eventually. It's a case of when skills and attributes develop, not if.

By the time the kids are at school, however, the situation has changed. Nature and nurture have really got to work, and talents and weaknesses have begun to emerge. Gradually it becomes a case of if, rather than when.

Not long after Fraser started Primary 1, I went along to a talk given by his teacher about the curriculum for the year. She went to great lengths to point out that there's always wide variation in the abilities of kids starting school. She showed us a couple of pictures of a group of people eating, drawn by different children in the class. One was a scribble. Without being told, there was absolutely no way of knowing what it was supposed to be. The other was like a black felt-tip version of The Last Supper. People sat behind a table, food set out before them. They had expressions, the table was drawn in perspective and it was even possible to tell what was on the plates. I was flabbergasted. I knew then that Fraser was never going to win any art competitions. He can barely manage that level of composition now that he's in Primary 4.

While my mind was still reeling, though, his teacher went on to talk about maths and how all the children had a line taped to their desks with the numbers 1 to 10 marked on it, to help them with their addition. This confused me in an entirely different way. Fraser could already subtract two-digit numbers from each other in his head. The thought that kids around him might need a crib sheet in order to add 3 to 5 was as astonishing to me as his classmate's sketch.

Every child has stuff they're good and bad at.

Lewis could do any thirty-piece jigsaw with ease by the time he started nursery. Marie's been there a year and can barely do twelve-piece jigsaws, but she can say 'please' and 'thank you' better than the boys can already. She can also beat me at Uno. She has much more empathy than the boys as well - when she was under a year, we showed her a picture of a crying baby in a book and she burst into tears herself.

(Admittedly, she's not always so understanding of the plight of others these days. Last week, a friend came round to visit but started sobbing when her dad left. Rather than consoling her, Marie said, "Stop crying so loudly. I can't hear Bob the Builder." Nonetheless, she has much more concern for the people around her than the boys can muster between them.)

There's no point beating yourself up over what your kids can't do. Maybe if I'd spent more time doing artwork with Fraser when he was small, he'd be better able to draw now but, then again, perhaps the distraction would only mean he was worse at maths. I don't know. Some skills, like reading, are vital but others aren't so important. If he's never able to paint, then so be it, as long as he understands that it doesn't really matter and he has the confidence to muddle through his art classes. I'd rather he spent time improving the skills he's good at and enjoys.

When a kid is born, infinite possibilities stretch before them. As they get older, it can be sad to see some of those possibilities begin to fade but it's merely a consequence of the child developing and finding their way. They can't do everything. They shouldn't be expected to.

It's worth remembering, however, that no matter how many avenues are closed, there are still infinite possibilities left. (Infinity is great like that.) Plenty of choices remain to be made and there's still a need for guidance, encouragement and teaching. There's even room for the unexpected:

Fraser took part in an art competition when he was in Primary 1. It was to do with road safety. All the kids were given a picture of a lollipop lady and they had to colour her in. Fraser was relatively neat and used a blinding selection of day-glo shades. It wasn't exactly a masterpiece but his efforts fitted the criteria for the competition very well.

At home-time on the day the winner was announced, the perpetrator of The Last Supper stomped out of the building in a foul mood and scowled at me. Fraser was not far behind, joyously waving the blinding, day-glo reflective jacket he'd won.

So, yeah, don't worry too much at the parents' evening what Sam's classmates can do. Concentrate on finding out what he can do and how you can help. Save your effort for thinking up some intelligent questions about Sam's progress to ask his teacher...

...particularly if she's young and cute and has a tendency to wear low-cut tops. What with that and the occasional outbreaks of Hallelujahs behind you as other parents 'accidentally' rifle through the wrong trays, you'll be pretty distracted when your time slot arrives. It's best to be prepared...

Yours in a woman's world,



Mockingbird said...

I used to work in a school.... and boy did the parents get competitive!! It was an independent school, and people put their children in to the entrance exam regardless of their child's ability to rise to the occasion..... which is pretty rough when the child is just six (at the time of the entry). Mad... quite mad....

DadsDinner said...

Ah, but it's essential to get your child into the independent school with the best academic results. They carefully select kids who are good at exams and then, at great expense, turn them into teenagers who are good at exams. Amazing. ;-)

Mockingbird said...

But... putting a child in for an entrance exam who can't read, can't write and is defeated by even the simplest of sums, combined with an IQ test that fails to reach even room temperature..... now that's just plain mean!!

DadsDinner said...

You have a point.

It's possible that the parents don't realise, though. Particularly if a swish nursery has been telling them how well their kid is doing because he or she can walk halfway across a room without being distracted by their own fingers.