Living up to (exam) expectations

a person writing on white paper using pencil Photo by Andy Barbour on

This week it’s been end-of-year exams for both Isaac and Toby. It’s revived forgotten memories of my experiences – and expectations – at the same age.

I’m very much a product of my parents, and a combination of their culture and their expectations. As a son of Malaysian immigrants, a hard work ethic and a desire to do better were hard-wired into me from a young age. That’s an observation rather than a criticism and, on the whole, this has shaped me for the better. But the fact is that my parents had high expectations of me: consequently, I had high expectations of myself.

Piling on the pressure

The pressure – both parental and self-imposed – only increased when I won a scholarship to a fee-paying secondary school. Throw in a pathological desire to be perfect in everything I did with a soupçon of imposter syndrome, and let’s say it wasn’t the healthiest of combinations.

I wasn’t a complete hermit. But ultimately my school years and holidays were more about textbooks than friends. I was that kid. The one who started revising for June exams in the Easter holidays and couldn’t fully enjoy the Christmas holidays in years 11 and 13 because I was fretting over O and A-level mocks.

Actually, I was even worse than that. I can remember going to all kinds of lengths to get an earlier bus that would get me home 10 minutes earlier every day, just so I could fit in a bit more revision. I started preparing for exams sooner than anyone else and worked harder than everyone else. And I refused to believe I was ready for an exam until I could recite every last fact and completed every past paper question perfectly.

I recognise now that this behaviour is neither normal nor healthy. But at the time it felt normal to me. I felt I had to do it to satisfy everyone’s expectations, most of all my own. And the funny thing is this: I enjoyed it. It gave me an enormous sense of satisfaction to know that I was as prepared as well as anyone could be.

And yes, I aced every exam. Each year, I demonstrated that the school had been right to award me that scholarship. I racked up multiple academic awards and achieved top grades in my public exams.

I was happy. At least, I thought I was. And then I went to university in what I now realise was a state of academic burn-out. Paired with my own social and emotional immaturity, I bombed spectacularly. Would I have done better if I had approached my teen years with more balance and less tunnel vision? Maybe. We’ll never know, and I’m not going to waste any energy pondering a past I can’t change.

Managing expectations

My experiences in my school and university years have certainly shaped my approach as a parent, and it helps that Heather and I are quite alike in this respect.

All three of our kids are super-smart. Isaac and Toby passed the entrance exam to gain a place at a selective state school. Despite being on a similar level academically with the boys, Kara actively chose not to even pursue the equivalent path – with our full support. Instead, in September she will go to our local secondary school. She can’t get there soon enough. I couldn’t be happier about it.

It’s been fascinating watching the boys’ approach to exams. They couldn’t be more different. Isaac is conscientious and wants to do well in every subject but, unlike me, he has a good idea where to draw the line. He’s been revising steadily but not excessively since Easter, and was comfortable enough to take a couple of days out during half-term last week. The teenage me wants to shake him and tell him to do an extra hour each evening; parental me lets him find his own way. I’m proud of the way he’s found his happy medium.

Toby is a different kettle of fish. He has an incredible memory but he is very much all-or-nothing. If it’s a subject he likes, he’s all over it. If it isn’t, I doubt he’s put in more than a couple of hours of perfunctorily browsing his notes. And the harder you push him to put just a little more effort in, the more he will dig his heels in and do the opposite. Again, the teenage me forcibly bites his lip and accepts that Toby will learn from both his successes and his failures.

They’re very different in their revision styles too. Isaac likes to verbalise his revision externally. I’ll often wander past his open bedroom door to find him sitting on the floor talking to himself intensely. Toby is more visual and insular. He’ll sit in his room with his door firmly shut, hunched over his desk scanning summary notes and diagrams. As with so many other things in their lives, I am constantly amazed at how different they are from each other.

They’ll both do fine in their exams; I know they will. Isaac’s scores will be consistently good. Toby’s will vary between spectacularly good and distinctly mediocre. Could they both do better? Maybe. But while we will always encourage them to do as well as they can, we’re careful not to burden them with the weight of excessive expectations. I’ve been down that path, and it didn’t end well. Yes, pressure creates diamonds. But it also has the potential to destroy more than it creates.

Most importantly, I want all our kids to find and follow their own paths. Occasionally they might need a tiny nudge to keep them on track but I’d rather they set (and hopefully exceed) their own expectations than worry about fulfilling mine.