Refusing to put my life on hold for exams

A couple of weeks before my son's Primary 3 mid-year examinations, I took off for Iceland.

I didn't do it on purpose. A media trip to write about Icelandic vodka had come up and I leapt at the chance to return to my favourite big island. It occurred to me only a few days before my departure that I would not be around to nag the nine-year-old firstborn to prepare for his mid-terms.

"He'll be fine," said the Supportive Spouse with a shrug. After all, Tiger Papa was the one who kept track of homework and coached our son in math and science. The boy had help from a Chinese tutor once a week. Still, in our household's division of labour, I was the one in charge of making sure he did not flunk his - the clue is in the name - mother tongue.

So I shouldn't have been surprised when, at 2am after an alcohol-fuelled evening in Reykjavik, I was beeped out of cocktail dreams to find my son in tears on Skype.

"I forgot an entire sentence in my Chinese spelling test," he wailed.

"Oh, my poor boy," I said helplessly, from halfway across the world. "It's okay, sweetie."

After calming him down, I said goodbye and fell back into bed. But jetlag did only so much to take the edge off the guilt of abandoning my offspring when he needed an academic cheerleader.

Over my 10-day trip, the study SOS came periodically: Text messages to say he needed to consult me about his Chinese worksheets; e-mail with attached snapshots of characters he didn't know how to read and practice compositions to vet.

In between communing with the magnificent Icelandic landscape, I fretted over his upcoming oral, listening comprehension and composition tests.

By the time I came home, the exams were upon us.

Yet, something strange had also happened, within me at least. I was giddy with happiness at seeing my children again. I wanted to do anything but force them to hit the books and ban all play.

I wanted to take them to see The Little Prince exhibitions that had come to our shores. Instead of biting the bullet, knuckling down, burning the midnight oil, I wanted them to dream about the stars, wander the desert and smell the roses. My life does not come to an effective standstill because of summative assessments and neither should theirs.

The family scholar and I speed-read his Chinese textbook on the eve of his second mother-tongue paper, then gleefully went out for dinner and supermarket-shopping in town. Nor did I feel any urge to stock up on Brand's Essence of Chicken or brew pig's brain soup for him, which was what my mother used to do for me whenever exams rolled around.

At breakfast, I sat with him and leafed through a final chapter of his text, before waving him off to school with promises that we'll freak out and do something fun when the final paper was done.

Meanwhile, on Facebook, mums posted pictures of their kids hard at work, poring over piles of books, we-mean-business expressions on their faces.

Perhaps, the wide open spaces, freezing temperatures and survival ethic of Iceland had seeped into and altered my kiasu Singaporean DNA. Waking up daily to landscape and weather that could potentially kill you changes your perspective very quickly. We are insignificant in this grand scheme. There are deadlier elements to fight than raw scores inked in red.

Success, when you are no longer squeezed cheek by jowl against your neighbour, becomes less about how well you did in school and more about whether you will survive the next winter or if you can rescue your family farm's lambs snowed in on the mountains.

Math Olympiad questions about Cheryl's birthday give way to concrete problems, such as how to build that machine you need which costs too much and takes too long to arrive from a less isolated part of the world.

Perhaps, on a small island with a large population, one feels acutely the need to differentiate oneself - and topping the class or cohort is one method to do so. On a huge island with a tiny population, however, you realise you have much in common with a fellow human being encountered while crossing vast tracts of land. Learning becomes a way of affirming that you are conscious, alive, alone in the endless arctic night.

Travel inoculates the soul from becoming stuck in only micro or macro mode.

Is there a strong case for relaxed parenting during the assessment periods that stand in for the turning of spring into summer, autumn into winter, in Singapore? I think so. While some behavioural experts say you need some stress to bring out the best performance in people, neurologists also suggest that pleasure leads to the intrinsic satisfaction that keeps learners going.

Rather than surrounding novice test-takers with pressure and a climate of anxiety, turn exam periods into idyllic times, breaks from the daily grind of lessons and routine. That way, exams will forever after be associated with fond memories, accompanied by a rush of endorphins.

My son's exams ended a few days ago and some results have been released. He hasn't done spectacularly, but nor has he done badly so far.

The Supportive Spouse listens as our son reports his marks and responds evenly that "it's okay" or "not too bad" or with "you tried your best" when things turn out below expectations.

We cheer and kiss him when they are on target. Children are hardy in many ways, but fragile in others that we cannot comprehend.

What is your examination parenting style?

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