While driving my son home the other day, I was listening with half an ear as he chirped on about his day in school. Then, amid the random snippets, something about a Chinese test caught my attention.
"You scored what? 46 upon 60? Do you mean 46 upon 50?"
It is way too early to tell if my son - now only in Primary 2 - will emerge in the top or bottom half of the academic wringer. But he has been doing fine so far, so I assumed I'd misheard him.
"No, upon 60," he replied, and then asked innocently: "Is that good?"
Some quick mental gymnastics later and I had the answer: Not really.
Ack, it was not even 80 per cent, I thought with slight alarm. This is only P2, shouldn't he be scoring closer to 90 per cent for everything?
Before I could help myself, I asked: "How did the rest of your friends do?"
Some context was warranted, surely. Did most of the class find the paper tough? Is this a mere blip in his largely decent record? Or is it a sign that my son might need extra coaching in the subject?
But still I couldn't escape the stab of shame and unease. Uh oh, I thought: Am I falling into the competitive parenting trap?
I used to think I could be the sort of mum who has a healthy disregard for grades and rankings and cares only about the moral, spiritual and emotional well-being of her kids. You know, the sort of level-headed, well-adjusted antithesis of the much-reviled Tiger Mum.
I could laugh it off when my son scored one out of 10 for spelling last year. That should teach you a lesson, I told him, and we moved on. But as his "honeymoon years" in school start winding down, I'm finding it harder to tame the kiasu monster in me.
On days when he has no homework or after-school activities, I've begun to assign him a few pages of work from assessment books.
Primary 3, we've been told, is when things get serious. Students have to commit to a co-curricular activity, add science to their timetable and take full-fledged exams instead of the bite-sized mini tests they have been used to.
Put bluntly, it is when schools start sorting the wheat from the chaff in earnest. Hands up those of you who don't care which pile your offspring end up in.
So when I did a random check of his school bag recently and found a few chapters of his maths workbook riddled with mistakes, I was aghast.
We went through the topics, but when he was tested on them a week later, his results were disappointing. I checked with his teacher, who said he seemed "disengaged" recently and had problems staying focused.
The worry-wart in me went into overdrive. If he starts faltering in P2, he may not be able to catch up in P3. If the wheels come off in P3... gasp, it could well be the start of a slippery slope that ends up with him toiling well into his twilight years in a low-wage job he hates and with few friends to love him.
The hardest thing about parenting, for me, is the uncertainty of it all. We are all muddling along as best as we can and hoping that our best is enough.
Worse, the outcome of much that we do or don't do won't be clear till decades later and, by then, it would be too late. So should I push him harder or relax the reins?
The competition in this age of hyper-parenting starts, as someone once noted, as soon as sperm meets egg. From the best pre-natal diets to the best pre-schools, a lot of decisions we make before a toddler's synaptic activity starts fizzling out can mean the difference between ordinary and outstanding. Or so we're told.
How, then, do we keep our worst nightmares at bay? We prod and push our kids. We consult, compare and commiserate with other parents. Above all, we spend, spend and then spend some more - time, effort and especially money.
We invest in books, tutors and lessons in the academic, athletic and artistic fields - anything that would give our spawn an edge, anything that would help them build a sterling resume and, by extension, a bright future.
It is hard to remain zen and above it all when, all around you, parents are going all out. For being a mum or dad is no longer just another role we play in life, but a soul-sapping vocation in which our success is determined by that of our kids. Likewise, we take perceived failures on their part personally.
Last year, a friend recounted a story that seems to have become a Singapore cliche. My friend's pal broke down after her daughter, a bright girl in an elite school, scored 92 out of 100 marks in a Primary 3 English exam. The mum was devastated as she was used to seeing test papers that bore at least 95 per cent, if not full marks.
I tut-tutted when I heard the story. The poor girl. And the poor mum, whose happiness is built on her child's grades.
Yet here I am, the proverbial pot, struggling to maintain perspective on my son's Chinese and maths test scores.
At which point does one go from being supportive to obsessive, from being a cheerleader to a slave driver?
It is frighteningly easy to cross that line because we are all driven by fear. Fear that our kids will lag behind their peers. Fear that this will erode their self-esteem. Fear that this combination of lacklustre results and tattered confidence will doom them to a life of mediocrity.
We know that the common definition of success is narrow, even inaccurate. But we strive for it nonetheless because while grades, awards and wealth are tangible, measurable and comparable, qualities such as compassion and integrity are not.
There is hope yet. We can't quit the rat race, but we can set our own rules and pace.
The other night, my husband and I sat our son down and spelt out our expectations. We don't expect him to be the best, but we ask that he always tries his best.
This means we take a very dim view of careless mistakes - getting the working for a maths problem right but mixing up the numbers in the final answer, say - and a flippant attitude - rushing through his homework or revision so that nothing eats into his TV time, for example.
We won't blame him for not understanding what he's taught in school or even failing a subject.
But we will suspend his privileges for giving up at the first sign of difficulty or not paying attention in school or at home when we revise the tricky bits with him.
In short, even if he doesn't have the aptitude, he should at least get the attitude right.
The hope is that he grows to see learning not as a dreaded series of hurdles that he has to cross for our sake, but a rewarding lifelong journey of discovery.
The hope for us is that, even if he does end up slogging at a menial job with few friends and a mountain of debts, our journey as parents would still have been worth the while.
This article was first published on September 7, 2015.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.