Caring not sneering; some thoughts on competitive children

I did a terrible thing today. I let another child from his class know my son’s reading level, thus compromising his classroom confidentiality. She’s not his best friend, but I know he quite likes her, so I can only hope she doesn’t take it out on him.

Still, the children’s reading levels are not really secrets; they read their books openly at class reading time. Today was my school volunteer day; this child and I were reading outside. We were talking about books we’d read; I recognised some of hers and said so, though my son doesn’t read them to himself, not yet. She obviously does. She pressed me about his reading band; and instead of saying mind your own business, I told her. She was openly unimpressed. She’s a good reader, one of the class’s best. She’s also one of the class’s oldest, while my boy is the youngest. So far, he’s not particularly competitive; at least not with the likes of her. She, however, is – with anyone.

Everyone with a child in Y1 gets the “reading band” virus to some degree. The parents catch it first, still in reception, and the children pick it up a little later.  While children competing may be inevitable, perhaps even desirable sometimes, in the context of early-reading, and especially in a school as diverse as ours, it’s nasty.

I don’t know why we get like this. I think it’s partly because we fondly assume, particularly with our precious-first-borns no doubt, that our baby and toddler is a tiny genius – and then are shocked to find other children, the type we might have spent the baby years looking down on, are, when it comes to school work, just as if not more precocious. I think it’s largely because we set too high a store by our child’s first encounter with formal education, and assume that our child’s early position in his class academic (and social) hierarchy sets in stone the kind of adult he will turn out to be.

A quick foray into Mumsnet threads is all it takes to dispel that delusion. No young adult, as one mother wrote, puts their Year-One reading band on their job or college applications! Our five year olds have decades of education ahead, during which they will most likely move up, down, and all around their respective classrooms. They will be up in some things and down in others. They will develop enthusiasms and aversions – and then switch; and it will all depend on a myriad of unpredictables, including different teachers’ perceptions. We, the parents, need to give them space for all this and above all get over ourselves.

As for reading, I’m completely with Michael Rosen and Frank Cottrell Boyce. At this age, an enthusiasm for books, stories and spoken language is far more significant than technical reading ability. In many developed countries formal reading instruction has not even started; they rightly spend the time consolidating all the above. In our class I actually rate the child who loves her book and is full of ideas about it over the genius who whips through his much harder one in record time but has nothing much to say about it. In literary terms I’d put my money on her in the long-run.

In the meantime, both our own and our children’s competitive instincts need to be kept in check. I should have told that precocious child that if she was feeling superior, then perhaps she might feel moved to lend my boy and indeed many others a hand during free reading time, rather than crow about it.

And that applies to me too. If my child struggles with formal work at any stage I need to get to a place where I take pride in his efforts just the way he is, sooner rather than later. If he’s a bit too pleased with his abilities, then I should waste no time letting him know his duty of respect to the lesser or differently endowed. With the benefit of a lifetime’s hindsight, and as a former over-competitive, complacently-academic child myself, I now think too much, too early competition is dreadful, both for “the winners” and “the losers.”   Learning young to care, not sneer, even while striving, is one important aid to personal fulfilment I wish I’d grasped back then.


About marytuda

An accidental first time mum in her fifties reflects on all things maternal from position of perpetual outsider and prolonged state of shock. An urban odessy through parenthood plus from one who thought she'd never go there.
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