Difficult Conversations: My son asked, ‘What if I don’t score well in exams? What will I tell others?’

Exam results 2019: We need to replace the question, 'What was the highest score in class?' with ' What is the change in your scores from last time? Better? Worse? What changed?' So the focus has to shift to the process rather than the result.

By Tanu Shree Singh

The elevator lobbies are the most dreadful place if you are living in apartments and have just been handed over your child’s report card. There you are, waiting for the lift to take you home, completely oblivious to the rest of the world, hoping against hope that the men of the house haven’t wrecked the place and that they have some semblance of a dinner ready. And in comes the pesky neighbour from two floors below wearing obnoxious amounts of a sweeter-than-rotting-mango perfume. And thus begins an excruciating conversation.

‘So? How are you?’


‘Aur phir? Result is out? How did your son do?


‘Mine scored 91.4 percent. Yours?’

The friend who narrated this was many a times rescued by the lift doors opening at the right time. Despite her son scoring a 93, she isn’t very comfortable gloating about it. ‘They are just marks,’ she says. Yet, the last one week has been full of frenzy – WhatsApp groups, Facebook pages, Insta pictures – they are all flooded with congratulatory messages to the child. Err, the child who presumably lives under the same roof. And the deafening, uncomfortable silence if the child has scored low.

My grandfather had a theory; he always said that one needs to be equanimous in the face of failure as well as success. He was obviously born before the internet. Today, results have become more of ‘what would people say’. Our household has never given importance to marks. Only hard work has mattered. Yet, the day the CBSE results were to be announced, the older one was a bundle of nerves. ‘What if I don’t score well? What will I tell others? Everyone is going to call.’ Despite all the support he had, the societal expectations got to him.

Also Read| Success means living a happy life, says mom who celebrated her son scoring 60% in class 10

In these times it is essential to remember the following:

Marks do not define a person

Exams are at best a situation in a child’s life. How the children fared in this situation doesn’t categorise them as failures or successes. That is a fairly unidimensional way of thinking. Each child has character strengths that go beyond percentages.

Extreme reactions seldom yield desired fruit

While acknowledgement is important and so are congratulatory hugs, taking the celebration of success too far has more bad effects than good. Somewhere, we are telling the children that their value is determined by their performance. Jim Taylor, a psychologist coined the term ‘outcome love’ or love that depends on the outcome of a situation and not the relationship. So despite us professing unconditional love, our actions are a dead giveaway. When we are silent on discovering low grades, we are saying that our love is dependent on the marks. When we excessively celebrate, the same holds true.

Academic performance is not a parenting milestone

We are not machines. And there is no reliable way of knowing that we are good parents. So somewhere we start attaching our own performance as a parent, with the child’s success or failure. If the child succeeds, we have done a good job at parenting. If they fail, we fail too. By falling into this trap, we let the opportunity to teach the child to learn from their mistakes or successes slip. We end up judging ourselves and eventually the child.

Remember to shift focus

Rather than fussing over marks, if we were to shift our focus on the process of learning, the analysis of the work put in, all involved parties win. We need to replace the question, ‘What was the highest score in class?’ with ‘ What is the change in your scores from last time? Better? Worse? What changed?’ So the focus has to shift to the process rather than the result.

It is not the end of the world

If a child scores lower than your misplaced expectations, would the world end? Did it end when back in the day, you or your friend scored poorly? We need to constantly remind ourselves and introspect on what is bothering us. The fact that the child scored less in the final exams or that it would be awkward to face the lady in the elevator? If it is the latter, we need to rethink. How we react, what we say also teaches the children how to deal with future failures.

Exams test the memory of the child. They do not test their persistence, ability to learn, compassion, their capability to work hard, to innovate and to reinvent themselves. When the time comes, it is these characteristics that would help them flourish and find true happiness. Academic success does not ensure happiness, neither does failure ensure a lack of it. However, a secure childhood, caregivers that love despite successes and failures, and the assurance that hope is never lost, go a long way in ensuring a happier life.

The marksheet will be lost in the sands of time. The tenth grade will be followed by eleventh and the school by college. What would remain is the love we have for our children, our capability to help them analyse their performance without judgement, and our faith in them. Perhaps, we need to step back and take the pressure off our kids and ourselves. The marks do not define our children. Nor do they define us.

(The writer has a PhD in Positive Psychology and is a lecturer in psychology. She is also the author of the book Keep Calm and Mommy On. Listen to Season 1 and 2 of Tanu Shree Singh’s podcast Difficult Conversations With Your Kids.)

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