Reasons to be Cheerful: Parent's Evening

My eldest son is 13, into his second year of comprehensive school—and, it’s fair to say, parents’ evenings haven’t been the greatest fun. They usually involve 12 teachers telling me, in no uncertain terms, that my son is often distracting, sometimes rude, does the minimum homework required and, despite being very bright, is frequently a bit of a pain to have in the class.

Parent's Evening Pride, Really???

As I set off to the latest one, I wasn’t even thinking about whether all the measures we’ve undertaken to try and get him to not be like this had worked. I was trying to figure out how to manage my response to what was inevitably going to be said, so I didn’t get depressed and then pointlessly angry with him.

When I’ve told other adults who know him what he’s like at school, they’re shocked—they know him as a bright, polite, curious, clever kid. Unfortunately, I think that’s part of the issue. When his mum and I separated, he would spend a lot of time around my friends, housemates and colleagues rather than kids his own age, so he doesn’t have that fear of arguing or discussing something with an adult—and he’s used to getting immediate and sole attention.

Nature vs Nurture

There’s also the small matter of nature versus nurture. Twelve months ago, after endless reports, exclusions, mentoring meetings, weekly calls from the school and another frustrating parents’ evening, I had to admit to his mum that I’d been exactly the same at school. For her, as a teacher, his behaviour as a reflection of our parenting skills was particularly hard to take. Her only hope was that, as a summer baby, he still needed to mature to the level of other kids.

There are people who would blame the school, but his school feels like a fantastic place. It’s also in the top ten per cent for A-level results and has an array of former pupil success stories, from Oxbridge graduates to hit musicians and even a teenage Hollywood film star still in the sixth form. This is a state comprehensive school, and I don’t think you can get a better spread of examples of the different opportunities open in life. When I told the careers officer at my school that I wanted to be a music journalist, he pointed out that I hadn’t taken music O level and suggested I try printing instead. I chose not to remind them of this when I was voted The Editor’s Editor of The Year or sitting in Hollywood with the Beastie Boys.

Can You Really Control A Teenager?

The biggest frustration as you try and influence your child to be the way you and teachers want them to be—to fit in and do well—is that you can’t actually control the way other people think and behave. You can only try and guide them. It’s also difficult not to worry that you might rub the edges off them. So many people I admire haven’t fitted into the education system. The challenge has been to make my son realise that the school could be a fantastic springboard to go off and do something where his personality would be an asset to the job.

As parents, we’d been through everything from being supportive and encouraging to being angry and punishing. Friends have told me not to worry or project my own highs or lows onto his life. So I took all of this with me to the parents’ evening. but then something strange happened. One by one, his subject teachers started telling a different story. A few of the old niggles, but all in all they began to describe the kid I knew at home: funny, bright and intelligent. Hitting his grades, doing his homework, getting into the First XI, being helpful.

A Proud Moment

I began to wonder if a) there was some sort of conspiracy going on, or occasionally, b) if they were reading the right pupil’s notes. It was like the past had been erased, which effectively it had. In the two lessons they’d threatened to exclude him from for good, he came top of one term test and the other teacher said, “He’s always asking questions that make me think about what I’m teaching,”

I had to stop myself crying at this comment. I’d never doubted that the teachers cared, but at last it felt like my son cared—and had been putting the work in. Parents’ evening had never gone so quickly. As we left the building we bumped into the Deputy Head of Year, who had had my son on special report for months. We told him how well it had gone, I shook his hand and said thank you. I can’t tell you the relief I felt.

Now he’s just got to kick on—and maybe, as parents, we need more patience and less fear about what might happen ahead.

James Brown, founder of Loaded magazine now edits Sabotage Times—an online magazine with the motto: "We can't concentrate, why should you?" Since November 2010 James has written over 50 of his popular monthly Reasons To Be Cheerful column in Reader’s Digest, you can read more by clicking here.