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The Globe and Mail

A gold star for the lesson my son taught me

kevin speidell The Globe and Mail

'If you would stop dreaming and pay attention, you would have learned this by now!"

And if this mantra had any effect, my squirmy, dreamy, eight-year-old son, Josh, would be on his way to a Fields Medal.

Instead, he's a middling student, on a good day – to the baffled dismay of his mom, a Yale Law School grad with near-perfect academic credentials.

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When I was pregnant with Josh, I envisioned parenting primarily as a teaching role. While other moms-to-be flipped through Baby Boden catalogues, I devoured tracts titled Fostering Your Child's Numeracy or Rearing the Gifted Child, highlighter in hand.

I figured that I'd introduce my child to algebra, iambic pentameter and the periodic table years ahead of the curve, and then smile mysteriously when his teachers effused incredulously about his astonishing capabilities.

Instead, as the years went by, I was the one left incredulous by mysterious school reports that described him as "warm," "friendly" and "empathic" – surely, well-intentioned euphemisms for "disruptive chatterbox" – rather than as "incisive," "studious" or "precocious."

Josh hadn't read my Brainy Baby books, you see – and responded unenthusiastically to their methods.

My niggles were confirmed last June, at the end of term, when Josh's teacher summoned me to discuss his shaky command of number facts (and, let's face it, spelling, handwriting and most other core skills).

Britain, where we live, imposes standardized testing early and often – as do many Canadian provinces. This means that just as children are beginning to flex their intellectual muscles, and explore the complexities of their world, they are already being measured and judged based on the most superficial – and therefore quantifiable – markers.

But this was hardly the time to question the ethos of standardized testing. I was more interested in acing them. If Josh's scores were a bit of an embarrassment to the school, they were a call to action for his mom. Commence Operation Under-scored.

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My first response: More leg work. Exhaustive preparation had served me well from primary school through my bar exam. Surely it would work for Josh.

I drilled: spelling quizzes, supervised writing, times tables. His careless errors only multiplied.

I threatened: No badminton until you produce a neat row of answers, and check them twice for accuracy.

In desperation, I lectured: "Don't you understand that education is the root of opportunity, and that the skills you master now will determine your future impact on the world? Learning your multiplication tables may seem boring but it can CHANGE YOUR LIFE."

Josh listened, and he really was eager to please. But when it came to actually doing the work, no distraction was too small. It was after one of these thankless drill-threaten-rant sequences that we set off for his year-end sports day. I was annoyed at the prospect of his undeserved afternoon on the track, and the unseasonable chill in the air mirrored my sentiments about parenthood.

And although I had always been indifferent to athletics, his lagging performance in the 600-metre-race that day seemed darkly portentous.

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That is, until the second lap, when one of his rivals stumbled and fell. Hah! A chance to outpace the competition! Go, Josh! Show them what you've got!

That's when my son stopped in his tracks. (Huh?!) And retraced his steps. (Why?) And held out his hand to pull his buddy back to his feet.

His classmates cheered as Josh rounded his final lap. And I was so overcome that when I high-fived my pint-sized hero at the finish line, I forgot to follow up with an impromptu spelling quiz.

Warm. Friendly. Empathic. Not empty placeholders after all, but the foundations for a worthwhile life.

Do I still drill number facts? Guilty as charged. And spelling. And writing. Despite his lack of discipline, Josh is intellectually curious, and I want him to pass the tests that will allow him to pursue his varied interests.

But now, I also recognize that those tests are blind to the traits that really make him (or any other child) unique – the traits that will determine how our children make use of whatever opportunities come their way, and ultimately their impact upon their world.

So these days I am more likely to correct errors with a chuckle, or to reach for our badminton racquets after a particularly exasperating session. It's not that academic success feels any less important, but rather that I am more acutely aware of the importance of other values – the untestable essentials. There is more than one kind of (track and) Fields Medal worth winning.

Parenting is often about teaching – but is most rewarding in the moments when your child teaches you. If you stop dreaming (about math championships and spoken-Latin prizes) and pay attention, you just might learn something that could change your life.

Joanna Norland grew up in Ottawa and lives in Kent, England.

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