Oliver James: My father, myself

Your particular relationships with your parents, not God or genes, determines your academic performance. In my case, it was my father who made the difference.

I had three sisters and he never showed much interest in their success, ignoring the school reports of one of them. They all made it to university and did respectably, but this was largely because of my mother's encouragement. Yet however badly I did, and it was usually very bad, he always told me I was clever and that I could do well.

When I was eight and languishing at the bottom of my class, he tried to coach me in Latin and maths. His main goal was to show me that if I could be bothered to concentrate on the tedious tasks, I could do them. He chose my housemaster at public school with great care, finding a man who also made a huge effort to civilise the barbaric raw material with which he started when I was 13. Together, they coaxed me into taking exams seriously. But the most important factor was that I knew my dad loved me, which he expressed in many affectionate letters. When we were together, he would embrace me, encourage me to think for myself and to enjoy what I enjoyed. He once watched me eating a disgusting amount of chocolate and said, 'Eat as much as you like - you won't always enjoy it that much.'

Ultimately, it distressed me to distress him, so I buckled down. I identified with his own scholarly ways and started to enjoy the acquisition of knowledge and the expression of ideas. True, exams gave little opportunity for that, but I could sort of see the point.

A lot of parents do not realise how important the emotional aspect of the relationship is in determining their child's performance. I recently heard a parent discussing what school their child might get into. 'I don't know how bright he is,' she said, as if this was an independent destiny, like the colour of the boy's eyes.

Many parents are obsessed by their children's marks at school. Their relationship with the child is almost wholly built around this. It was not at all like that with my dad. Until I was eight, he did not seem to worry about marks and, after that, it was never exam performance that he was concerned with. Rather, he concentrated on my self-perception, constantly exemplifying to me that I was not thick by pointing to things I had said which were signs of intelligence. It meant I had a reasonable self-regard, and when I kept failing exams there was a gap between this and the fact of failure.

Just as money can be used as a substitute for love and emotional engagement for children of divorcees or of rich parents, so it can be with school performance. Especially in the present exam-crazed system, parents can easily forget that the point of education is to create fulfilled, creative adults, not exam-fodder. If they make love conditional on performance, it is a recipe for depression.

· oliver.james@observer.co.uk

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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