Nature, nurture & silencing competitive mum

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So, here we are in September, and all of the ‘back to school’ chat of recent weeks – in the papers, on the TV and across my Instagram feed – has been hard to ignore.

Even though my son Ted is just 15 months old, a new study on education, which hit the headlines last week, made me think about how I’ll deal with school as a parent.

The study, by the University of Texas and King’s College London, examined 6,000 education records of twins as they progressed through school, and found that academic performance is likely to be a result of genetics rather than external forces.

Nature rather than nurture.

Apparently, ‘around 60% of individual differences in school achievement can be explained by children’s DNA…leaving around 30% that can be affected by…unstable home lives or poor health [for example]’.

I found this story fascinating. I realise that these types of studies are far from watertight – what about the other 10%? – and that we can never sit fully on either side of the nature-nurture debate.

Yet as someone who is already showing tendencies of being a full-on Competitive Mum, the story made me relax slightly.

My inner Competitive Mum can be quite a horror. For example, I remember her making me feel ridiculously worried about Ted’s ‘performance’ in his 9-month health visitor review.  

‘Oh god, he can’t pull himself up yet; he only says ‘ba’ not ‘ga’; he still doesn’t know his 12 times tables…he must be ‘behind’ and it’s all my fault.’

Competitive Mum made me worry about Ted not walking as early as some of the other kids at his playgroup. For a while, I was concerned that the way I hold his legs while changing his nappy had made one longer than the other, and was affecting his ability to walk. Seriously.

As time goes on, it is becoming clear that he is hitting his milestones at his own pace.

I’m therefore telling myself not to worry, to enjoy playing with him and reading to him and to not feel guilty when he watches Go-Jetters.

I am telling Competitive Mum – and her close relative, Guilty Mum – to get lost.

And it’s working, for now. But the school system is about measurement and results and inevitable comparison and I wonder how I’ll feel in a few years’ time if he can’t do his spellings or gets a less-than-glowing report.

On the other hand, I might do a complete U-turn.  

I was a very hard-working, conscientious child. I always did what I was told; I got top marks. Yet I left the education system unequipped with certain attributes that I feel are required to thrive at work, and in life: the confidence to shout about my achievements; the courage to question authority and others’ opinions; the self-belief to share my own views.

In her brilliant book Playing Big, Tara Mohr describes my experience in a nutshell. She argues that the academic system is flawed because it doesn’t encourage the things I feel I lacked – it rewards putting your head down and learning things mostly parrot-fashion instead – and how it is usually girls who are affected by its drawbacks.

Ted might not, therefore, have a similar experience to mine, but I’m still thinking differently now about how I’ll feel towards his education and his academic ‘performance’.

Obviously, I don’t want to raise an insolent tearaway, but I do want him to know that kindness and courage and confidence are just as important as getting good grades, if not more so.

The question is, will Competitive Mum feel the same way?

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About Laura O'Donnell

Laura is mum to Ted and partner of Graham Norton (yes really, and no, not that one). Laura left a glamorous life working in PR – first in London, then Sydney, Australia – to return to her less glamorous hometown of Hull, Yorkshire. She set up a PR consultancy and writes a column in Hull Daily Mail, which used to be about culture and going out; it’s now about culture and attempting a social life with a sleep-averse one-year old. Laura blogs at Only Teethin’, loves good guitar pop music and can be bought with donuts. Find her on Instagram @TheLauraOD.