Reading beyond my son’s first school report

My four-year-old son is amazing. Really, really amazing. And yes, I know everyone says that about their children at some point. And I also know that there are times when I wouldn’t say that about mine. Nevertheless, right now I have evidence of what I already knew deep down: my son is extra-specially amazing. He is a total star.

This evening I got my son’s first ever school report. He is above the expected standards for numeracy, literacy and personal and social development. Way-hey! Looks like the hot-housing paid off! But seriously, this isn’t about where he is now and whether he is “better” at things than other children. Both my partner and I know where he was before, and thinking about how far he’s come – particularly on the personal and social side – makes us want to cry with pride.

When my son started school last September he was one of the youngest, born at the end of August. But that is not so strange; there has to be a cut-off point somewhere and someone has to be the smallest. What is more unusual is that he had been placed on the School Action Plus scheme due to his severe lack of communication and social skills. Put simply, my son could not make himself understood, could not understand others and was deeply frustrated. His nursery were incredibly pro-active, working together with other health professionals to create regular IEPs for him. They repeatedly dropped hints to suggest he may have been autistic. We weren’t so sure, but we looked at the other children and knew he was not like them.

The problem became even clearer to us as his younger brother learned to express himself. Previously I had wondered whether I was idealising how great chatting to a three-year old might be. Perhaps the experience would not be all that different? Now that I can make a comparison, I know that it is completely different. There were sides to my firstborn that I had no chance to access, and so many things he must have wanted to articulate (and he tried so hard, but the words did not make sense to anyone but him).

My parents were particularly worried. Still in the position of having to care for a son with disabilities, they looked at my child and started to draw comparisons, making links and not quite voicing – but thinking – that history was repeating itself. I worried about that too, but just didn’t know what to do. Hadn’t we talked to him? Read to him? Weren’t we trying our best to get him the support he needed? But still he wouldn’t talk.

The breakthrough came when he was finally able to express to us that his ears were hurting, all the time. He had chronic glue ear and constant infections. An operation to insert grommets took place a few months before he started school and since then his progress has been remarkable. It’s when I think about how lonely he must have been before then that I am particularly amazed at what he has achieved and the friends he has made (despite Mummy’s best efforts to turn playdates into total disaster zones).

This morning I spotted a piece in the Mail by Angela Neustatter, promoting her new book A Home for the Heart: Home as the Key to Happiness (she’s obviously not seen the state of my home). It’s one of those pieces that says “hey, I’m not proposing that women should go back to taking on all domestic responsibilities and not go out to work; I’m just saying that they should think about the children. And if they thought about the children, then they’d go back to taking on all domestic responsibilities and blah blah blah”. What really struck me about the piece, though, was Neustatter’s unshakeable confidence that her own decisions had had an overwhelming and direct effect on the feelings, abilities and long-term potential of her sons. She ends the piece with this:

As I write this, my two grown-up sons, now 36 and 32, are in the house — one lives here with his wife and baby, the other visits often. We  have a close, sparring, humorous relationship — which only confirms my feeling that my stepping off  the career ladder all those years  ago was serendipitous indeed.

I read this and I can’t help thinking of my son and the difference a year has made, not only to his relationship with the world, but to how I understand my role as a mother. A year ago he was struggling; right now he is considered “above average” in his attainment. It could all change again. One thing I know for sure is that it’s not all down to whether or not I’m working full-time, letting him watch too much Star Wars, feeding him Monster Munch or cherry tomatoes, allowing Daddy to get carried away with telling him about his Key Stage 1 objectives etc. etc. I’m not suggesting it’s all down to chance. A basic level of love and support is needed. But people need to find their own structures, and not blame themselves too much when things go wrong. Unlike Neustatter, my mother didn’t work at all when her children were young and yet she doesn’t find herself in the same smug “told you so” position. She has my brother, whom she still cares for, and she has, um, me. Sometimes life is just like that (but I do try to improve).

Anyhow, my son has done brilliant, amazing things this year and I am incredibly proud. But not so proud that I can’t see it’s down to him being a special person in his own right. I don’t think shouty early-morning drop-off Mummy has much to do with this.