I’m the oldest of six children, all born within eight years of each other to the same biological parents. With a younger sister followed by four brothers, I grew up in a busy, loving family environment with parents who understood the value of a good education.
Now that my sister and two of my four brothers have had their final exam results from school and are already or will soon be off to university, it’s evident that my parents have raised a family who are high achievers, which is surely a credit to their parenting approach.
One of my brothers is at Cambridge University studying Engineering, and the other will be studying Politics and Economics at Nottingham University from September. Both got A*s, and As, the highest grades you can achieve. I myself was tremendously lucky: I got the grades I needed to study English Language and Literature at Oxford University. My sister also got the grades required to study Nursing at Liverpool University, after working for a few years as a support worker in A&E.
Of course as a parent, there are more important things than academic achievement: you would much rather your children are happy and well than clever (or at least I hope you do). But seeing how my siblings and I have all embarked on such varied vocational paths, it prompted me to think about what exactly it was that our parents did to make us all such high achievers.
I was speaking to my partner recently about elements of our upbringing that we would like to emulate when we eventually have our own children, and there were some factors that came to the fore as standout things my parents did to provide us with the best upbringing possible. I’m sharing them now as a grateful child, who can hopefully inspire current or future parents to enhance their child’s upbringing with a few lifestyle adjustments.
Sit down together for at least one meal every day
I didn’t really appreciate the true value of this one growing up, nor did I realise that not every family gathers round the table every evening to share a meal together.
Here it’s probably worth acknowledging that it’s not always possible for parents who do shift work, work multiple jobs to make ends meet, or single parents who have to work insane hours to provide for their families to do this. I recognise that I am incredibly privileged, growing up with a Dad who is a doctor and a mother who stayed at home to raise her family.
On that note, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity that a regular mealtime structure gave me and my siblings to talk about our day at school and for our parents to ask us questions that would prompt us to talk about things we had learned or wider things happening in the world e.g. ethics and politics.
As our parents have opposing political beliefs, we were able to have debates about the headlines and hear from both sides of the political spectrum — the perfect environment in which to take in all the information and make informed choices about where our own belief system fits into the machinations of politics and society.
Don’t get me wrong, these mealtimes were also often unruly, cacophonous affairs with one of us being sent to the ‘stand and think corner’ to reflect on our behaviour or bad table manners. Generally, though, they were a really good opportunity for us to talk to and get to know one another as people, rather than just individuals who share DNA.
If having shared mealtimes fits with your chosen career path, and family situation, I highly recommend it.
There is nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition
Board games and quizzes were a big part of my upbringing, with my whole family being encouraged to participate in general knowledge trivia quizzes by my Dad (often with a bribe of some form of sweet treat to encourage the more reluctant among us to get on board).
We would also play strategy games such as Agricola or Catan, which can be bought from most games retailers, alongside the more familiar household games of Monopoly or Scrabble. We would also watch quiz shows such as University Challenge, or Eight Out of Ten Cats Does Countdown as a family or play trivia games such as Trivia Pursuit.
Not only did these activities enhance the bonding and sense of closeness fostered by our shared meal times, they also helped us consolidate our lateral thinking and general knowledge — so next time you’re wondering what to do on a rainy day, why not try and play something new together?
Technology is great, but there is a time to turn it off
My parents were quite strict when it came to technology. Our television watching was restricted to school holidays or weekends, after all homework had been done. This was agonising growing up — I thought I must be the only kid in the world who wasn’t allowed to watch The Simpsons, but it definitely stood me in good stead in the long run.
The answer to ‘Mum, I’m bored’ was always ‘Read a book’ or ‘Go outside’ — which definitely helped me expand my vocabulary and become a better writer, because it was always my default to defer to the bookshelf in moments of downtime.
There was a very big focus on doing things other than just sitting like a couch potato in front of the television or games console, which I think gave us an advantage as children over many of our peers. When my brothers did play games, they had to earn time on the Xbox by doing some extra housework, or doing particularly well in a test at school. This of course was greatly contested by my brothers, whose friends were of course allowed to play their games consoles whenever they wanted. But in the long run their grades are clearly a lot better for the ‘everything in moderation’ approach.
I understand that technology has become an ever-present element of our day to day lives, even since I was born in the 90s, so in many ways it’s a lot harder for parents to police their children’s technology use. But nonetheless, if you can introduce a short period of time into your day where everyone puts down their devices then your kids will be better off for it in the long run. We have a ‘no phones in the living room’ policy at home which means when we spend time together as a family, we are switched off to our screens, but switched on to one another. Who knew, it turns out the world doesn’t end when you check Twitter for the gazillionth time that day.
To appreciate the value of stuff you need to work to buy it yourself
We also weren’t allowed mobile phones until quite late in our teens, and even then we had to pay for them ourselves and hand our devices in before bed (which led to lots of duplicitous attempts to hand phone cases without the device inside, of course!).
This meant many of us did chores around the house to earn pocket money, or got a paper round so we had our own source of income. Several of us got promoted up the ranks of the paper round to working on the shop floor as a retail assistant after demonstrating that we were reliable and hardworking.
These part time jobs had the added benefits of teaching us time management — as we had to fit homework in around these jobs in order to spend time with our friends — in addition to the primary benefit of teaching us what it means to work and save and how much living actually costs.
My parents would never let our part-time work affect our schooling, though, and they always made it clear that if we felt we needed money they would cover us during exam periods so we could really throw ourselves into revision. Again, this speaks to how incredibly privileged my upbringing was — I know many children have to go to work to support their families, and many parents don’t have the spare income to pay for their kids to do chores around the house.
This entire article comes with the caveat of my incredibly privileged family situation. I’ve never gone hungry, I’ve never not had clothes to wear, I’ve always had the support and love of my parents to guide me and encourage me to do well at school. I know there are hundreds of thousands of families across the UK, and indeed, millions across the world who are not so fortunate. I don’t mean to preach, I merely mean to reflect on some of the elements of my upbringing that I am incredibly grateful for.
I wouldn’t be where I am today without the love, support and guidance of my incredible parents — so thanks a bunch, Mum and Dad.
What elements of your upbringing do you hope to bring to your own family one day?
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