End of exams in sight? Time to get tough on kids!

children digging“It’s the worry and not knowing if I’m saying the right thing and not understanding the answers to straightforward questions” fretted a woman I overheard in Next the other day. “I know, I know” replied her friend, “but when they’ve finished their GCSEs I’m sure things will calm down”.  Exam season is hard on everyone, so many expectations ride on the outcomes. Teachers and parents want the young people to do their best, and the exam candidates not only have that cumulative worry weighing them down, but may also have suddenly realised that they simply haven’t done enough work over the course of the syllabus. Too bad, the term will end, the sun will come out and everyone can relax.

Relax a bit, I would suggest, and then get a bit tough. The experiences and adventures of the summer holidays, particularly once you are about 15, lay the foundations for what you can do in the future. Some young people seem to understand this intuitively – others need a persuasive nudge. So before they get too cosy at home, open the door and send them back out.

Let’s put to one side certain elements of concern. I am not suggesting child labour; this is not removing any rights of a child to play; health and safety principles – aka common sense – should be applied; if you wouldn’t want to work with a particular individual for whatever reason don’t encourage your child to do so. Money making isn’t the main point of this kind of work – if a job has been done well then getting paid is a good reward, but the experience also has value.

The opportunity for young people to work at something should be seized with both hands. If there is a summer job that they could do, encourage them to apply for it and get stuck in. If such a job can’t be found, depending on the person’s age, there are so many other things that can be done, for example: look after a neighbour’s pets / garden while they are away; mow the lawn for someone else; walk their dog; lend a hand at a fete (preferably at the setting up and tidying away stages as well as the middle, fun, bit); pick soft fruit; tidy up a garden shed…. one chap I know used to be paid by his dad for killing wasps round the bins at his father’s pub.

I would urge anyone who can to offer a young person a chance to do something – doing something simple, straightforward and achievable is how we all learn to work. It teaches us to arrive at the right place with the right kit. It teaches us that all tasks can have integrity and value, that many things are boring but have to be done. And it shows us that to have a sense of satisfaction in a job well done you don’t need super-top grades in written exams.

An open door and a sense of adventure are the perfect way to start to find out about the world beyond your school and family. Many school leavers go travelling – but I would suggest it is a much more pleasant experience if you have built up to it by going roaming when you were in your early teens.  Simply take a train trip somewhere new – without any “grown-ups”. And if the motivation to go adventuring isn’t quite fully functioning yet may I suggest parents make homelife very, very boring, turn off the TV and Wi-Fi and lose all the chargers.


*The picture shows two children planting spring bulbs with spoons – a job worth doing, though it might have been easier if there had been some proper tools…

The Importance of Cutlery Control

cutlery controlPeople just can’t help making snap judgements based on first impressions – the psychologists will tell you that we are hard-wired to do it and it takes lots of extra effort to overcome initial prejudice. The idea of consciously using body language to express confidence is now mainstream (for example try the Power Pose to get emotionally strong) – and not much different from being told not to slouch and to stand tall.  We all know that a firm handshake, clear eye contact and a friendly smile will give the people we meet confidence in us – and that is really important because it gives us a chance to connect and share ideas.

Things can go horribly wrong, however, when it comes to sharing a meal. I’d like to make a distinction between general good table manners (listening to other people, chewing with your mouth shut, not stealing your dining companion’s last garlic prawn) and cutlery control. Most people have some notion of being polite through a meal – but when it comes to managing their knife and fork, it’s a different story.

Holding your cutlery in a way that suggests you are not quite in control can leave a really terrible impression – and mean that people are left commenting on your table manners, not you and what you said. Some might think that this kind of skill is old fashioned, culturally biased or even elitist – after all very few people describe someone in terms of their high quality table manners. At the most basic level, however, stabbing, waving, spraying and sawing with cutlery can pose your companions a health and safety risk – eye ball kebab anyone? So even if you use all the positive body language tips in the world, if your cutlery is out of control that is what people will remember.

Practical Advice for using cutlery

  • Hold the fork in your left hand and your knife in your right hand. Have four fingers on top of the handle and your thumb underneath – not clenched like a baby holding a small digging tool with a fist.
  • Sitting upright, with good posture, the food should be managed on the plate: use the fork to hold down the food while the knife cuts through it, put a bite sized piece on the fork on the plate and then make a smooth journey to your mouth – no stacking in the air, no wild waving of food stacked on fork, no chewing or licking from the fork like it was a lollipop – then return the fork to the plate. The knife remains at plate level.
  • Put your cutlery down while you chew / drink / chat. Never, ever put a knife in your mouth.
  • (If there’s lots of cutlery start from the outside and work in)


Like all skills there are levels of nuance which can also be mastered – for example, tipping a soup bowl away and a pudding bowl towards you to get the last morsel; not buttering the whole piece of bread on your side plate in one go but doing it mouthful by mouthful at a time; not leaving the table to go to the lavatory in the middle of a course; and, one of my favourite but particularly unhelpful pieces of courtesy, not asking for something – like the water or pepper – but asking your companion if they would like whatever it was you wanted in the hopes that they will reply “No, thank you, but would you?”. Generally at this point the other person hasn’t come across this convention so you are left thirsty or needing something – and you may be tempted to make a fuss, which wouldn’t be nice manners at all.