There is something about exam results that brings out an irresistible need for parents to give advice to their teenage children. They can’t stop themselves sharing their wisdom in these anxious moments.
But it’s delivered in code, a parent code, where you never say what you’re thinking. Here’s what parents really mean.
1. “You tried your hardest, that’s the most important thing.” Utterly damning, this translates as: “The results are a complete disaster, and your mother is upstairs crying neat gin over her Facebook page… but we’re going to keep smiling, even if my fixed grin starts to look more like a medical condition.”
2. “You’ve got your grades. Now follow your dreams.” This means: “Whatever you do, don’t follow your dreams. Do something that is soul-crushingly dull that brings in some cash. Look at your parents, we haven’t had a pay rise since 2005, do you think we’re following our dreams? Go to the Reading Festival, get a flower painted on your face and then come back to your chemistry A-level. That’s what ‘follow your dreams’ means.”
3. “Of course, it was different in my day.” 100% guaranteed to start an argument. Your teenage genius might have a string of top grades, but somewhere in that dark, begrudging heart of parenthood, you’re thinking that back in the old days no-one got all A-grades except for lifers with nothing else to do in prison. You mull over some thoughts about O-levels… and then you casually say: “Of course, it was different in my day.” Whoosh! It’s fireworks day in August.
4. “Of course I’m not disappointed.” Oh yes you are.
5. “I don’t want to say, ‘I told you so.'” Yes, you really, really, really want to say: “I told you so,” more than anything else in the world. Playing on Snapchat while watching Netflix, when revising, wasn’t the equivalent of a “brain gym”. You warned that colour-coding all the revision notes was not “technically the same as essay practice”. And you warned about going out the night before an exam with a bunch of friends who had all the thoughtful introspection of a Donald Trump rally… “I don’t want to say, ‘I told…'” Stop, hit the brakes, it can only end badly.
6. “I saw other people on Twitter talking about unfair results this year.” This translates as: “It’s not your fault. It’s the system, that big, bad system that keeps stopping everyone from seeing what unusually talented children we have.” There are some parents who always put the blame everywhere else except on the gifted shoulders of their very special offspring. The exam boards are clearly part of this vast conspiracy.
7. “Have you heard how your cousin got on?” This is an imperceptible nod towards a whole world of unspoken rivalries. This really means: “Did you stick it to that unbearably smug, over-achieving relative? I’ve just texted them your best wishes.”
8. “Well, that’s a bit of a surprise. Maybe we should ring the school. Now. Or possibly sooner.” A GCSE results-shaped mushroom cloud has obliterated Plan A for the A-levels, and it’s blown a hole through Plans B, C and D. But keep calm, don’t reveal that note of panic. Your teenager’s academic performance has been like a milk float on a motorway, but try not to betray any sense of parental horror. Just breathe deeply and no sudden movements.
9. “Have you seen the car that the plumber was driving?” “I think we can stop worrying about the Oxbridge applications in sixth form. Years from now you can come and take all our money for fixing something without really explaining what you’ve repaired. Then you can have that big conversation in the kitchen about how only mugs go to university and get into all that debt.”
10. “You’ll have to make up your own mind about what to do next.” “After we’ve bribed, blackmailed and cajoled you into doing what we think is best. Then you can make up your own mind. Hold on, don’t slam the door like that, I’ve got your cousin on the phone…”
Here are a few of the emails sent in by the audience with memories of reactions to exams:
I will never forget my gran’s response when I told her my A-level results…”oh that’s nice it’s chops tonight…” I was and remain the only one of her grandchildren to go to university. Zoe, Manchester
I was predicted a B/C for a maths A-level. I worked myself senseless to get that B in the bag and got an A. I was outside the school building with friends and family, when the Head of Maths leant out of a first floor window and yelled in his broad Welsh accent “Well done on the A, Grace, eh? We never thought you were going to do it!”. The entire year just looked at me. Grace, Solihull
I was interview for local radio on GCSE results day, just as the interviewer was about to ask me how I did, the door slammed open, a girl jumped down the stairs and, live on local radio, yelled “YES! YES! I ******* failed French!” Pete, Liverpool
A friend of mine, having already dropped out of two of his three A-levels, told his mum his O grade in French stood for ‘outstanding’ so he could get a tenner off her to come down the pub that night with the rest of us. To this day I don’t think she knows. Simon, Kingston-upon-Thames
On my GCSE results day, we met some family friends and my mum said, “Make sure you look nice, at least you’re the prettiest”. The tone of voice assured me that she actually meant was, “…because you’re sure as hell not the smartest”. I’m pretty successful now. It still haunts me. Rebecca, Maidenhead
I once got a 99% exam result mark on a Maths exam. After coming home with the results my mum was really happy and proud and we waited for my Dad to get home from work before telling him. Once I told him what my marks were, completely dead faced and serious his response was “What did you lose the mark on? Why couldn’t you get 100%”. I still like to remind him of that whenever he is critical of something I or any of my family do! Sean, Brighton
My dad bet me that I would fail, and was so positive I would fail he bet getting Sky TV installed with all the channels, including sports. I passed and when I spoke to him on the phone he still asked to speak to my mum as he didn’t believe me. Stephen, Southampton
On receiving my straight As at A-level and Oxford acceptance, my mother – never that outwardly concerned about academic achievement – simply said, “That’s nice – now please put it away; we’ve got guests”. John, London
At AS level I had terrible results in all but religious studies. My dad’s first comment was “well at least you can be a priest”. James, Brighton
I received 4 As and 4 Bs in the first year of GCSEs – when no schools or teachers really seemed to know quite what they were doing! They were the best results in my entire school but my mum’s response was still: ‘That’s good – but think what you’d have got if you’d really worked hard’! Kevin, Essex
I was in the underachievers class at Matthew Murray High School in south Leeds. Our best days were when the teachers stormed out of class… Nine flukey GCSEs (four As, five 5 Bs) and my dear mother said “never mind love, I love you no matter what you do”. I now have a PhD! Thank you and sorry to all the Matthew Murray teachers ’89 to ’92. Fiona, Bournemouth
“As long as you’re happy, that’s the most important thing.” Raj, London
I went to a private school and my mum had to pay for my O-level exams. After I sat, and passed, 11 O-levels my mum joked (?) “Why can’t you be thick… it would have been a lot cheaper?” Clare, Wolverhampton
I can remember to this day going in and collecting my GCSE results, passing everyone and the French teacher turning around to me and saying: “you really did not deserve any of those grades”… I laughed my way out of the building. Joseph, Scarborough
My father’s reaction to my AAB in Spanish, French and English AS level results? “Oh, so you can get an A in Spanish and French, but you can’t even get an A in your own language”. What did this really mean? Good question. According to him nothing, but very doubtful! Ryan, Swansea
On bringing home nine As and one B for GCSEs and the best results in the school (this was the days before A*s existed) I was told…”could do better”. Factually correct, not quite so supportive or celebratory as hoped. Parent has since apologised after I was mad / sad about it for over 20 years… Matt, Leeds
Back in 1983, I was in the bracket of expected “high achievers” for O levels…got NONE! Parents didn’t speak to me for a week… gutted!! 33 years later came an apology from me mum saying she was “wrong” for her subsequent reaction to said results…. Jake, Leeds
I’m afraid I tend to echo your point 3 – things WERE different in my day. I simply cannot believe that in the intervening 55 years since I did my O-levels we have produced an entire generation of geniuses! Anyone who achieved eight A grades at O level back in the early 60’s was absolutely exceptional make no mistake about that. This in no way denigrates the efforts of today’s 16 year olds – they are just the “victims” of the new system. Jeff, Pembrokeshire
When my middle sibling received unexpectedly high results, my mother said: “Gosh, out of all of my children he has really done well. What a shame for the rest of you”. ‘Oldest child’, Birmingham
On my GCSE results day, my Dad didn’t ask what my results were and drove me straight to the Army recruitment office and tried to sign me up right there and then. The recruiter took me to one side and asked me if that was what I wanted, I told him that I actually planned to go into sixth form first, so he then loaded me up with a ton of leaflets and told my dad that I was going to “think it over”. Tom
At my school (many years ago) we had to queue to go into the headmaster’s office for him to give the results out on a one-to-one basis. His first comments to me were “well that’s you not going to university”. Of course I completely ignored him, and did go on to get my degree. Nicola, Sheffield