I was feeling dead tired as my flight touched down at Changi Airport around midnight. (This was in 2018, long before Covid-19 had struck and stopped business travel.) It had been a busy two weeks working in Hong Kong, and I was really looking forward to a hot shower and much-needed sleep.
Suddenly, my phone rang. It was my wife, Vanessa, telling me that she had just sent our 16-year-old son, Matthew, to the hospital. He had been experiencing a severe headache, nausea, and vomiting.
I rushed through immigration and headed for the hospital. When I got there, Matthew was sleeping in the ward, having been given an injection. Vanessa was waiting outside the ward.
“The doctor said his condition was probably triggered by migraine,” she told me.
“But I thought his migraine has been under control for a few years now …” my voice trailed off as Vanessa cut in. “I thought so too,” she said, “but I think he was too tense after his poor results in the school’s prelim exams, that preparing for the O-Levels has become extremely stressful for him.”
I nodded. Matthew’s results in his school’s preliminary exams had come as a shock to him as well as us, as he had been doing well before then.
That created a huge pressure on him as he prepared for the O-Levels exams, which would start two months later. The challenge must have seemed insurmountable to him, and his body must have buckled under all that stress and anxiety.
That night at the hospital, Vanessa and I had a long chat, and we realised the mistake we had made. We realised that we should have done better as parents to help Matthew through this stressful period, instead of adding to his anxiety.
As we talked, we discovered three important lessons that we saw would help Matthew to manage his academic stress, and tried to put them into practice after our son was discharged.
1. Silence Is Not Always Golden
After Matthew’s poor prelim exam results, Vanessa and I had thought that we should not talk about them or about the upcoming O-Levels, for fear of adding to his stress. What we failed to realise, however, was that it didn’t help him at all, as it continued to loom large in his mind. In fact, by not talking about it, we were actually leaving him to handle the stress all by himself. We realised that sometimes, silence is not golden.
As parents, it is crucial for us to empathise with our children—to walk the stressful journeys with them, not with lectures, but with words that encourage and uplift their spirit.
Proverbs 12:25 says: “Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.”
As parents, it is crucial for us to empathise with our children—to walk the stressful journeys with them, not with lectures, but with words that encourage and uplift their spirit. We need to let them know that they are not alone in facing the situation.
2. There Is Always a Way, and It Is the Lord Who Establishes It
Besides being encouraging and supportive, it is also important for us to be honest with our children when assessing their situation. Apart from discussing the possible outcomes, we can also talk about the possibilities and opportunities that may arise.
This honest discussion not only gave him a better handle of the situation, but also comforted him with the assurance that no matter what happened, there was always a path forward.
Vanessa and I discussed with Matthew his level of proficiency and confidence for each academic subject as objectively as we could, and talked about the possible results he might get. For each scenario, we talked about the various options available, and the opportunities they gave. I believe that this honest discussion not only gave him a better handle of the situation, but also comforted him with the assurance that no matter what happened, there was always a path forward.
And even more importantly, we shared with him assurance from the Bible. We found inspiration in Jeremiah 29:11, where God told the Israelites while they were still in exile: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
We reminded Matthew that God was in control and that He had a good plan for him, so there was no need to fear. All he had to do was to focus on doing his best, commit to the Lord everything he did, and trust the Lord to establish His plan (Proverbs 16:3).
3. What’s Really Important Is . . . Not Academic Results
In Proverbs 23:15–18, our heavenly Father said:
My son, if your heart is wise,
then my heart will be glad indeed;
my inmost being will rejoice
when your lips speak what is right.
Do not let your heart envy sinners,
but always be zealous for the fear of the Lord.
There is surely a future hope for you,
and your hope will not be cut off.
Vanessa and I used this verse to explain to Matthew and Hannah (his younger sister) that while their academic achievements were important, their character—being wise, righteous, free from envy and sinful behaviour, and always zealous for the Lord—were even more important to us. We stressed that this godly character would truly gladden our hearts and cause our inmost being to rejoice.
Ultimately, we wanted them to know that their character and their relationship with God defined them, not their academic success or other achievements. As God promises us in Proverbs 23:18, as long as our character is pleasing to Him, there is surely a future hope for us, and our hope will not be cut off.
We wanted them to know that their character and their relationship with God defined them, not their academic success or other achievements.
Since learning these lessons and putting them into practice, we’ve been heartened to see Matthew engage in his studies with a renewed energy, and more importantly, with a lightened heart. It is with much joy and thanksgiving to God that in the end, Matthew did well for his O-Level.
The lessons of 2018 have helped to guide my wife and me in communicating, supporting, and encouraging our children in their academic journey and everyday life. We’ve learnt to make it a point to ensure that biblical teachings remain the cornerstone of our parenting, so that we can mould our children’s character and help them navigate through the travails of life.