Your sixth-grade son just brought home his science test and there’s a big red “F” on top. Worse, you see the grade on the school’s database and he didn’t tell you. You wonder what this means. Is this just one test or is he really struggling in science? Should you punish him for not studying hard enough? Does he understand the gravity of the situation?
Your first reaction might be panic or even anger as you worry about what this could mean for his academic future. You consider calling his science teacher. Maybe he can do a retest. But before you do anything, you have to calm down. The reality of this test score is that it’s one misstep in one area of one unit in one semester of science. Is it bad? Well, it’s not great. Is it a sign that it’s time to call the tutor? No.
We’ve heard from a number of trusted sources, including our own parents, our children’s teachers, and the popular press, that failure is an important element in a child’s education. The truth is, as parents, we mustn’t fight our children’s battles for them, make excuses for them, or fix their problems. They’ll never appreciate their successes if we don’t allow them to experience and own their failures. And while I, as both a parent and educator, believe that is true and want my own kids to grow and learn from their failures, it’s very difficult to watch, let alone encourage. As a result, I often find myself asking, “When should I let them fail on their own and when do I rush in to fix the situation and enable them to avoid the failure?”
It’s never easy to see your kids fail, so try to keep in mind that failures, big and small, are learning opportunities. You can help your child make the most of failure so they can learn responsibility, resilience, and patience. Your sixth-grade son can learn from that failed science test. Rather than panicking, calling a tutor, or punishing him, try talking to him. No doubt he’s embarrassed. It’s OK to let him feel disappointed. And while you don’t want to minimize the situation, you also don’t want to portray it as the end of the world.
Talk to him about the actual test — what did he understand and what didn’t he understand? Does he still feel confused? Was he confident going in? This will help you both identify what the problem might be and what he needs to do to be more successful next time. In the most ideal situation, he will go to his teacher and talk about the concepts he’s struggling with and address them either in a re-test or simply in future assignments.
And if he didn’t confide in you and you found out on your own — that’s totally normal. He should be in charge of his grades, and unless this is a trend of many struggles in school, tell him you’re proud of him for handling it and show him that you’re still there as a support in case he needs it. It’s important to let him know that it’s not all about the grade, that in fact, the F is a wake-up call, a good indicator of his comprehension of the topic. This can give him a chance to figure out if he needs to retool his study habits, his note-taking, or his basic understanding of the information. Learning to talk to his teacher is also a huge lesson he will carry with him as he faces struggles later in life and needs to be a self-advocate.
As parents, it’s easier to guide very young children through their failures — picture your child learning to use a spoon. As we watch them shove food toward their cheek, and often miss entirely, we giggle and encourage them to keep going. We may step in and help, and the attitude is soft and forgiving. This help is OK, but you should resist the temptation to take over or they will never master the art of getting the food to its intended target. This is easy to say, but not always easy to do as we know that feeding our child ourselves will be simpler, less messy, and more efficient. So, remind yourself that providing your children with the opportunity to take care of themselves will help them to develop independence.
And, while it may be easier to practice this lesson with your children when they are younger, it’s not too late to support tweens and teens through the process of learning from failure. As kids grow older, the ability to support them through failure is harder because the stakes are higher. If you see your daughter has left her lunch at home, resist the urge to deliver it to school. She will not suffer from hunger without one meal and will learn how to ask for help (perhaps get snacks from friends, ask for your help to set up reminders, etc.). And, most importantly, she knows she is accountable and is more likely to remember her lunch next time. If you deliver the lunch to school, she learns that you will bail her out and she is not responsible for remembering.
Now, say she leaves her musical instrument at home. You might find yourself saying, “But, the stakes are higher now — she can’t participate in band class and she might get in trouble.” That’s true, and that’s OK. Facing the consequences will help her learn. What if she leaves a homework assignment at home? This is a fantastic opportunity for her to learn consequences. She may indeed get in trouble. Her grade might suffer. But all in all, there are real long-term benefits to her learning to be more responsible in the future. If you have found yourself delivering lunch, an instrument, or homework assignment, don’t beat yourself up. It’s OK to be nice. But, if you find yourself repeatedly doing this (or something similar), stop. Help your child learn the lesson.
Parents need to recognize that a child’s failure is not a reflection of their parenting skills but merely evidence of growing up. And as hard as it may be, it’s important for parents to let their children own and learn from their failures as well as successes. It makes both experiences more valuable as lessons and milestones, leading to greater growth, self-awareness, and empowerment.More On