Why We Need to Let Our Children Fail

Bebe Nicholson

One mistake parents make is blaming the school for their child's failure.


Photo by note thanun on Unsplash

The parent scheduled an after-school meeting with teachers, advisors, and counselors. His son was failing one subject and barely passing three others.

“What can you do to help my son? He needs to pull his grades up to get into a good college,” the father said as soon as the group had assembled.

My husband’s computer class was one of the classes the student was barely passing. “He’s bright,” my husband said. “He just needs to turn in his work. He stays on his phone all the time.”

“Can you take his phone away and keep it until the weekend?” The parent asked timidly. “But don’t tell him I suggested it.”

My husband didn’t feel good about confiscating a student’s phone for the entire week when school policy allows phones in class. Instead, he recommended a plan that would allow the student to come after school for work sessions.

These sessions, called Anchor Groups, enable students who are behind to complete missing homework assignments and pull their grades up.

The father agreed, my husband stayed after school, and the student never showed up. Six weeks later, the father called to schedule another meeting. The student’s grades weren’t any better.

Parents Who Refuse to Let Their Children Grow Up

Parents are right to stay on top of situations at school and care about their children’s grades. They should feel free to get in touch with teachers and request change if something seems unfair. But by not allowing their children to fail or by trying to protect them too much, they are refusing to let them grow up.

Kids need to learn early that actions have consequences, that life isn’t always fair, and that hard work rather than parental interference is what will ultimately bring them success and satisfaction.

Parents shouldn’t worry about whether their children will dislike them for setting boundaries or taking away privileges. Kids might rail against having their phones or their cars taken away, but eventually they learn to respect boundaries and rise to meet higher expectations.

High Expectations Lead To High Performance

A study by the Harvard Family Research project suggests that high expectations in school lead to high performance. According to the study, “Parents who hold high expectations for their teens, communicate with them clearly and encourage their adolescents to work hard in order to attain them, can make a difference in students’ success.”

Parents who demand their children be given grades without earning them are actually exhibiting low expectations. They appear to be implying that since their child is unable to complete the work, special concessions need to be made.

Two attitudes seem especially detrimental to student achievement and the development of maturity.

The first attitude is believing our children can do no wrong. Having faith in them is a good thing, but always accepting what they say at face value is naive.

I know. As a parent, I’ve been there. I remember being incensed at my neighbor when she accused my son of writing graffiti on her wall.

My son vehemently denied it and I believed him. I knew he would never do such a thing until I found out he did. When the truth emerged, I made him clean the wall, write a letter of apology, deliver it in person, and I grounded him.

By the time my second son reached school age, I had grown more skeptical. When his teachers told me he wasn’t completing assignments, he passionately declared them wrong.

I decided to do some investigating on my own, requesting teacher conferences and asking my son to show me his work. When the teachers all concurred and my son couldn’t produce his assignments, I took away some privileges and initiated some mandated study time. His grades shot up and there were no more problems with uncompleted work.

The Blame Game

The second mistake parents make is blaming the school or teachers for their child’s failure.

Sometimes a teacher or situation can be unfair. This is true of anything in life, and in those instances the issues should be addressed.

But if a student is not turning in assignments, staying on her cell phone during class or is absent a lot, her performance is going to be affected. It isn’t the teacher’s fault, and it isn’t the fault of school policies.

In response to parental complaints that their children were being treated unfairly because some classes were more difficult than others, school administrators in my husband’s school district developed something called a Professional Learning Center.

As part of a PLC, teachers team up with other instructors teaching the same subject. They hold meetings and develop lesson plans together, making sure curriculums are identical. This avoids any possibility that one teacher might be more than the other.

This sounds good in theory, but my husband hated his one year as a Professional Learning Center team teacher.

He wasn’t allowed to give a pop quiz, assign homework, or do anything else the other teacher wasn’t doing. Teachers were required to check with each other first to ensure they were on the same page.

This prevented problems with parents who complained that teachers in one class were more demanding or gave more homework than teachers in another class. But it also prevented teachers from being flexible or creative in dealing with students who could have benefited from going at a slower or faster pace.

Fortunately for my husband, he is the only one teaching in his subject area this year, so he isn’t required to be part of a PLC.

An attempt to create an equitable playing field led inadvertently to constraints that hampered the learning environment.

“Life isn’t Fair, But I’m Here for You”

Wouldn’t it have been better for parents to say to their children, “Your teacher might be more demanding or give more homework than your friend’s teacher, but maybe you will benefit more in the long run.”

Or they could say, “Life isn’t always fair, but I love you and I’m here to help you. If the class seems too hard, you could take advantage of the Anchor Time after school. Your teacher might have some suggestions about how you can improve your grade.”

When parents try to get teachers to change grades, it’s a disservice to their own child and to the other students who are working hard and don’t have this sort of parental intervention. What will the children who have not learned to accept responsibility do when their parents are no longer there for them?

A True Expression of Parental Love

Parental involvement is a wonderful expression of love, but it’s also a wonderful (and difficult) expression of love to hold our children accountable and allow them to fail. Our hearts ache when our children suffer, but sometimes they are more resilient than we think.

My granddaughter auditioned for the lead in her fifth-grade play after her teacher encouraged her to try out. She told us the teacher assured her she would get a part, even if she didn’t get the lead.

Not only did my granddaughter not get the lead. She didn’t end up getting a part. Her parents were upset. I was upset. And she had a total meltdown (you might call it a temper tantrum) in school.

Did the teacher lie? Would this experience damage my granddaughter’s fragile self-esteem and prevent her from ever trying out for anything again? She had already been passed over for TAG (Talented and Gifted) classes. Hadn’t she suffered enough rejection?

The following year she entered that formidable place known as “Middle School” or “Junior High.” Once again, she tried out for the school play and didn’t get a part.

But she was placed on the backstage crew in charge of makeup, and she loved it. Her parents also enrolled her in Improv classes and she excelled, learning to how to be comfortable and spontaneous in front of audiences.

She is now a happy, cheerful thirteen-year-old.

A parent should probably intervene and request a change if a teacher truly seems to dislike a child for no apparent reason. But there is a lot of middle ground between being teacher’s pet and being bullied by an adult.

There are times in life when our children aren’t the favored or most popular ones. Sometimes we believe their gifts and talents are being overlooked. In these instances, we can support and encourage our children by giving them unconditional love and acceptance at home.

Nobody Said Parenting Was Easy

Walking the tightrope between high expectations and unconditional love is a challenge, but nobody said parenting was easy.

We should expect our children to do their best, not our idea of what their best should be.

If my child does his best but doesn’t get into the college I had in mind, that’s okay. If I want him to be a lawyer but he wants to be an electrician, that’s okay, too. What isn’t okay is for me to insist that his school reward him for less than his best.

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience by trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired and success achieved.” Helen Keller

Good parenting doesn’t mean ensuring or demanding a specific outcome. Good parenting means helping our children acquire the sort of character that allows them to fail gracefully, then muster the courage to continue.

Instead of teaching them to be devastated, angry or resentful over setbacks, we give our children the tools to help them overcome defeat.

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I've worked as editor, newspaper reporter, freelance writer, and book publisher. My writing includes lifestyle, humor, travel, relationship, family, politics, faith and health articles, along with three published books. In my various careers, I've been a journalist, retail manager, nonprofit director, flight attendant, freelancer and mom. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and Medium.

Alpharetta, GA

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