Sophomore chemistry was kicking our son’s butt, and he didn’t want to get help from the teacher. He was stuck in a mindset of, “If I can’t figure it out on my own, it’s not possible for me to learn it.”
My husband and I knew he was wrong, but reassuring him that he was capable would have gotten us nothing but a withering look.
We started discussing our parenting options. Do we let him fail? Do we let him drop the class?
Neither choice would teach the skill he desperately needed to learn: admitting he needed help and asking for it.
When my husband and I find ourselves with one foot on either side of a tough choice, it’s helpful to look at the big picture, figure out what the skill deficit is and ground ourselves in the outcome we want for our child.
What result are you after?
Big picture No. 1: Child could give up, experience the failure and maybe try again… or maybe not.
He might learn necessary lessons that would make him more resilient, or he might decide that when something is too hard he can quit, and that could become a life pattern. Not the long-term result we wanted.
Big picture No. 2: Child could be encouraged strongly – OK, coerced – into asking for help. Practicing something makes it easier and likely would yield improved results, as well as some perspective on giving up versus digging in and figuring it out.
Digging in and figuring things out could become a life pattern. That’s what we wanted for him, so we knew what we needed to do.
I asked, “Would you like to make an appointment with the teacher yourself, or would you like me to make it and meet you outside the classroom to help make sure you get there?”
Grumble grumble grumble… “I’ll do it myself.” (Because I am the queen of follow through, and he knew I really would show up at school and walk him into that classroom!)
“Thank you,” I replied. “Let me know when you’re going in, and I’ll pick you up when you’re done.”
Big picture vs. small picture
It’s not that failure isn’t sometimes a good learning tool, but we need to consider a couple of important ifs before letting our children go there.
If children already have persistence and the drive to succeed, failure isn’t going to stop them. They will try again because they are invested in the end result.
A discussion between parents and kids about why they’re making the decision to quit can lead them toward big-picture thinking:
- Did they bite off more than they could chew?
- Is there a skill deficit? And if there is …
- What’s the plan for closing the gap so they will be more successful next time?
On the other hand:
If children don’t have persistence skills and they are not invested in success, failure can reinforce what they think they already know: They can’t do it and effort is futile.
They get stuck in the small picture, which is doing what’s easier in the moment.
Getting kids unstuck
It takes a lot of work for parents to pull them out of that place. We have to follow through consistently, as we hold our children accountable for following through. They need frequent encouragement, not lectures or coddling, as we notice when we see them taking baby steps toward the goal.
In our situation, that sounded like, “Thank you for making and keeping your appointment. We know that was hard for you to do.” Or, “Retaking that test took a lot of effort. Good job!”
The first few months, we had to be pretty watchful that he was making and keeping those appointments.
By the end of third quarter, however, he was going in without prompting. At the end of the year, he earned a B in the class. His final English project, a statement summarizing his learning for the year, was written in about 48-point font:
“I have learned that sometimes life tries to stomp you down, but the most satisfying thing is turning around and stomping it back!”
The life skills he learned helped him become more determined, even when the possibility of failure hovers over his shoulder at times. He’s in college now, and while he typically exhausts his own personal learning resources first, he will not hesitate to ask for help when he needs it.
My husband and I smile every time we hear him talk about going in to work with a professor “during office hours.” It means he’s seeing the big picture all by himself.