It’s in your grace where they learn to succeed.
We all want to protect our children – it’s who we are as parents. They are your flesh, your blood, your sleepless nights, and all of your shining moments. Those kids sitting in front of you covered in jelly and powdered sugar – they are your pride and joy. And so when it comes time for middle school and the workload increases and tests become more challenging, it is natural for parents to want to swoop in and protect their children from failure.
I’ve seen it time and time again. Parents overextend themselves trying to keep their child organized. Some go as far as to learn what their child is learning just to be able to “help” them. Others are in a constant state of panic, emailing teachers daily, making excuses for why the math homework isn’t finished, or worse, actually rewriting essays or finishing projects after a child goes to bed.
As children, this is where they are supposed to learn to fail. If we, as parents, do everything for our children to protect them from feeling the wrath of failure, how do we expect that they will handle rejection from their top choice college? A break-up? A big loss in a championship game?
How we allow our children to fail and the reaction we give them is where they will learn the biggest lessons. The message they receive during a time of failure is the message they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Think about it.
Let’s say that your child comes home with an “F” on a science test. You knew this test was coming up and your child assured you she studied. You didn’t actually witness the studying, but when asked a few nights before the test, she rolled her eyes at you and said, “Mom! Yes! I studied!” as she huffed her way down the hallway.
And tonight, when you arrived home from work, she nervously stood in the kitchen and asked you to sign the top of the test. She earned a 62%. There are red marks all over the page, with a “See me” scribbled right at the top.
How do you react?
Parent A is angry. Parent A slams the test down on the counter and starts yelling. “I asked you if you studied for this test and you told me yes! Give me your phone, your computer, and your video games. Until you start taking your schoolwork seriously, you’re grounded! You need to learn how to work harder and stop wasting all of your time with your head stuck in your phone! Go! You’ll learn how to start focusing and bringing home better grades!”
Parent B is compassionate. Parent B turns toward her teenage daughter, softens her demeanor, and opens the conversation with understanding and patience. “I am sure this was disappointing to get back. What went wrong?” After a conversation about study effort and techniques, Parent B offers a hug and reassures her child that the grade on the test doesn’t change the love between them or their relationship.
Which child learned the biggest lesson?
When a child is facing a challenge – whether it’s a failed test, struggles at school, a fight with a friend, or not making a team – how we converse with them will teach them more about success and provide them with a safe space to feel their emotions and discover their grit and tenacity. They don’t learn that in an environment filled with fear and anger.
A Personal Story
Last summer, N was resistant to do her summer work, and she was resistant to the idea of going back to school. She’d roll her eyes as summer came to a close and family would ask her if she’s excited about second grade. It was a different reaction than year’s past. In the past, N couldn’t wait for school to start. This year, it seemed she lost interest and was over the “back-to-school” drama before it even started.
And then I realized there was something more going on.
“Is there anything you’re nervous about this year, love?” I asked her one night at bedtime a few days before school started.
“We start tests this year, mama,” she replied.
“Oh, what kind of tests?” I asked.
“The kind where all the other grades need to be quiet, and they do worksheets, while we do a worksheet that the teacher puts a grade on, and we can’t talk to our friends or get help on it.”
“Hmm. Those can be scary. What worries you about those kinds of tests?”
“Well, what if I don’t know the answer?”
“So then you don’t know the answer,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “Sometimes you’ll know all the answers and get a smiley face at the top of your page, and sometimes you won’t know most of the answers and the teacher will want to talk to you about it. All of that is OK. We will still love you even if you don’t get all of the answers right. How you do on a test doesn’t tell us anything about who you are. You’re still N. You’ll still be a sweet, fun, little girl who has the biggest heart. Maybe we will just have to practice more of whatever you didn’t know to make sure you know it next time,” I replied.
“So like what you do with the big kids? For work? Right? You help the big kids study for their important tests?” (I own a tutoring business, so yes, this is true.)
“Just like that,” I said.
“So you’ll help me be ready for the tests?” she asked.
“Of course. If you’ll let me,” I replied.
Why Is This Important?
A child’s performance on a test means little about who they are, and it should have no bearing on the strength of your love for them. It is perfectly natural to feel disappointed when they don’t do well – especially when you know that they worked hard for something. But we as parents need to keep our disappointment out of the conversation with our child. Save the disappointment for a conversation with your spouse. Instead, we need to show compassion, lend a hand, offer your support, and reassure them of our love and our commitment to their growth.
Our children put themselves under an immense amount of pressure in one way or another, whether it’s academically, athletically, musically, or socially – or in any other category, for that matter. As parents, we should be teaching them how to fail, how to recover, and how to find the opportunities for growth.
Are we coddling them? No. I don’t think so. By not allowing our child to fail – by doing everything for our child to ensure a passing grade – we are coddling them. We are not teaching them the value of perseverance and effort.
The next time your child brings home a poor grade from school, resist the urge to be upset. Take a breath, soften your eyes, and be supportive. Chances are, your child spent the entire day thinking, “My mom is going to kill me.”
How do you support your child during times of failure?
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