Ask Task: Parents wonder, is it OK to let kids fail?
By ALLISON TASK
For Montclair Local
Allison Task is a career and life coach in Montclair who hosts the WMTR radio show “Find My Thrive.” Her website is allisontask.com. Need advice? Send questions to email@example.com, or to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My son is close to completing his first year in kindergarten. It seems to me that he just doesn’t feel inspired. He isn’t doing well academically.
As his parent, I want to give my son the opportunity to be successful in school. I’m advocating for him to get OT/Speech services through the school, I’ve reviewed his classwork with him and where he could do more. I’ve even read him his report card and he agreed with everything the teacher reported. Lastly, he also has a college-age tutor to help him three days a week to complete his homework and do skill-building activities.
I want to set our family values around education and getting good grades. However, in the deepest and most honest part of me, I actually don’t care that much.
I mostly care about him feeling loved, giving him diverse experiences and enjoying family life. As his mom, I think it’s my goal to give him opportunities to indulge in different hobbies, travel as a family, learn to be socially acceptable in different settings and treat others well. There are parents who care about their child getting high grades, they work tirelessly to help them and make sure they are academically successful. Am I just being a lazy parent?
I need to know ... what do responsible parents owe their children when it comes to their education? How can I shape my son’s value system around being educated and respecting school when I don’t care that much about his grades?
I believe the answer to your question is actually in your question, so allow me to use your own words here. What do parents owe their children when it comes to education? Well, per you (with some liberties): to help them feel loved, give them diverse experiences and the ability to enjoy learning. To give him opportunities to pursue his own interests, explore, while engaging with others in a socially acceptable way.
Not, I repeat not, doing that thing that everyone else does, valuing that thing that every one else values if it doesn’t work for you. Remember that horrible teacher in Harry Chapin’s “Flowers Are Red”?
Flowers are red, green leaves are green
There’s no need to see flowers any other way
Than the way they always have been seen
Yes, there are parents who care about their child getting high grades, and if you’re being honest (your words), you don’t care that much about grades.
When clients come to me, my goal is often to help them find their way. Their interests and passions, their fire. Just because the neighbor’s kid is a natural gymnast doesn’t mean your kid needs to start practicing handstands. And just because the two musicians across the street gave birth to a piano prodigy doesn’t mean your son needs to take more lessons.
There are so many colors in the rainbow
So many colors in the morning sun
So many colors in the flower and I see every one
I’m a believer in developmental psychologist Howard Gardener’s nine types of intelligence (wiki that), and I would encourage you to play with this framework and identify your son’s thing(s). He’s got his magic, it might just not be rewarded in school (yet). But it will be rewarded in life, and you’re just the maestro to turn up the volume on his unique gifts. Because that’s what responsible parents do.
Have a reread of my first paragraph (I stole from the best), and look at what a wonderful job you’re doing of “responsible parenting” by being true to your own values, your son’s authentic interests, and raising him accordingly.
With high schoolers (and I guess middle schoolers too), how involved do I get? Is it better to let them fail at some point rather than hound them line by line about homework assignments? My impression is that middle school is a good time for this, as grades “don’t really matter” yet.
— Are we there yet?
You are right that middle school is a good time to pull back and “let them fail” as you say, and for so many reasons in addition to grades not mattering yet.
When my stepdaughter made the leap from elementary to middle school, the Glenfield administrators were pretty clear that it was time to “step back” and let your child do their thing.
I decided that stepping back included new responsibilities (that went along with the privilege of a cell phone) including laundry, lunch-making, dish-doing, and more! She was a big kid, she could contribute to the family in new ways! The point is – as soon as they can, let them.
They may delight you and succeed (!), and if they fail (“An F! In math? How did happen?!”), you can help them rebuild. The sooner you pull back and shift responsibility to them, the more time you’ll have to help them experience consequences for inaction (or incorrect action) and get up, dust off, give it another try.
Soon they will take responsibility for themselves as individuals, as an integral part of your family, as members of our community, and yes – the world! By letting them find their own way of doing for themselves while they’re still under your roof, as messy as that may be, you will ultimately help them prepare for adulthood.
Help them fail early and often.