Let My Child Fail: Why Natural Consequences Are Good for Kids

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It amazes me how two kids from the same gene pool can be so completely different from one another in almost every way. For instance, my stepdaughter is organized, studious, inquisitive, and works well independently. My stepson is funny, polite, thoughtful, and likes being in front of a crowd. He does not, however, work well independently, and homework has been an ongoing challenge for as long as I can remember.

His last years in elementary school were, at times, very frustrating when attempting to help him with homework. He would lay his head down for an hour, sigh loudly, and complain. By the end of fifth grade, I was tired of it. I felt like I was doing all the work, which wasn’t helpful. He had a big project that was to account for a significant portion of his grade. The assignment consisted of writing a story about someone of his choosing; he chose his father. The assignment had multiple parts to it and lasted over the course of several months. I knew Language Arts may very well be his least favorite subject, but the content was his choice and the research consisted of simply asking his dad and other relatives questions and gathering some pictures.

One day after battling it out with him for over an hour, I told him I was done. I told him his mom and dad and I would not be there when he’s grown to hover over and force him to do what was expected of him. I told him we all have choices to make and there are consequences to those choices; some are good and some are bad. I told him I was going to allow him to choose whether or not he wanted to complete the assignment and that I would push, help, nag, and cajole no more. I gave him a day to make a decision. The next day (after filling in dad and bio mom), I asked him what his choice was and he stated that he was not going to complete the assignment. I said okay.

I reached out to his teacher to give him a head’s up and let him know what conversations were had at home. I was certain the teacher would understand and appreciate the need for children at that age to reap the natural consequences of their decisions and learn valuable life lessons about decision-making and responsibility. After all, not one person has ever been denied college entrance due to a failing fifth grade Language Arts assignment, and I felt this lesson was better learned in fifth grade than in high school.

Was my stepson pleased as punch about not having to work on his story every day for the next month? Yes. Was he okay with receiving a failing grade in that class? I think it wasn’t ideal, but he would suffer that part of the consequence since it meant he was home-work free for quite a while. But do you know what he didn’t think about? He didn’t think about the day when all the kids get dressed up and present to a classroom full of their peers and all their parents where he would be sitting there by himself – the only one not dressed up, the only one to not present (which he loves), and the only one whose parents were not in attendance. And he would have been utterly embarrassed. What kid likes that? He would also have to deal with his teacher’s disappointment in him (whom was well-respected), and the looks from his classmates.

Imagine my surprise, then, when his teacher refused to accept my stepson’s choice. The teacher stated that it wasn’t fair to the other kids who put in the hard work to complete the assignment, especially during the allotted times at school they were given to work on it. He talked about my stepson having a sense of accomplishment at the end. He said he would have a teacher’s aid help my stepson and allow him to turn in the assignment late. Not helpful.

The next day, my stepson came home with interview questions clearly written by an adult.

I don’t question this teacher’s passion or his heart and I think he is a good man. I actually don’t think he handled it differently than many teachers today would have, and I know teachers are under a lot of pressure. But I have to ask the question: when did we stop allowing our children to fail? When did we all start bailing our kids out at every turn, attempting to stave off bad feelings and unintended consequences? And I have another question: how is that working out for them?

Do you let your children fail? Have you ever been thwarted by a well-meaning individual in doing so?

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Sarah is the wife of an entrepreneur, mother of one precocious five-year-old, and step-mom to two amazing middle schoolers. She loves her beautifully complex, blended family, which provide for a lot of blog content. Sarah is also the founder and Executive Director of Kristy's House, a nonprofit ministry whose mission is to equip and empower sexually exploited women through the relational love of Christ. Sarah enjoys reading, writing, coffee, wine, and meaningful conversations with good friends.

3 COMMENTS

  1. This is a great post. I agree with you 100%. I see a similar battle in the future. While my son just completed first grade it has been a struggle to get him to focus on his homework already. Kids must be taught that every decision they make has a consequence/reward. I have been doing this with mine in terms of discipline for awhile now. It is tough as a parent. You want your kids to be successful and happy but at the same time you can’t do everything for them and they have to learn. I also have to pull myself back and tell myself that I have to let them develop their own paths too and it can’t always be done the way I would do it. This means I sometimes have to let my daughter go with a crazy hairstyle to school even though I am cringing during drop off because I think it looks messy. She thinks it looks great and it is part of her learning to do things for herself. I will also say in terms of the teachers response I think the sad reality is there are a number of factors that impact teachers and they way they teach. They have increasing pressure to have their kids perform at a certain level or there are consequences for them in terms of pay and resources. Also on the other side, while I think there are a lot of great parents out there, there are an equal number of parents that don’t care what their kids do and don’t get involved in their education.

  2. I understand your frustration. As a 5th grade teacher, I see both sides. At my school, we do standards-based grading. These grades are taken from work that the students complete at school; therefore, I do not take formal grades on work completed at home because I really have no idea who actually did the work. We grade on a 1-4 scale, 4 being “advanced.” It’s extremely hard for me to give a kid a grade when they didn’t complete any work. If I give him a “1,” it means that he can’t do the work at all by himself, needs lots of help, and doesn’t know what he’s doing. I have a big problem giving a kid a 1 if he didn’t complete an assignment because I’m grading him on his skills, not whether he turned in an assignment or not. The “1” would likely not be accurate regarding his skills. So, as a teacher, I probably would have had him turn in what he had done and graded on that. If he refused to work on it during class time, I would have him work on alternative activities of my choice, not his. Teachers can only do so much. I’m assuming that you put consequences in place at home for him choosing this, like a love & logic sort of thing. The bottom line is: he can’t get away with this scot-free. There has to be some kind of consequences that make him uncomfortable enough to get him to learn naturally that he didn’t make a very good choice. I love your approach to letting him fail as long as there are consequences at home. I wish more parents were like this.

    • Thank you for your response, Sara. There have been a couple questions with regard to consequences at home. It wasn’t stated in the article; however, his consequence at home was a loss of all electronics (ie. Video games, computer, television, etc.). I didn’t add that piece into the material because I felt it was a given, but it should have been referenced. And while consistent parental responses to behavior are absolutely critical, I felt in this specific instance that the ones at school may have been even more impactful, which is partially why I was both surprised and disappointed at the lack thereof. I would have supported his teacher 100%, which is why I reached out and engaged him in the first place.

      I have much respect for teachers–I wish we would quit making their jobs more difficult. I believe if his teacher and I both had the freedom to work together to instill the proper consequences, the outcome of this had the potential to be a pretty powerful life lesson. The way it ended up working out was pretty discouraging, and it certainly didn’t send the message I was hoping.

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