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Westerly Stories


Should I let my student fail and learn?

November 28, 2018
By Dr. Plant

While meeting with our 8th grade families and helping their seniors apply to various high schools, I have found myself in several conversations about the tension parents felt when it came to academic supervision. Parents expressed the challenges they faced choosing between the "let them fail and learn" mindset (that as teachers we often espouse) and the inherent desire to oversee and manage their child's studying, homework practices, grades, and friendships. 

I find that this is a confusion that exists almost universally among parents. How do we support our children to get good grades, develop strong study habits, and be joyfully engaged in their school and social lives, while also refraining from being a "helicopter parent" who hovers over them, or the newly coined "lawnmower parent" who metaphorically mows down any adversity their child may face?

To be honest, I have no single answer to solve this conundrum. It often is a thin line we must walk as parents to support our child(ren)'s healthy development of the skills needed to face adversity they will surely encounter in high school, college, and life beyond: independent problem-solving, conflict resolution, autonomy and ownership of the quality of the work they present, as well as their ability to navigate multiple perspectives with whom they may not agree. And yet, to develop these skills, they must confront the times in which they face these challenges and learn from the times they fail. Fail sometimes, they must, as a process of learning and healthy development. Though, what do we do when those failures coincide with the consequences of poor grades or struggling in school, sports, or with friends? 

While I have only been a parent for a mere 11 years and served as an educator for 20 years, my personal, professional, and anecdotal experiences parallel with what educational and psychological research posits: we need to embrace and model that "failure" is only a step of the learning process. When your child has tried something that doesn't work (like NOT doing their homework and getting a "0"), they are one step closer to finding what does work (e.g. getting their homework done early so they can play and feel good!). This reinforces the concept that we as individuals are not fixed in place (e.g. "I'm not good at math"), but rather, with perseverance, effort, and practice, our skills and talents can develop and grow. In his  article about Carol Dweck's Growth Mindset, James Clear illuminates this change of mindset that many of us struggle with ourselves. 

In terms of the consequences that come with embracing failure, we have to acknowledge that there are ways to support our children which both encourage a growth mindset and help to support their success: open communication, brainstorming solutions, recommending that they talk with their teachers, and reminding them that problems don't go away by avoiding confrontation. Let's lean in together to help our students build the skills necessary for success - rather than "mowing down" the problems for them.



Matias' mum says:
December 05, 2018 02:42 PM CST
I appreciate this post, thank you! "the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives -- are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes." From an article I read a few years ago addressing this fun topic ;)