The idea that we need to let kids fail is having a parenting moment. If you’re not following the herd, your child’s future will surely crumble into an offended and incoherent mess the first time a professor questions a footnote. It’s the inevitable overcorrection to celebrating every B-minus and base on balls. The wreckage of that previous philosophy of praising everything is scattered about the cultural landscape in the form of YouTube influencers, legacy admissions and most of the characters on “Succession.”
Trend followers that we are, we allowed our eighth-grader to experiment with failure.
He had always been curious and conscientious, and earned his way into advanced high school math and science classes in eighth grade. We swelled with pride at our genetic awesomeness and were further thrilled when he was assigned one of the most dynamic and decent teachers at his school for Algebra I. Cue the 13-year-old brain proceeding to bail on assignments, study for exams via text, hide (lack of) progress reports (you’re stealing my bit, son) and otherwise snow us until his first-semester 69 landed on his report card like a turd in a punch bowl. And, yes, the 13-year-old was appropriately amused by the number he had earned.
Let us fast-forward past the explosion of paternal rage and disappointment; the 1989 Metallica Speed of Sound tour-volume hyperbole about piddling away a truly special teacher’s time and talents; how international students would be feeding him his Lunchables come college admissions time; the spouse urging me to have some perspective; and the complete loss of perks and privileges, from screen time to sleepovers.
Yes, we were upset, but we are a solutions-based people. Unlike, say, English, where you can still get an A on “Macbeth” without reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” math is dependent on previous concepts. So my son had to educate and reeducate himself to the new and the old simultaneously, not unlike Jerry Garcia and the guitar after his stroke.
We are fortunate that we had the means to get help to close the gap. We hired a highly recommended tutor with pink hair and an easy way with our son. Among the tutor’s math nerd bona fides, he took off a week to attend a theoretical physics-themed cruise. Our boy also worked hard, and not just to get us off his back. It was not easy, and his light was on at midnight more than mine had been in five years, but he improved his grade 20 points second semester. His teacher awarded him comeback player of the year (the sports metaphor being that such an award is predicated on a truly horrendous prior season).
My son presumed that the story ended there, with him on the shoulders of the teammates and his parents again impressed by his resilience and hard work, the universe properly reordered. However, he had entered a world where my consequences were the least of his worries. That is, the real world.
Immediately after the great report card and the attaboy from the teacher, we heard from a counselor at the high school where our son will be starting freshman year. She’d seen the 69 and was uninterested in the drama and the triumph of the subsequent 89. The algebra class would have to be retaken online over six weeks. Six weeks of summer vacation.
June around here is a time of decompression and transition. My son’s only real commitments were morning swim practices and a week-long ultimate camp. Traditionally, the rest of the month is for running around with friends, playing ball, watching movies and more time at the pool. Repeat. In addition, he had been handed a small library’s worth of suggested reading for the AP Human Geography course he would be taking in the fall. Then there’s the final two weeks of the class that bleed into July, the month we begin aggressively traveling. Full stop.
Like many in our parental peer group, our consequences are never punishments and always fungible. Banned from Xbox for not cleaning your room? Okay, but pause that, you can have a few hours of Call of Fortnite or whatever while we have a dinner party downstairs. Society’s consequences, on the other hand, are not negotiable. He had to put in hours of work every day and often more than that as he worked to get ahead before our July travels. Were I inflicting these math tasks, I certainly would have waived a weekend or two to go camping or visit his grandmother in Tennessee. But there are no waivers in real life.
Has this failure forestalled future failures? If it has, we’d be getting off cheap. On the Fourth of July, my son was in a beach house on Long Island staring at quadratics while his cousins were ripping through “Stranger Things 3.” I hope he looks at that scar the next time he considers wholesale slacking off. The A and completing the coursework in closer to four weeks than six restored his academic confidence and his pride in being a smart kid.
Failure can’t stop teaching, apparently, and the lesson may be the most critical part of it all. As my boy moves into full teenage and high school life, the stakes get higher. Alcohol, drugs and sex loom. These are the provinces of adults and carry with them adult repercussions, which can be rigid and life-altering. We carry these new lessons into high school.
Mike Mikula is a cartoonist and writer living in Atlanta.