Q. How can I help my seventh-grader be more responsible about her schoolwork? She is struggling in school but doesn’t help herself by seeking out what she needs to know, and low grades don’t seem to bother her. I’m getting a vibe from teachers that middle school is all about parents backing off and students taking the lead. But on her own, our daughter is disorganized, unfocused and ambivalent about the results of this behavior. Should we let her fail? (And by fail, I don’t mean an assignment . . . I mean FAIL fail, because that is a very real possibility at this point.)
A. There are a couple of key facts I am missing here. No. 1, I don’t know if this is a new phenomenon or if this has been going on a number of years. Second, I am guessing, since you don’t mention it, that she doesn’t have any known disabilities or diagnoses. Suffice it to say, before you do anything, make sure she has a thorough checkup. Are her eyes and ears okay? Is she physically ship-shape? Next, be sure she is doesn’t have any undiagnosed learning disabilities. So many “failing” children are seen as disorganized and unfocused, when really they are truly doing their absolute best to stay afloat.
And even if this is a new problem, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a disability or attention disorder underfoot. Some children scrape and fight through for quite a long while, creating elaborate coping strategies. And then they hit a wall.
Seventh grade is also the year that many young women get their periods, wreaking hormonal and emotional havoc. I am wondering whether she is experiencing some physical and emotional changes that are feeling scary and big to her.
I also don’t know what “struggling in school” means. It is pretty well known that American children are dealing with unneeded homework stress, and the country and educational system don’t really understand what homework does or doesn’t do (and we stick with what we know, effective or not). So, as we shuffle along, our children are developing some serious anxiety and depression problems.
On to your biggest parenting question: “Should we let her fail?” I have been writing long enough now to know that this is going to make people angry, but here goes: It depends.
You can find studies to support the importance of failure. (I have given a couple of talks on it myself.) You can find others about the damage that failure can inflict on children. I suggest skipping these articles and figuring out your own daughter.
If we remove the reductionist nature of grades and schoolwork, what is the real problem here? Why doesn’t your daughter care about her schoolwork? There is nothing you can do until you answer this question. And I get it. That is completely maddening. Nothing would make me happier than giving you some pat, easy 1-2-3 answer.
In lieu of that, here are some questions that I always wonder when a child appears to not care about her work:
•Have you hassled, nagged, helicoptered, bothered, sat directly next to her, forced, bribed or punished her throughout her academic career? If the answer is a moderate to strong “yes,” you may have raised a child who is dependent on you to organize herself, complete her work, find her motivation. Essentially, the natural developmental drive to complete tasks has been stifled. You have a 5-year-old in a 12-year-old’s body. And if you read this and go into some kind of guilt trip or panic, let me assure you that you are not alone. Well-meaning teachers are expected to assign kindergarten students homework well before it is developmentally appropriate. This requires parents to sit next to their children and begin the cajoling and mentoring and, essentially, tutoring. One year turns to two turns to three, and poof! You’ve got a bad habit. Trust me, I have yet to meet a parent who wakes up and says, “How can I undermine my child’s learning today?” But parental over-involvement in homework handicaps children.
•You haven’t helicoptered (that’s a verb now, huh?) her work, but have you gone out of your way to prevent her from experiencing the consequences of her work (or lack thereof)? Have you run every forgotten assignment to her at school? Have you packed her backpack every morning? Have you written excuses to the teachers when they were not warranted? If so, you have not allowed your daughter to struggle, find a solution, give up, seek help at school or feel the sting of failure or the joy of success. If you leave her to her own devices now, she doesn’t have any devices. She doesn’t have any experience, self-esteem or resilience to rely upon when the going gets tough.
•How is failure viewed in your home? Have you let her know that you will support her, love her, accept her no matter what? Have you let her know that her homework is but one small aspect of her life? Is the message that failure is dire? (It is not). If failure is avoided and feared in a family, the children will either become perfectionists and anxious, or they will withdraw completely. Abdicate. Failure is so uncomfortable, it cannot be faced. What if the parents didn’t worry about failure? What if you said to her, “Hey, no matter what, I believe in you and I love you. If you fail, then we learn what needs to happen. We have your back. We are all in this together.” What if failure were welcomed?
•Is this child in danger? Depressed? Being bullied? Feeling unsafe at home or in school? So many of the behaviors of tweens and teens don’t clearly point to the actual problem. This necessitates that we become strong and compassionate listeners. We want to know about her interior world and how she is coping and maturing.
•Will this failure push her into a place of anger and deeper depression? Will she feel abandoned? Will this failure lead to a deep fracture in your relationship with her?
I hope that these questions lead you to a place of deeper understanding, whether that understanding is about yourself, your child or your entire family. I cannot answer your real question: “Should we let her fail?”
Try changing the question to “What is this scenario really about? How can I best understand, support and love my daughter in this scenario?”
Keep it simple, keep it kind and keep it easy (or as easy as you can).
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Jan. 21.