Letting kids fail


May 9, 2013 by talkaboutyork

Next week my 9 year old son has a week of tests. According to the teachers, these are not something to get stressed out about. Passing or not passing them won’t have an impact on them getting into the next year. I’m not convinced they’re even used for streaming kids into sets yet.

However, the children were sent home a few weeks ago with a revision book and a list of areas they need to revise for the forthcoming tests. I’m not sure why they would do this if they didn’t actually want them to revise unless it was to get them used to the concept of revising so that when they’re older, they’ve got the hang of it.

Suffice to say that my son has done practically zero revision. I can’t say absolute zero as he has written one paragraph about a plateau in Mexico and can tell me the parable of the good samaritan. But that is where it ends.

Partly, this is due to the fact that he has very long school days and a lot of sport. This week for example he has gotten home from school/sport at 5.30 today, 8pm yesterday and 7pm the day before that. It doesn’t leave a massive amount of time for revision, particularly as he needs to be asleep by about 8.30, 9pm at the latest if I have a hope of getting him up in the morning.

And partly it’s because I haven’t wanted to get stressed about it based on what the teachers said.

BUT, I do feel he needs to do some revision i.e. read his books.  I have offered to do this with him. I have offered to quiz him so it’s more fun, like a game rather than a chore he has to do all on his own.

He has resolutely refused to do it. Today we had agreed that he would do some revision. Crunch time came and he went into meltdown. I tried the ‘I’ll sit with you and we can make it fun approach.’ That was declined. There was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth and he said the only reason he would revise was so that he could then go on the x-box. I pointed out that he had argued with me for so long that he wouldn’t have time to now revise and go on the x-box. To which he then replied that there was no point in him revising at all.

We had a bit of a chat about that where I tried to point out the benefit of actually learning stuff, not to get good marks or be in a particular set or to earn TV privileges, but to actually have the info in your head that he could take with him and use whenever he wanted to. Like a gift.

What he heard was blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

After he had flounced out of the room, I reached for my favourite parenting book in the whole world ever: Nigel Latta’s ‘Mothers raising sons’. If you’ve never read it, please do. Besides having lots of common sense advice, it is also hilarious. I like to dip in and out of it whenever I feel as though I am living with small aliens who don’t speak the same language I do.

And I was reminded of a two very important things which I thought might be worth sharing with anyone else going through a similar problem.

1. Say less

Try to keep whatever you want to say to under 10 words. As the book says:Keep instructions simple and clear, don’t over complicate things. The more words you use, the more opportunity you present him with to turn it all back on you.

2. Build confidence and competence

The way you build confidence and competence is first to have confidence in him and then let him discover his competence. If you believe in him, he’ll have no choice but to follow. The way to build his inner confidence is not through pep-talks or rousing speeches (ala my one mentioned above), but by letting him do things, including letting him fail. We learn more from our bloody knees than we ever do from pats on the back. This doesn’t mean you push him over, but it does mean that you let him take chances.

And so that is exactly what I am going to do. I am going to tell him that I have confidence in him. And that if he believes he knows the stuff, that he can confidently walk into the test. If he fails, I hope that he will learn from it. I am worried that this is just being a lazy parent and that at nine he won’t realise his own limitations, but I’m going to listen to Nigel, say less and let him trust his own competence.

I guess we’ll see the results in his report card. Wish me luck


6 thoughts on “Letting kids fail

  1. judithkingston says:

    What brilliant advice, especially for boys. I will have to look that book up. And I agree less is more. Anything after 10 words becomes bla bla bla.

  2. North London Mum says:

    With children of 17 and 13 both in the private school system I have been faced with this dilemma many times. At different times both of them failed;one in an attempt to get into a particular school) and the other to get into higher sets in her school .In each case this spurred them on to greater efforts in the future without me having to do more than remind them of the consequences of their previous unwillingness to work. Unless the outcome is crucial I think failure is a very valuable lesson and builds character for the future. Good luck.

  3. I’ll have to look into that book. Being in America, the boys haven’t had tests yet (although they do have piano concerts they have to practice for, which is a bit like revision). I think it may come as a shock when we return to England….

  4. Allowing children to fail is a key life skill in my book, provided it is done in an environment where they can learn from that failure and become more resilient as a result. Exams at this age allow children to get used to exam techniques and to try different types of revision to find out which they prefer. Do they like mind maps, or playing revision games, or using index cards & different coloured pens, or reading a section and being tested by an adult on it, or reading the information out loud to themselves. The only way to find out, is to try. Children love the idea that their brain is like a muscle that gets stronger as they use it to learn. They also love the image of their brain forming new connections when they work hard & learn, according to Carol Dweck. By praising the effort, strategy or perseverance that a child shows towards their revision, no matter how little it is, helps them realise that what we are most impressed with is their attitude to it, not what result they get at the end of the day. “I’m disappointed that you don’t want to rise to the challenge of making your brain muscle stronger” might press the right button with a sporty boy who doesn’t want to revise?

    • Thanks Andy – I completely agree that getting them to figure out how to revise and what works for them is invaluable, and that praising the effort they put in is the key, which is why I’ve tried different approaches with my son. But not much seems to be working!

      I chatted with him after today’s tests. He fairly obviously didn’t know the answers to many of the questions that they had asked (apparently a centipede is a vertebrate) . I asked how he had felt about that during the test i.e. was he worried, upset, relaxed, not bothered. He said he felt fine but by the end ‘felt a bit uptight’. So I suggested that perhaps if he didn’t want to feel uptight, it might be worth us going over some of his work for tomorrow. That suggestion was shot down in flames! I even tried your brain as a muscle suggestion. I think this time round he will have to learn his limitations so that next time he is inspired to try a bit harder.

  5. […] I blogged about here, sometimes you have to let your child fail. And as I quoted from Nigel Latta […]

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