Let’s say your teenager is average at math and puts in an average amount of work. They put in some work, even a few days before the test, and completed all the required homework. Unfortunately, they failed the math test.
Your teenager says, “It wasn’t my fault! The teacher put in a bunch of information that wasn’t even in the chapter! I worked so hard, I don’t know what to do.”
And in the spirit of tests, let’s go with multiple choice.
Choose the best response.
A. “It’s too bad, but you deserved to fail. I know you put in some good effort, but you need to work harder next time.”
B. “I can’t imagine why you didn’t do well. I was proud of how hard you worked. Let’s take a look at your test to see if it’s correct.”
C. “I believe in you. I know you have the ability to do well, and I’m sure you will next time.”
D. “This one test grade isn’t that important in the long run. If you do your homework and ask the teacher for extra credit, I’m sure you can still get a good grade in the class. Have you thought about taking with the teacher?”
This one is a toughy.
I’ve been reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset, The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential. On page 180 she writes about a similar circumstance in an athletic performance. According to Dweck, the correct answer is “A.” Why?
Dweck writes, “There is a strong message in our society about how to boost children’s self-esteem, and a main part of that message is: Protect them from failure! While this may help with the immediate problem of a child’s disappointment, it can be harmful in the long run.”
Let’s go through these responses in reverse order, building to a crescendo of parenting brilliance.
D. This one was probably pretty easy for you to cross off. It reflect the idea that the grade is ultimately the most important, not the learning. And we all know that it’s the learning that’s most important right?
C. This is a hard one to pass up. I tend to go with the positive response. But the underlying message would be something like: “This last performance was unusual. No need to do anything different. Next time will be better. It’s all good.” It’s the same message that many students (and adults) give themselves when they procrastinate on something because they think they can pull it off later. Chances are you can, but at the cost of a great deal of stress. This response teaches children that they don’t need to work hard to get good grades, they just have to believe.
B. You know your child did an average amount of work. You know that teachers test the material they teach to ensure the material is correct. You’re lying to your child. You cover it up by offering some constructive help, which is great, the but underlying message is still, “Blame the outside factor. Let’s take a look to see how messed up that test was.”
A. So is “A” the right answer? It seems so mean! Imagine telling your upset teenager that they deserved to fail. No way. I know few parents with the gumption to say something so bluntly. I don’t think I could. Here’s the message: “Accept the failure. Learn from it. You can work harder.” Avoiding the wrong kind of praise is about building motivation and moving away from destructive self-defeating behavior.
I know it seems crazy, but choosing the “A” response speaks to an underlying belief that your child can control the outcome based on the amount of effort put into the project. Of course, you would soften the blow by couching this “deserved to fail” message in constructive criticism. You’d point out that math is a challenge for many people, but in order to succeed at something that comes as a challenge, significant effort is needed. With enough effort the outcome will improve.
In other words, you’re operating from a growth-mindset where failure and setbacks aren’t that big of a deal. They’re part of life and learning.
Dweck writes, “…children need honest and constructive feedback If children are “protected” from it, they won’t learn well. They will experience advice, coaching, and feedback as negative and undermining. Withholding constructive criticism does not help children’s confidence; it harms their future.”
If you think intelligence and effort are a finite source, failure is horrible. But if you think intelligence and effort are renewable and individuals thrive when pushed beyond limits, then failure motivates. The key is to teach students not to fear failure but to learn from it and grow.