Helping your child cope with failure
It's no fun to lose. Even if your
child typically wins, chances are at some point he'll feel the pain of
being overlooked for the baseball team; of misspelling a word during
the spelling bee; of bungling the geometry exam that was supposed to be
Maybe not. Maybe your kid's the one who always gets the A, wins the election and wows the coach. But those kids are rather rare. Let's call them "imaginary." Most children run up against assorted speed bumps and setbacks along the long and winding road to becoming grown-ups.
That's why families need to be equipped with tools that will help their children cope with failure -- even if failure happens just once in awhile.
"When things go wrong, some parents want a quick fix -- and who wouldn't?" notes Susan Small, director of student services at Educational Tutoring and Consulting on Mercer Island. "They'd like to put a simple band-aid on the problem."
But a thoughtful approach works better than the fast fix, she says. For starters, parents should identify the problem their child's facing. Is there a pattern or is it an isolated event?
"The response will be different if the student's dealing with on-going concerns, such as ADD or learning disabilities," Small says. Parents who suspect their child has a learning disability should seek help from their child's pediatrician, teacher and the school psychologist.
If it's a single incident, try to find out what caused it, says Small. "Were expectations too high? Were there family issues? Social stressors?"
Take, for example, that first report card -- the one with real letter grades instead of those carefully couched comments kids get in elementary school. "For the first time, kids are getting real feedback on their performance," says Michelle Trifunovic, assistant principal at Edmonds-Woodway High School in Edmonds. "Some of these students will be motivated by the progress report -- and others can be devastated."
It's up to parents to ask their child the right questions, Trifunovic notes. "If there's a poor grade, find out what's behind it. Ask, 'are you turning in your homework? Does this grade reflect a test score?'" She says the next question should be, "How can I help you?"
Try to stay positive, advises Karen Dickinson, associate superintendent for school support for the Tacoma School district. "You want to avoid supporting their disappointment."
The standard clichés, such as "You'll do better next time," or "You'll just study harder," don't give kids useful information, Dickinson notes. "Those kinds of comments just leave the kid feeling mystified." It's better, she suggests, to give the less-than-stellar score an upbeat spin: "You got a 60, which means you know 60-percent of the work. That's more than you don't know!"
Next, come up with solutions -- as many of them as you can, Small suggests. This might mean making sure homework comes home -- and back to class when it's completed. It might mean buying a second set of textbooks, because your child keeps leaving hers at her desk. "Sometimes it's something as simple as moving your child to a different location in the room," says Small.
Students often encounter their first hurdles in middle school when they find their old study habits don't measure up, Small says. "In middle school, it's not just about memorized information anymore; it's about application." Students accustomed to rote learning find that system no longer works.
The solution? Teach your kids to study, she suggests. "They need to actually absorb the information, not just get the assignment done for the grade."
Begin by making sure they have a designated study spot, says Dickinson. "Habit and routine are very important for student success. There should be an expectation about homework that is very consistent."
Email the teacher if you want to get (or give) more information about your kids. But don't try to rescue them. "They don't need you to bail them out," says Trifunovic. "Remember you are trying to help them, not take over."
Over-zealous parents with a penchant for stepping in to "smooth things over" model lessons of a different sort. "Their children learn how to wiggle their way out of things," Small contends. "Will it help them succeed? Probably. Get into college? Probably. Feed their soul and help their intellect? Probably not."
Older kids -- middle school and high school age -- should conduct their own negotiations with teachers, says Trifunovic. That means discussions about whether the student will re-take a test, do extra credit or come in for help should come from the child, not the parent. "This is a life skill that kids should learn. They have figure out how to be their own advocates," she says.
Remember to praise your children for the good things they do, Small advises. "Let them know you love them despite the glitches and the setbacks." Some of what you tell them will just fall off their back. "Say it anyway," she says. "They need to hear it; it's essential to not giving up."
Linda Morgan, ParentMap's associate editor, writes frequently on education issues.