When Is it OK to Let Our Sons Fail, and When is it Not?

When is it good to help our boys, and when is it better to let them fail? In yesterday’s New York Times Motherlode Blog, found here, a mother writes passionately of her need to help her middle school son with his schoolwork despite hearing from his teachers that she shouldn’t because “we want to see what your child can really do” and “middle School is a safe time to let your children fail.” Her son is dyslexic, and after watching him blossom as a student aided by extra help and coaching, she argues that continuing to help her son when he asks for it is important and necessary. She tells parents to “recognize when it’s O.K. to let your child fail, and when it’s not.”

Most would agree that parents of a child with a learning disability should give them the help they need to work to their potential. But what if your child has no such diagnosis, and is still having trouble doing his work? What if he gets really frustrated by a math problem or an essay and asks for your help?

In a perfect world students would do all of their homework on their own every night and turn it in to their teachers the next day. If they had any difficulty with any part of the homework, they would meet with the teacher before, during or after class. The teacher would take the time to work with them to ensure they understood their mistakes. They’d do their homework on their own that night, and the cycle would continue. No parental help, just students, their teachers and the lessons.

In the real world this perfect scenario rarely exists. So lets say your son is having a hard time with his homework, a paper, or a project. Teachers say let him make mistakes, let him fail, he will learn from this, and they will have a better ability to see how he is learning. Your gut says if you point him in the right direction, help him become clearer in his thinking or his writing, he will understand his mistakes and feel better about himself and his work. Your gut also says if you let him fail, you have to deal with the emotional and academic fallout. But your gut also knows that if you come running whenever he can’t figure out an answer, he will come to rely on you to do the work, won’t challenge himself, or worse, he will come to believe that he can’t do things without your help. We’ve heard rumors of parents doing homework or writing papers for their sons and daughters, and we know that this can’t be good for the student in the long run. So what do you do?

No one right answer here. We at GCP are inclined to step in, but only when the going gets rough. But we do so following these guidelines:

1. Offer to help only when he asks, he’s tried several times on his own, and you sense frustration building. If your son is happily doing his homework and you see that he is making mistakes, get out of the way. Your job is not to ensure that he goes to school everyday with an assignment done perfectly. Your job is to monitor whether he is doing his work and improving his skills. If he is not getting frustrated by the pace of his progress, but you are, express your concerns to his teacher or advisor, not to him. If he asks for help within minutes of sitting down to work, tell him to try for a longer period of time (you can set the time–depends on his age) before you’ll consider stepping in.

2. Help for his sake, not yours. Resist all temptation to show that you can perfect your child’s work. You know you are in trouble when you’ve taken over the desk and your son is looking over your shoulder. Let your son take the lead in telling you what help he needs. It is not about you, or about your having a son that gets all the right answers. And, in the case of an older student, if you don’t understand the work (which will happen sooner than you think), swallow your pride and advise him how to seek help at school from someone who does.

3. If he balks at your help, stand down. Teaching methods have changed dramatically over the decades since we were in school. Regardless of how much you know your son would benefit from the shortcuts that got your through your math homework, if his teacher says do it a different way, help him figure out how to do it the teacher’s way. Teaching him your way can further confuse and frustrate him. If you can’t understand the new way, tell him to talk to his teacher and follow up to see that he does.

4. Help, don’t do it for him. Don’t give him the answer, point him in the direction of figuring it out. Ask him what he thinks an answer should be and how he got there. This will help you identify the confusion and could help him fix his mistakes. If he is really stumped walk him through the steps to getting the answer. Let him discover the answer rather than have you give it to him.

5. Monitor the amount of help you are giving. If he is coming to you almost every night for help, it is too much. Let his teacher know that he is regularly having trouble with his homework and together discuss the next steps.

When is it OK to help? Use your judgement, but remember that the goal is for your son to feel empowered, skilled and able to handle his work on his own. Does this come from letting him struggle with his schoolwork, even fail, and then figure out how to succeed? Sometimes but not always. The important thing is to be mindful of how, how often and why you are helping him. Tough but important to do.

Do you think it is OK to ever help your sons with their work? If so, when and how do you help? Let us know!

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