Should We Let Our Kids Sink Their Own Ships?

My son happens to be a very cool kid. A smart boy, he naturally gravitates to science and math, thus making me wonder how it is possible that he sprang from my loins – but then my husband is a math-science guy, so it makes sense. A voracious reader, my Monkey cannot easily be torn away from a book. I have never had to ask him to do his homework. He comes home from school, makes himself a snack, eats it, puts his dishes in the dishwasher, and then disappears to do his homework. He just does it. I know some of you must be wondering what could this woman possibly have to complain about, so here it comes.

Recently, Monkey’s 5th grade teacher asked me to take a look at his English assignment due that next day. Monkey had been asked to answer a question, making sure to provide the title and genre of  the work, and a thesis statement. He was also asked to use topic sentences and provide textual support and cite the page number as well as explain how the quote supported his idea about the topic. I was elated. I mean, this was a friggin’ awesome assignment and not too different from the type of assignment I might give to my own students in an Intro to Composition class.

“What should I be looking for?” he asked.

“Monkey doesn’t integrate quotes into his papers; I’d just like to make sure he understands how to do it.”

Seemed simple enough.

That night, I explained to my Monkey that his teacher had asked me to take a peek at his assignment. His handwriting was solid, his topic was interesting, he included the title and genre of the book, but – nope, she was right, no textual support. I asked Monkey about the missing quote. He shrugged his shoulders and said he “didn’t care” because he knew he was “still going to get a high score on the rubric so it didn’t matter.”

“You need to find a quote,” I said quietly, handing him his notebook.

“It’s fine,” he said, attempting to slide his notebook into his backpack.

“It’s not fine,” I insisted. “Please revise it.”

“It is fine, and I’m not doin’ it.”

“You need to do it,” I argued, my voice a little louder.

“No, I don’t, and I’m not!” he shouted.

If an alien had landed in my kitchen at that moment, it would have thought that – on Earth – children communicate by screaming and crying and that mothers communicate with their young by wrestling them to the ground and screaming even louder. I am quite certain that we looked something akin to Bart and Lisa from one of those episodes of The Simpsons where the siblings are choking each other; in these episodes, they are generally screaming,  their necks are really long, and their eyes are bugging out of their heads.

Finally, I brought out the big guns.

“If you do not do this, you will have a huge consequence.”

A people-pleaser, my Monkey hates consequences, so with resignation he took his notebook and retreated to the office, closing the door behind him. Like I said, he’s a smart kid; he didn’t want to lose his screen time for the rest of the week. One-half hour later, he emerged with a fabulously fabulous journal entry that was even better than the first. It was neatly written, well punctuated, included capital letters; he even remembered to include the page number for his quote. So why all the drama?

I don’t micromanage my son’s academic career. Lord knows, he’s moved beyond me in math and science already, and when it comes time to create a Power Point presentation, he’s my go-to guy. He accepts criticism from his schoolteachers and baseball coaches, his fencing instructor, and his piano teacher. He accepts fine-tuning in violin and he doesn’t mind when his religious school teacher tells him he has mispronounced something. So what is it about the parent-child relationship that brings out such ugliness, such hysteria when it comes to academics? Why couldn’t he just do it for me?

Had Monkey’s teacher not asked me to look at his homework, I would not have found myself involved in that little power struggle, which is really what it was. And what stuck in my craw was that he said he was getting good grades for not doing all the work properly. Could that be true? It occurred to me that if my son’s teacher had given him a low grade – a really low grade – on any of the assignments leading up to that one, it might have motivated him to work harder to give her what she wanted. He’s no grade grubber, but seriously, what motivation is there to change your ways if you’re being rewarded for doing something half-assed?

I called Monkey’s teacher the next morning the moment he hopped on the bus and told her that, while he had completed the assignment, it created real tension between us.

“Do me a favor,” I added. “Next time, if he doesn’t follow the instructions, give him a low grade. He isn’t motivated to work harder because he says he has been receiving high grades on these assignments even without doing what you’ve asked him to do.”

“I can’t believe you are telling me to give him a low grade,” she said. “Would you want him to have the opportunity to redo the assignment if he really blows it?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I want him to see what it feels like to fail.”

I wonder how many teachers feel held hostage by American parents, afraid to give low grades to students who aren’t really living up to their full capabilities. They must know that if they give low grades, they will face an onslaught of angry emails and phone calls. But how does inflating grades help our children? From where I stand, all it means is that I have to teach it to them later when they hit college level.

Yesterday I made a mini-resolution: From here on out, unless my child specifically asks for my help, I am going to consider him the captain of his own seafaring vessel. That means he’s pretty much on his own, but he’s equipped with a CB radio with a direct line to me. I’m there on the beach in case of rough waters (or confusion about how to use semi-colons) in which case I’ll hop into my little motorboat and ask permission to come aboard. And once the seas have calmed and he has control of his ship again, I’m outta there, back to my spot on the beach.

How involved are all of you in your kids’ daily homework assignments? And could you stand by and watch your child go down with the ship?

22 responses to “Should We Let Our Kids Sink Their Own Ships?

  1. what you did not hear is his anger. you have to figure out why he is mad at you. are you listening?

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    • Hmmmm. Of course he was mad at me in the moment. I was asking him to do something that he didn’t want to do. I was pointing out that he was doing less than he could do. Who wants to hear that? A friend of mine told me he found four errors in one of my blog entries. I didn’t really want to hear that, but I couldn’t just leave them there. I mean, how unprofessional would that be? My friend was trying to get me to be my best self. As a parent – and at the teacher’s request, I was trying to do the same for my child. I’m curious, do you have children and if so how old are they? And how involved are you in their homework each night?

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  2. cindy jobling

    I helped my children with homework as needed in elementary school but they do not need my help in middle school.

    I think that letting your child sink is a lesson that needs to be learned. When to let them sink is child and situation dependent to me. You know your kid and what works for him.

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  3. Parents need to be attentive and allow their kids (of either type) to experience failure as well as success. If a student is failing everyone needs to step up and do what needs to be done. We don’t worry to much about the ace as a rule but we should. I agree with your plan its a “Real Life” scenario which will be faced by your son. He will fail somewhere somehow. As you did and we all do. Hopefully repeatedly, it is a great way to learn and grow as a human. Knowing how to deal with failure, solving and correcting the problems of life is what carry us forward in life.
    LOVE YOUR BLOG!!!

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  4. Okay, I love this article! I’m so glad I’m not alone! I’ve raised 5 kids (2 boys, 3 girls). Two have learning disabilities, 2 are excellent students, and one is still undecided. I have policed more backpacks and agendas then I care to admit. It has worn me down people! It has also caused tremendous turmoil in our house at times, just ask the neighbors. School is a precursor for life…school is their job! They need to learn to take criticism, as well as, bask in a job well done. The funny thing is until I went back to school at age 36, to finally get my BS in Psychology/Special Ed., I never fully understood how important education really was. You gain a whole new perspective.

    Anyway, Renee, I agree with you! Sometimes, we need to let them sink, we need to let them know there are consequences, not just always “smooth everything over”. One thing I have learned is that, I am not my child’s “friend” as in one of their peers. I am their teacher, their parent. Don’t get me wrong, we laugh, we talk, and they know they can always count on me, but when I need to, I can be a hard ass. Keep raising the bar, and expect nothing less from them, then their personal best.

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  5. I have the EXACT same battle most days, teaching afterschool at a middle school. If I ask a student to fix grammatical mistakes in their reading notebook (of which there are many) or any other errors, they say that their teacher “understands that I don’t do it right,” or, “‘Gonna’ IS a real word!”

    In some cases, the students are receiving failing grades and still don’t make the connection between their poor product and the failing grade. You’re lucky that Cal cares about his grades!

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    • And, possibly more importantly, how choosing to not learn it properly now can really hurt them later in terms of their skills set. It certainly doesn’t help that they perceive that their teachers are willing to accept their poor performance. I bet some of these kids play sports: do you think they have the same lazy attitude towards their performance on the fields/courts?

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  6. We do review the homework in our house and it isn’t something that enhances our relationships at all. But it does provide an opportunity for us to let the girls know what our expectations are about how they do their work – doing their best, not settling for the easy route.

    We have experienced the example you cite above of having teachers not necessarily holding up the same standards. Clara is a very good student, enjoys school and loves her teachers. But we’ve found through looking at her work that the teachers often don’t catch or point out the mistakes she makes on her work. My hunch is that they are lulled by the fact that Clara does well in general and they just don’t look at it very closely assuming that’s she’s doing fine. However, for a girl that is all about being right, it would be beneficial to her have those errors pointed out and discussed so she can experience being wrong once in a while. If we point out the things after the teacher has already checked the work, she’s satisfied that the teacher thought her work was fine.

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  7. No kids here, but plenty of friends with small people and we’ve had this discussion a lot. Us Gen-Xers were definitely allowed to fail more than the kids we’re teaching, and most of us agree it’s better in the long run. But now that we’re grownups (sort of) the parents I know admit it’s a lot harder to put that theory into practice when it’s your kid’s future on the line. But yes, oh yes, I still believe in letting people fail.

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    • I don’t even know what “Gen” I am. (What “Gen” are people who were born in the mid-1960s?) All I can say is my report card never hung on the refrigerator door. I got a 63 on my Physics Regents and my father made me retake it over the summer. But I passed. I passed. The students I taught at our local community college this year act as though they have never failed anything in their life. I believe this is probably true. Everywhere I go, I hear parents cooing, “Good job” when their kids put a sippy-box straw in their mouths — since when did we start praising eating and drinking? Kids regularly receive trophies for participation — even when they suck, and teachers seem paralyzed with fear to give anything under a B. I would love to hear from a teacher who regularly gives failing grades to his or her students. I’m guessing that teacher is the “bitch/asshole” of the department.

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  8. Like WorstProfEver, I don’t have children either, but I’ve often been astonished by the amount of parental involvement that seems to be required of my friends with respect to their children’s homework. I was, admittedly, a self-motivated student that did well without constant supervision, so perhaps my youthful experience just didn’t reveal what was going on behind the closed doors of my friends’ homes. However, if I ever do have children, I do hope I have the courage to let them fail… and that I’m not stuck “doing” all the homework of an academic career over again just so my child can keep up.

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    • Hi Keeniebeanie:

      It is remarkable, right? How much parental involvement there is with regard to homework completion. I have a friend who admits to doing an entire activity for her 5 year old son — just to get it done — because “it seemed so pointless.” If an assignment seems pointless, I say it’s better to have your kid opt out of the activity and take the low grade than complete the assignment for the child. I’m sure the teacher had her reasons for believing the assignment was NOT pointless (although it was rather stoooopid, if you ask me), but then maybe that is an opportunity for a conversation as well.

      I learned early on that I had to get my kid into a routine, one in which I was NOT involved, so that homework became part of his daily ritual and not something to war over. Initially, I would look it over to make sure it was complete and watch him slide it into his binder. Now I’m out 100%. Everything is his responsibility. I have faith he will be more successful in the long run with this approach. (*fingers crossed*)

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  9. Great post. I am a teacher and a mom (though my twins are only in Grade One so homework is thankfully scant. Still, it’s often easier to motivate the Grade 9 students I teach than my own children. Perhaps I should start grading my kids….

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    • For me the point of this wasn’t so much about the grades, just that some teachers won’t allow students to fail — thus putting the impetus on parents to teach their children. That is generally bound to end up in a no-win situation. My son’s 5th grade teacher was incredulous that I was asking her to give him a bad grade. I’m telling you, not many of my report cards got to hang on the refrigerator — but I turned out okay. Better than okay even. I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and I have been gainfully employed since I graduated with my Master’s Degree back in the day. I think parents don’t want to see C’s on report cards anymore, so they are willing to do their kids homework. What does this teach the kids? Nothing. Except that they can sit on the couch while mom scours over their math homework. Grrrr.

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  10. Consequences are a part of life. Not letting kids experience them in normal, early ways cripples them for what they’ll face later in life. Some people may think I’m strange, but I actually think you have to wish failure upon your kids if you don’t let them fail or face opposition, especially when the situation is still manageable and you can step in. Great post.

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  11. I think this is the post to repost. This is such a difficult area if your children happen to be addicts struggling with recovery. The 12 Step philosophy is “never deprive an addict/alcoholic of their bottom” so they get the gift of desperation. Apparently they don’t have children. Are we as parents supposed to see our daughter hooking on the street or see a son overdose and die?

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  12. Overall I have learned much more from my own failures than from my successes.
    However,the inclination is to make sure our children don’t make the same mistakes we did.
    I had to cut the cord in the fifth grade.
    It was hard.
    I have taken a hands off, “With your shield, or on it,” approach since then and although it stumbled initially, by the time high school came around the system worked.
    Her peers are a far harsher and more effective motivator than I could ever be.
    So, I’d have to agree, to prepare them for the real world they need the room to succeed or fail on their own merits.
    It doesn’t work for every child, but it worked for mine. Great post.
    Thanks for sharing it.

    Sparky.

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  13. Our oldest son once had an excellent teacher, Mr. McPhee, who recognized his students’ ability and never settled for anything less than their best effort. Our son thrived in that environment.

    In subsequent years many of his teachers graded him on potential rather than actual effort, allowed him to hand in assignments late and/or incomplete without penalty, and his performance plummeted. I couldn’t believe that we had to formally ask the teachers to deduct grades for the sloppy and incomplete work he was handing in.

    I want my kids to know that there are consequences to their actions. I’d rather have them learn sooner than later that in the “real world” we all have to take our lumps and earn our rewards. They’ll be better people for it.

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    • Mr. McPhee sounds like he was a great teacher. I think it has become harder to stick to those high standards when everyone around you is caving in. It’s exhausting. I’m glad your son got to experience a classroom with a teacher who challenged to be his best self.

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