Stopping the Schoolwork Power Struggle: Should You Allow Your Child to Fail?

Posted August 14, 2012 by

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“How can I let my child fail his classes? He’ll have to re-take them, or he’ll get so behind, he’ll end up up dropping out of school.” These are statements I hear often from parents who contact us for 1-on-1 Coaching. Allowing your child to fail can be a challenging concept for many parents. As a parent of two teens, I understand firsthand how difficult it can be to allow the natural consequences of a child’s choices to unfold. Sometimes it can feel like you’re sitting back and doing nothing to help your child. It can be easy to awfulize a worst case scenario which can be anything from your daughter being stuck in a minimum wage job to your son living under a bridge in a box. In all honesty, either of those things could happen. However, failing ninth grade doesn’t guarantee that outcome, any more than graduating valedictorian guarantees success.

Up until about a year ago, the teenage years were not an easy journey with my daughter. When she was in the seventh grade, she had to change schools halfway through the year when she moved back to live with me after spending the first part of the year with her dad in another city. It was anything but a smooth transition. After about a month of her living back at home, I started getting calls from her teachers about the fact that she hadn’t completed her work or that she’d skipped school. I can’t even remember the number of meetings I had with her teachers about how to “help her be successful.” This pattern continued into grade eight.  She continued to get further and further behind in her classes. I tried everything I could think of to try to motivate her to do her work:  incentive plans, reward charts, withholding privileges, taking everything away and having her earn everything back. I stopped short of doing the work for her — though, to be completely honest, that was a consideration at times! I remember thinking, “If I could just get her caught up, then everything would be OK.” Though I knew deep down I was doing the right thing in not rescuing her, I truly felt like I was failing as a parent. This was especially true whenever my ex-husband or her teachers would ask me what I was doing to make sure she got her homework done. She didn’t pass her classes but, since she met the eighth grade standards, she was allowed to continue on into high school.

Just before starting her freshman year, I decided that things would be different. I was going to stop rescuing, nagging, arguing with her and let her experience the pain and discomfort of her choices if she decided not to study. I sat down with my daughter and we talked about the upcoming year. I explained that this year, she would start to earn credits towards graduation. I outlined the expectations and let her know what the consequences would be if she chose not to do it. If she didn’t do her work, she wouldn’t earn the credit. She would have to retake the class or delay graduation. Then, I let it go. I would ask her every night if she needed help with anything. Sometimes she said yes, sometimes she said no. When I would get a call from a teacher about missing assignments, I would thank the teacher and let him or her know I would talk to my daughter about it. There were no power struggles because I was quite clear with both her and myself who was responsible for what. So far, she has passed all of her high school classes.

In retrospect, I realize by stepping back and allowing my daughter to fail I was in a sense also giving her the opportunity to be successful. By taking the power struggle out of the equation and putting the responsibility squarely on her shoulders, I was able to let go of the faulty thinking that was keeping both of us in an ineffective power struggle.


Denise Rowden is a parent of two teens: an 18-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. She has worked in Special Education, Alternative Education and adolescent group homes. She has a BS in Psychology from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her Life Coach certification from the International Coach Federation.

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  1. D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor Report

    To “waynedennis”: Thank you for writing in; we appreciate the insight you give on this particular issue. I can hear your frustration. Some parents do struggle with being a martyr for their child, as James Lehman outlines in his article Are You a Mother or a Martyr? How Much is Too Much When “Doing” for Your Child? As frustrating as this behavior is from a teaching standpoint, I believe most parents do it out of a desire to help their child be successful. Unfortunately, always going to bat for your child and not allowing the natural consequences to occur tends to be an ineffective way of helping a child be successful because rescuing doesn’t teach a child how to problem solve through difficult situations. When thinking about how to get parents back on your side, I think it can be helpful to see teachers and parents as being on the same team, the child’s team. Everyone involved in a child’s education really only wants one thing, the child’s academic success. As Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner point out in there article 4 Ways to Handle Back to School Behavior Problems with Your ODD Child, open communication between parents and teachers is a great first step in developing a working home-school relationship. We hope this information is useful for your situation. Take care.

  2. waynedennis Report

    As a teacher, I am peppered by phone calls and emails from parents who have been notified that their child has ‘failed’ in my class, whether it be a forgotten homework assignment, a blown test, or a missing project.
    Sadly, most of the parents immediately go to bat for their child by blaming me for the child’s situation. “How dare you embarrass my son by asking him to call home!” is the most common complaint. They don’t want their precious darling to experience the consequences in life, so they try to take charge and bully me into accepting the blame for their own child’s choices.
    Do you have any suggestions for getting the parents back on my side, and helping them understand that it’s OK for their child to feel embarrassed at making bad choices?

  3. D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor Report

    To “momwithquestions”: I’m sorry to hear your son is starting to repeat the same behaviors from last year. It can be upsetting when you are doing everything you can and the behavior doesn’t seem to be changing. I can hear how frustrated you are with the situation. As difficult as this situation may be, keep in mind you are doing what you can to help your son. As Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner point out in the article 4 Ways to Handle Back to School Behavior Problems with Your ODD Child, our job as parents is to offer our children the opportunity for an education and the tools to be successful. Ultimately, school is your son’s responsibility. Holding him accountable for his misbehavior in school with a consequence at home is one option for addressing the behavior. We would suggest using a short, daily consequence such as having your son earn his television or computer privilege on a daily basis depending upon how he behaved in school that day. As parents, we often believe consequences are the key to making a child make better choices. That usually isn’t the case. Sometimes, kids continue to behave a certain way because they don’t know how to solve their problems another way. For that reason, it’s also going to be important to problem solve with your son ways he could handle situations differently and help him learn new ways of dealing with problems and making better choices. Here is a great article about how to have a problem solving conversation with your child: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems”. I hope this is helpful. Good luck to you and your son as you continue through the school year. Take care.

  4. momwithquestions Report

    My son is repeating the 9th grade because he fail the requirements for discipline that his school requires. I thought with him repeating the 9th grade in the same school would help him understand the consequences of his decision. The 2nd week in school and he is already repeating some of the same things he did last year. At this point I am not sure what to do. As other parents have stated I have prayed, taken games, cell phones etc. I have talk with him and also took him to see a counselor to assist and evaluate him for any behaviors disorders. Not sure what to do anymore..

  5. D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor Report

    To “lizzy’smom”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. You bring up an excellent point about consequences and behavior. Many parents we speak with on the Parental Support Line also conclude that consequences aren’t working because they’re not seeing a change in their child’s behavior. Something to keep in mind is that consequences aren’t necessarily about changing behavior; consequences are how you hold your child accountable for the choices she is making. You are teaching your child a valuable lesson by consistently giving her a consequence when she doesn’t complete her homework, as Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner point out in their article Parenting ODD Children and Teens: How to Make Consequences Work.
    We would also suggest sitting down and problem solving with your daughter ways she could get started and stay focused on her work. Here is a great article by Sara Bean that addresses how to problem solve with your child: The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: “I Can’t Solve Problems.” We wish you and your family the best as you continue to work through this challenge. Take care.

  6. lizzy'smom Report

    One thing I have learned over the last four years or so it to let go of the content of the homework. That is strictly between the teacher and my child. I do still struggle with getting my child to sit her bottom in a chair and get started. We have tried it all. She wants to start swim team, soccer and scouts but she still has not realized (through her actions) that in order to do these things she must come home and get to work. There are no distractions, only herself. She can put up more roadblocks than the county DOT. She has already spent an afternoon being mad because she couldn’t go to the pool and swim, but she just isn’t getting the message. She is hard headed. I just can’t help see that she is getting in her own way. Any suggestions?

  7. D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor Report

    To “Delta Dawn”: Thank you for sharing your story with us. As a parent, it can be difficult to know how best to support your child with homework. We talk with many parents on the Parental Support line about similar issues. One thing we often suggest parents to keep in mind is that homework is ultimately your child’s responsibility. This doesn’t mean you don’t offer “hurdle help” as James Lehman suggests in his article Homework Hell? Part II: 7 Real Techniques That Work. Instead, it means taking a step back after helping her get started. This will help to keep a nightly homework power struggle from happening. We wouldn’t suggest using a consequence or a physical punishment for wrong answers. That probably isn’t going to be effective. Sometimes, the wrong answer can be enough of a consequence itself. Instead, we would suggest developing a homework structure that works for your family and holding her accountable for completing the homework by having her earn a privilege when her homework is done, something like TV or computer time. You can review the homework to be sure it’s completed but it probably isn’t necessary to check it for correctness before giving her the privilege. In most instances, the teacher is going to go over the homework with the students to be sure they are doing the work correctly. We would encourage you to check in with the teacher if you have any concerns about whether or not your daughter understands the work. We wish you and your family the best in addressing this situation. Take care.

  8. Delta Dawn Report

    OMG, I hate helping my 9yr old daughter with homework. Math is our worst subjuect. We try showing her how the problems are worked, to get the correct answer. She will argue us up and down that it is wrong. One night she refused to change an answer that was wrong. Our reply to her was, “If you chose to keep that answer,and you come home tomorrow and it has a red mark by it. You will get a spanking.” We try to tell her that we are here to help her. We would never tell her something that was wrong. Help!!!

  9. D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor Report

    To “lovemykids”: I can hear how frustrated you are by this behavior. It can be difficult to know what to do when you’re told your child isn’t working up to potential. From what you have described, it seems as if your son has found a way to pass his classes even though he’s not completing his homework. If homework is where you’re having the biggest challenge, it may be helpful to set up a homework structure and link homework completion to earning one of his privileges. For example, there could be a specific time set aside for working on homework. If he works on and completes his homework during the scheduled time time, then he earns video game or TV time. Here is a great article by Debbie Pincus that gives some great suggestions on how to address the homework challenge: The Homework Battle: How to Get Children to Do Homework. Setting up a homework structure may help to address your concerns around his study habits. As for whether or not you should let your son fail, in the end, only you can decide if that is the right course for you. Good luck to you and your family as you work through this challenge. Take care.

  10. lovemykids Report

    Last school year, it was very difficult to get my son to do his homework. He’s very bright, so even in the classes where he didn’t do homework, he managed B’s and C’s. The constant comment from teachers is that he doesn’t work to his potential. I tried everything with him last year, from sitting with him (to keep him focused) to just telling him it was his choice whether or not to do it. His attitude is that what he does in middle school doesn’t matter (in terms of college). My concern is that his behaviors will get so ingrained that he won’t be able to handle the work load in HS (when it does matter!). Is it best at this point just to “let him fail”?

  11. D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor Report

    To “Rachel”: Thank you for sharing your story. You ask a great question. There may be times when consequences don’t seem to be having an effect on behavior. One thing to keep in mind is that consequences in and of themselves don’t always change behavior. Consequences are how you hold your son accountable for the choices he makes. As Kim Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner point out in their article 4 Ways to Handle Back to School Behavior Problems with Your ODD Child, our job as parents is to give our children the opportunities for an education and the tools to help them be successful. In the end, whether or not they are successful is their choice. I can understand the disappointment you are feeling. It can be upsetting when our children make choices we don’t agree with or that we believe are not in their best interest. In her article How to Stop Fighting with Your Child: Do You Feel Like the Enemy?, Debbie Pincus explains how this situation can be even more frustrating when we need our children to make a certain choice in order for us to feel like responsible parents. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to address this challenging behavior. Take care.

  12. Rachel Report

    Ok, what if you let them fail and they don’t seem to care ? What should I do as a parent to make sure that he succeeds, because I let him do his own thing in 9th grade. I set my expectations as a parent and what I want him to do and how he was gonna earn points to graduation, but he refused to meet my needs and ended up failing the 9th grade. Did I feel disappointed as a parent ? Yes I did, but his defiance is getting the best of me and my family and it seems at times that he’s pushing to see if what I say is true. He’s 15 yrs old with ADHD/ODD and that alone makes it harder on me, because of his behavorial problems. I’ve done everything that I can to let him know what I expect this year when he repeats the 9th grade and I guess we’ll see if he succeeds.

  13. D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor Report

    To “Martha”: You ask a great question. A tutor or Learning Specialist can be a great resource when your son or daughter is having difficulty understanding the concepts or work in a particular class or subject. Sometimes kids also need what James Lehman refers to as “hurdle help”: a little help or encouragement to get started on the work in front of them. It’s not unreasonable to expect your son to avail himself of the help you are offering him with the Learning Specialist. It would be an understandable consequence to either stop having the tutor available for him or have him pay for all or part of the tutoring if he isn’t utilizing the help being offered. I hope this has been helpful. Take care.

  14. martha Report

    How to you feel about getting a tutor/learning specialist for an LD child. We have had a hard time with our son, who is entering his senior year of high school and on his therapist’s advice, have gotten a learning specialist. But I am now thinking that we should say–okay, you have her, you have us and your teachers to help. We are not going to be on top of you about this and if you arent using the help of the tutor to get work done, we’ll stop that too because of the expense. I don’t want it to sound like a threat but I want to be clear. Thoughts?



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