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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