Cleaning out her son’s backpack, Maryanne was shocked to find a worksheet marked “20 – Incomplete.” Digging deeper, she found many papers with failing grades and a month-old teacher’s note asking her to call to discuss Jonathan’s “lack of effort.”

What was going on? Jonathan usually did well in school, and had even expressed pride about being “one of the smart kids” in his class. Yet these papers showed he was failing, as well as being sneaky and dishonest with her. Flooded with embarrassment, then anger, Maryanne asked herself, “How could I have missed this? And what should I do now?”

When a child’s failure takes you by surprise

There comes a time for every parent when we have to confront a child’s failure. The soccer coach pulls her out of the game for not trying. A music teacher complains that he isn’t motivated enough to practice. Or, as in Jonathan’s situation, poor grades show that a once successful child is barely keeping up.

At first, we parents often react with a sense of urgency. Like Maryanne, we may feel inadequate as parents and furious with our child for giving up. We know our child is capable of doing well, even excelling. Yet, for some reason, she is now doing poorly. For some reason, he doesn’t even want to try.

Resist the urge to double down

Alarmed by our kids’ failures, we may redouble our efforts to turn the situation around as fast as possible. We try harder to make them work harder. Unfortunately, these efforts can backfire.

Maryanne confronted Jonathan the next morning. “What do you have to say for yourself?” Frustrated by his silence, she resorted to the same words her father had used when she had a poor report card. “You’re grounded until you pull these grades up. No more privileges until you bring home a good report card.”

For an instant, Maryanne’s words seemed to work. Jonathan’s face went pale with shock then flushed with fury. Turning on his heel, he fled the room crying.

Pressuring children to care more and work harder often produces resentment, anger and rebellion. Even when our intentions are good, penalizing children for failures does not help them succeed.

Get answers by getting curious

Curiosity and compassion can help solve the mystery of why once successful children begin failing.

There are many possible explanations about why Jonathan is failing and why he seems to have given up. Maryanne can work together with her son to figure these problems out and help him get back on track.

That evening, Maryanne spoke first, “Look, Jonathan, we got off to the wrong start this morning. I was surprised by your bad grades. What do you think? Are these grades okay or not okay with you?”

Not okay!” Jonathan replies forcefully. “I’m not a dummy. I didn’t want to tell you, because I was afraid you would be mad.”

Gently, Maryanne replies, “I was angry, but now I’m just really curious. Why do you suppose your grades went from good to bad?”

The pain in Jonathan’s face is real. “Don’t know … other kids seem to get what the teacher is talking about, but I don’t.”

There could be many reasons why a child like Jonathan is struggling. You won’t know how to help your child do better until you find out more.

Remember the 5 “Be’s”

In addition to curiosity, five other attitudes will help you help your child:

  • Be friendly. Most kids want to be successful, and feel unhappy when they aren’t. Don’t jump to assumptions – ask your child how he feels about his efforts. What kind of success does he want for himself?

  • Be realistic. Few adults excel at every single thing they do. Instead, they choose to focus on their priorities. Children also prefer to put their greatest efforts towards their areas of greatest interest.

  • Be kind. Few children do better because someone made them feel bad about their failures. Making kids miss fun activities just makes them angry, not motivated. Encouragement and inspiration work better than threats and punishment.

  • Be hopeful. It’s difficult for young and old to feel motivated to work harder and do better when they feel discouraged. When children are struggling, they can quickly become deeply discouraged. Share your hopefulness with your child, until he can recover his own sense of hope.

  • Be patient. The problems that contribute to poor effort and failure usually take a while to build up, meaning that it will probably take some time to turn things around.

How the story might end

Why didn’t you just ask the teacher if you don’t understand?” Maryanne asks.

Then I’d get into trouble,” Jonathan says sadly. “She keeps telling us we have to listen to her, because she only wants to explain things once.”

Maryanne’s mind begins to fill with possibilities. Did Jonathan misunderstand the teacher’s casual comment? Or are there other reasons he is having trouble understanding her? His father had a brother who was partially deaf since childhood – could that be it? “Well, Jonathan,” she says firmly, “I’m very glad I found out about this problem, and I want to help you.”

So, you aren’t mad?” he asked tentatively.

No, that would be silly,” she replied. “Of course you want to do well, but there seems to be a problem getting in the way. Let’s figure out together how to solve it.”

Misunderstandings, the fear of disappointing others and yes, even failure, are part of every person’s experience, whether young or old. Like Maryanne and Jonathan, it’s possible to work with our children to solve these problems. We can encourage our children to rekindle their interest, inspire greater effort and reinvigorate their success by approaching life’s problems with genuine curiosity and a desire to help, not punish, children who are experiencing failure.


Emory Luce Baldwin is a family therapist and certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP), which offers classes and workshops to parents of toddlers through teens. For more information, visit PEPparent.org or call 301-929-8824.