When Giving Up Works

Sometimes we have to let our kids fail.

Sonia Billadeau April 10, 2014
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We had reached the end of the road with my seventeen-year-old son who would not do his school work.

We tried peanut butter sandwiches instead of yummy food until his work was turned in. We even tried charging him $50 per missing assignment out of his part-time job paycheck. He cried when he had to pay us $200 then turned around and paid us another $150 for three more missing assignments. So did he really care? I don’t think so.

The final strategy– and this sounds draconian, but we were trying to get his attention– was to drive him to a motel and tell him we were paying for a thirty-day stay, and when he was getting close to the end of the thirty days, he would probably want to care enough about food, shelter and clothing to get a job. A job that didn’t require a high school diploma.

I only left him in the room for twenty minutes, and I paid $52 to teach him that twenty-minute lesson. I only wanted to get him to care enough about his education that he would start doing the dang work. While he was sitting there for the twenty minutes, I called our therapist, and we devised a plan. She put it bluntly: If he needs to fail, he needs to fail, and we can’t prevent it.

We saw her together the next day. She said, “The first thing your mother said to me when she called was, ‘I have no intention of leaving Gavin here.’ Your mom is very sad that you don’t care enough about your grades to do the work. She is trying to get your attention so that you understand how important it is to graduate high school.” She then told my son that he was on his own for school, that I wouldn’t be checking his grades anymore, and that we wouldn’t be talking about missing assignments in therapy anymore.

I had already come up with that idea as well. I was starting to think that one reason my son was so irresponsible with school is that I was his safety net; he knew that sooner or later I would catch his missing assignments and require him to do them. I did tell him that I was here if he had questions or needed help with an assignment, but that he would need to ask. The counselor told him, “If you need to fail, you go ahead and fail. We can’t stop you. No one can make you care.”

I talked with Gavin a couple of days later and asked him what he had learned from the experience. He said, “I think it’s time I grew up.” He volunteered that he had taken the initiative to check his grades online at the library during lunch, and had talked to one teacher already about making up a missing assignment.

I asked him if he thought he had been less responsible because he knew I would catch him sooner or later, and he would have to do the work. He said yes. I asked him if he thought he would have been more responsible sooner if I had quit pushing him sooner and he said yes. That made me feel foolish, but at least I’ve stopped pushing him now.

It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done to let him take responsibility for success or failure in school. I know how important a high school diploma is, especially today when even college graduates have difficulty finding jobs. But the bottom line is that I can’t force him to care, and my pushing seems to have backfired. I have to sit on my hands not to check the school’s website for his grades, and bite my tongue not to ask him if he has homework.

School is over in about a month, and I’ll know then whether he passed his classes. In the meantime, I repeat the mantra, “I can’t make him care, I can’t make him care, I can’t make him care,” all the while hoping and praying that something will.

Photo credit: mrstreasures.wordpress.com/high-school-diploma.jpg

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Sonia Billadeau


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