Let Them Fail
The hardest part in getting help is letting your kid fail.
A 9th grade single mom called me, distraught. “I know my son has attention problems,” she said, “and I don’t know what to do.” She went on to describe a history of rat-nest backpacks, forgotten homework, impulsive decisions and other familiar-sounding struggles.
My mind went back to those desperate ninth grade nights, when the red marks would start showing up on the online grading system. Until then, we’d believe our son was doing just fine. All the teachers would just tell us what a pleasure he was to have in class, and for the most part, he liked school and understood what he was learning. But in spite of his good attitude and a good work ethic, his world was crumbling around him and he couldn’t see it. He wanted to take care of things himself, but when we’d open his binders, it was like peering into the abyss. We’d help by sorting papers and trying to triage the problems. There were plenty of pep talks, but the feelings of overwhelm drained and distracted our whole family.
Enzo passed ninth grade only because he had two parents involved on his side in The Big Struggle — pushing through feelings of blame, shame, and resentment. I tried a few times to wake him up at 4am to finish his homework like Obama’s mom did for her son, but I couldn’t wake myself up-we all needed our sleep to prepare for the marathon of constant do-overs. Every single marking period was a white-knuckle ride, made worse when overworked teachers didn’t sound the alert until a few days before the end of the term. Every single report card caused a family blowup as our high expectations of our GATE-identified child were challenged again and again. We began to whisper, then say out loud, maybe he’s just a C student. By tenth grade we were much less hopeful…and completely exhausted.
“The reason that our son got a 504 plan,” I explained to this parent, “is that his grades were spiraling downwards, and we couldn’t keep him on track by ourselves anymore.” Other parents we knew had brought paperwork from specialists showing a learning disability, but their students were stonewalled from getting help — because in a public school, B students do not appear, mathematically, to need accommodations. This mom’s bright young quarterback had been to a private middle school on a scholarship, where differences were not seen as disorders. The teachers there had bent over backwards to help her charming son succeed-and not because they had a legal obligation to do so.
I gave her the best advice I could. A letter from the private school would help, but the sooner she could get her son a referral, the sooner the school would be on her side. “Tighten your seatbelts,” I said — hating what next came out of my mouth, but wanting to save her the pain we’d felt — “the sooner you can let him fail, the sooner you’ll get the help you need.”