My kid recently bombed a Big and Important Test. It happens to all of us at some point. I certainly bombed a test or two in my day. OK, let’s be honest, I’ve bombed plenty of tests—and not just the written kind.
I’ve gotten Fs—note the plural. I’ve been fired from a job. Backed my car into more than one inanimate object. Been divorced not once but twice. My life is salted with screw ups of various gradations.
I generally don’t need someone to help me feel bad about my failures. I’m pretty good at beating myself up on my own. Yet, as a mother, I want my kid to know that failing a test is something to be taken seriously. “I tried my best” is not always good enough. Failure needs to be seen as an indication that more work is needed next time, and I want my kid to be rather frantic to improve, but I don’t want to crush his soul.
I’m not going to sit by and watch my kid fail. But, let’s be honest, he is the one who has to actually do the work.
The question on how to motivate people—whether pint-sized humans or members of corporate America—has been written about extensively. Motivational speaking is big business, but I’ve not found a clear consensus on what actually works.
I’ve seen plenty of kids and adults get so discouraged at things that are hard that they give up. They can’t see themselves as succeeding so why bother?
That’s the root of parenting decisions—how to help our kids succeed.When do we come down hard on them, when do they need hugs and reassurance? I sat there holding my kid’s test in the same place of indecision that my mother once occupied, that mothers all over the world have occupied. My kid is in fifth grade—middle school is creeping up at an alarming rate. How will this test—and no, it wasn’t a little five-question pop quiz—define my son’s future?
I can’t afford to mess this up.
Concurrent with this Big and Important Test were the issuance of recommendations for middle school class placement. I met with his teacher, wondering how I should view next year’s curriculum in light of this terrible test score. Mrs. M gave me the answer I was seeking: I was questioning my child. Mrs. M hadn’t lost faith in him.
I sat down with my son after school. He asked about the big test. I told him he didn’t do very well. He wasn’t surprised. Then I told him 5 important words:
I told him that our current plan isn’t working, and it is going to take hard work to turn it around. I know he can succeed, and I realize he needs help in order to do so—more help than I can give on my own. This test doesn’t define him, but my faith in him comes with a tutor and a plan. I didn’t yell or chide, or ground him. Instead, I affirmed that I know he can do this, and I know he can’t do it alone.
My kiddo didn’t complain about the extra work. He didn’t try to talk me out of it. He seemed relieved that he didn’t have to pretend that he was doing fine anymore. He saw that my knowing that he struggled didn’t mean I loved him less. It just meant I had to find him the right support.