The Life Lessons That Hurt (AND Help): Here’s Why NOT To Save Your Kids From Failure

By Debby Shulman

Why is it so hard to watch our kids fail? Whether it’s on the ball field or in school, watching them falter and trip again is one of the most frustrating emotions we feel as parents. It is so hard just letting them live through the journey of failing … but the truth is, we have all failed at something and survived to tell the tale. Taking the attitude of if they’re failing, it must be because of something I did  that is simply naïve. If I rescue them just this once, it will keep them (and me) from having that awful feeling of not doing the right thing.  Trust me, I know and recognize the sincerity in that statement, but …

The hard truth is that by saving our kids from failure, we are only setting them up for disaster down the road.

So, here’s the true tale of what happens when you stay out of it – the English paper, the history final and completely blowing the last inning of the most important game. Spoiler alert: There is no Disney ending here, save for the lesson learned and the money happily spent on a bottle of Balvenie 15-year single malt scotch. Served clean. Rinse. Repeat.

“Lizzie McGuire” had an important history exam about three weeks ago. She studied, she conquered, and she went in prepared. About halfway through the exam, the “Mean Queen” of the freshman class (we’ll call her “Regina George”) eyeballed Lizzie’s paper and decided that it looked better than hers, so she proceeded to blatantly cheat for the rest of the exam. Of course, there was a substitute that day, and of course, there were those in the class eager to see Regina George fall – so they rightfully told the teacher … BUT mine was busted too.

Devastated, she came clean.

Spilling her story, truthfully admitting that she indeed knew The Queen was copying but was so intimidated by the potential, evil repercussions, she ALLOWED it to happen.

Not up for being the target Tweet of the week?  Not interested in being called out in the cafeteria?  Not game for reliving that scene from the movie “Carrie” when she’s at the prom? Nope – mine took the road-of-least-resistance and allowed it to happen. And now she was in Big Trouble, and there was very little I could do about it.

Our advice?  Tell the teacher the truth, the real one. Lizzie McGuire was fully aware that she was allowing her test answers to be seen and copied and while this was cheating, she had her reasons. And, while those understandable reasons did not by any means excuse her behavior, they sure as hell gave a pretty clear picture of why there was no gentle covering of the paper, curving of the arm around the test, or the favored cupped hand on the Scantron sheet.

Mean Queens still make me shiver … I can’t walk into a crowded auditorium without scoping out and assessing where Your Highness is seated and I’M ALMOST 50 YEARS OLD.

No arguments, dear readers. You are all aware of your own Mean Queen – and so you all understand why my Lizzie McGuire did what she did.

We suddenly found ourselves in a really bad place, or for that matter, our daughter did. Forced to re-take the exam, the teacher offered up a test that was more of a Ph.D. dissertation than anything I’d ever seen. While she was understanding and compassionate to the reasons behind the cheating, she was not going to go down without letting her students know what the repercussions of cheating involved.  I can assure you, nobody passed that test.

It was her divine right to handle it any way she chose; rather than sending the guilty parties to the dean (where they would have incurred a much greater punishment), she handled it beautifully … but with a dangerously, serious message:  If you cheat, you will fail.

And, they did.

Nothing like seeing a big F on an exam you otherwise would have gotten an A on to make you feel not so hungry and just a little weepy on a Friday afternoon.

And at first, I felt humiliated.  But then I realized the truly great lesson in all of this (please refer to paragraph 2 where I mention the single malt scotch) was that it was NOT my lesson to learn.

I coached from the sidelines, but I did not run to school. I did not threaten, and I did not call my dear friend on the school board.  I let the chips fall where they may, and I am assuming Lizzie McGuire will get a C in a course where she would have otherwise have gotten an A.

And in the big scheme of things, I think it’s going to be okay.

As she handed in the final exam, which was apparently similar to the LSAT, she told the teacher it was the hardest test she had ever taken … (short-term memory from the abomination only weeks prior), but that she did the best she could.  I disagree however, and here’s the part that I am willing to admit for the sake of honesty that I adhere to when telling my tales. My Lizzie bailed out on that exam. Demoralized after having been humiliated by the cheating incident, she checked out – completely let go of this class and what it had originally meant to her. She quit. She choose not to do what she needed to do for that exam and will forever suffer the consequences of doing so.

I could have thrown on my cape and rescued her; I had been saving students all week from the perils of finals. I could have insisted she show me her note cards, outlines and notes. I could have chained her to the kitchen table. But I didn’t.

Somehow my emotional GPS knew the road she had decided to turn on, and in my gut, I knew warning her of the trouble ahead was going to be ignored.

She didn’t want to hear what I had to say and she certainly did not want to utilize any of the help I was offering.  So, we let her fail.

Again, please reference paragraph 2.  It was hard to watch.

She will get the C.  I hope.  More importantly, she will never do this again, I can promise you that. And what did that wonderful teacher do when my daughter handed in that disaster of a history final? She grabbed her and hugged her long and hard and made her promise to come visit, stay in touch and be true to who she was. Never cave to the Mean Queen, but have the strength to suffer the social consequences of doing the right thing because it feels good and true. She kissed her cheek and squeezed her one more time and sent her on to her next exam.

Can you imagine a better lesson for a teen?

Love them hard, but teach them well.  Always discipline with affection and hard, authentic love because it speaks volumes about their ability to pick up/start over.

Lizzie McGuire will have a C.  She will go to a good school, and she will have learned an incredible lesson that we could have never provided if we had not stayed out it.

Reference paragraph 2.  It wasn’t easy, it never is.

Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare:  Debby Shulman is a college essay consultant and academic tutor with a private practice in Northbrook, Illinois.  She also professionally collaborates with Amy Simon College Consulting in Bannockburn, Illinois.  Debby also blogs about Motherhood/Teen issues for Your Teen magazine (www.yourteenmag.com). Check out her valuable advice. 


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