Homeschool, Homeschool high school
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Failures Make Your Homeschool Student Better If You Understand These 7 Things

We cheat our students when we don't let them fail.

Do you want to know what is hard about homeschooling high school? Taking a giant step back and letting your student fall flat on his face a few times.

Letting your student fail is really hard. It’s a unique struggle you can’t really prepare for emotionally or even anticipate realistically until the scenario sneaks up on you. Then you will make one of the most crucial decisions of your child’s education when you least suspect it.

Will you help him cram for the test the night before when he didn’t study all week?

Will you do the second and third edits of his paper for him when you know it’s a significant portion of his grade?

Will you feed him the questions to his history test ahead of time?

Will you give him second, third, fourth tries to get the math problem right?

Will you allow him to cheat with no consequences?

When our children are young, it seems easy to say “no” to those questions. But when the sixteen year old is working on that transcript and college tuition looms large and the facebook friends are boasting of the 4.0 GPAs, will you still take a deep breath, walk away, and let him fail?

I fear that we as a homeschool community are the ones failing. We are failing to hold our children to a higher level of honesty. We are failing to hold one another to a high standard of academic honesty.

We fail each and every time we give the undeserved A.

We cheat our students when we don't let them fail. While we boast of homeschooling’s superiority — and we should — and brag about homeschool graduates’ successes — which we should — and celebrate the accomplishments of homeschoolers who make an impact on their community and the world — which we must — we cannot ignore the signs of danger in our midst. Unless we stem the tide of academic laziness, irresponsibility, and dishonesty, we may find our freedoms lost due to our own negligence.

We have it in our power to make the change. It is a change that will restore the credibility of our teaching while strengthening our students, better preparing them for college, career, and life.

It’s a win-win!

Let them fail.

Failure is not bad — it’s good. It is through failure that the Lord molds us out of our own flawed self-creation into His own, divine image. We must be broken, we must be fallen for Him to lift us up and create us wholly like Himself.

We may ascent to that spiritually, but living it academically with our own teens is difficult. I know, because I’ve cried many, many, many-many-many times myself over this lesson. But God used those times of despair to remind me of the very real, very important lessons He will teach my student if I just get out of the way and let him fail.

Failure is necessary for success.

It feels so counterintuitive not only to students but more so to their heavily-invested parent-teachers. But we simply must count the blessings and allow our students to fall down so they don’t miss these valuable lessons.

1. They need to fail to learn humility.

Did you ever have a friend in high school (or worse, in college) who had only ever gotten all A’s? Every single test, quiz, paper, project — all were near perfection? Did you like him very much?

Not hardly, right?! The words pompous jerk probably come time mind (excuse my French. Come to think of it, I met him in French class. Curses.). Mr. Know-It-All had not had his own work shoved down his throat often enough to recognize his own fallibility.

Our teens need to learn that, though they are indeed talented and good looking and smart and awesome, they do not have all the answers. Not yet. And it’s not until we mark the answers wrong in red and put the big percentage at the top that they begin to comprehend how much more there is to learn and how far there is to grow and how much more there is to understand.

2. They need to fail to learn to seek greater understanding.

One of the failures of home education is the small circle of teachers. It is too easy for students to learn an attitude of superiority if they only seek knowledge from their own research and their own parents.

We need more teachers than that.

Teens need to be shown their weaknesses and how to find help outside themselves. They must be brought to the realization that they do not have all the answers and that not all the answers can be found within their own household.

They must be taught to seek counsel from a multitude of counselors.

This was a great weakness in my own upbringing that my husband and I are intentionally working to reverse in our children. We don’t have all the answers to life’s problems, whether they be mathematical or occupational or societal or marital. God has provided other wise and caring adults in our lives to give us the support we need and the answers we seek.

So we’re teaching our teens — and regularly encouraging them — to look outside our home for advice. And by the high school years, there are already plenty of opportunities to seek advice — advice for college, entrance exams, driving schools, jobs, boy/girl problems, and personal disagreements. We spend a lot of time pointing out the counselors God has provided our teens, even though we often don’t agree 100% with the advice they give. Because it’s not good advice unless it’s different advice [I have a lot to say on this subject, so I’d better write another article about it.].

3. They need to fail to learn from their mistakes.

The other day, my teen took me for a ride in his truck to go get soda. He had found a great deal at Racetrack in which he bought an $8 plastic travel cup to get unlimited free refills for the next six weeks. That’s quite exciting for a teen guy.

So he drove me a couple miles away to show me the awesomeness of his find. He said he wanted to try two different routes to and from the convenience store to see which way was faster. I knew there was only one direct route, and told him so. But he insisted he had to try them both to see for himself.

So we took the direct route to the store, marveled at the vast array of soda options, then jumped back in the truck to come home. The teen driver declared now was his opportunity to try route B home. But, alas, there was no left turn out of the convenience store parking lot, and there was no room to make a U-turn at the intersection, so it would take another quarter of a mile out of the way just to embark on route B. Defeated, he drove home the right way. And his ever-wise, ever-humble mother said, “Told you so.”

Nothing daunted, the teen declared that next time, he would take route B on the way to the convenience store just to make sure it wasn’t shorter.

“Because I only learn from my own mistakes. You know that, Mom. I have to see for myself.”

We all learn most powerfully from our mistakes. We can be told what’s right and wrong, but it doesn’t become real until we actually do it. It doesn’t become cemented until we travel the road along or clean up the mess from our own ill-conceived notions.

If we rob our students of the opportunity to fail, we rob them of the most powerful lessons of their lives, the lessons they want to learn for themselves.

4. They need to fail to learn honesty.

Nothing tests the character like failure. If you aren’t sure, watch the news reports and watch those accused of illegal acts or immorality. Listen to the testimony of those charged with white-collar crime or political folly. Rarely if ever will you find honesty.

When we face the hot water of failure, the tea bag of our heart thins to reveal the flavor of our true ingredients, the values and character we actually contain. The ingredients posted on our advertising label no longer matter; our taste is tested.

Like every test, practicing early and often achieves the best results. No one enjoys failing any more than he enjoys taking the ACT or SAT. But practice makes perfect, and with repeated stumbles a student can become increasingly accustomed to saying the magic, healing words.

I’m sorry. I failed to do what I knew I should have. I will take steps to make it right, and here is how I will guard against this happening again. I have learned from this experience and don’t want to make this mistake again.

Our students can’t practice that — nor can we — unless they fail.

5. They need to fail to learn how to progress.

Consider two fictional students for a moment. They are both taking the same course and the same tests. Here are their five test scores.

Student 1

  • 98%
  • 99%
  • 100%
  • 100%
  • 100%

Student 2

  • 78%
  • 64%
  • 81%
  • 85%
  • 93%

Which student showed clear progress over the course? Which student do you think celebrated their last test the most? Which student do you think learned the most?

Which student learned how to overcome and master the material?

Which student should most make their parents proud?

Hard courses and tough grades are opportunities for slow-but-sure progress forward toward mastery. That is what life, what hard work, what real achievement is about. The student who learns to persevere, to make the incremental progress, to complete each step toward the goal will be better prepared not only for a lifetime of learning but for the more important work of his life!

6. They need to fail to learn how to persevere.

Life is hard. Adults — the mature ones — know there is no get-rich-quick, shortcut-to-fame, or easy street for success in what matters.

Relationships are hard.

Careers are hard.

Providing for a family is hard.

Worship is hard.

Art is hard.

Anything worth doing well takes a lot of time, sweat, and tears. There are roadblocks. There are trials. There are disappointments. There are tragedies.

It takes character, vision, strength, and endurance to push forward to the end. That’s why we celebrate golden anniversaries, graduations, and grandchildren. That’s why publications, buildings, art, and performances are so exciting — they did it! They made it to the end!

We must not give our students the impression that their life’s work will be a piece of cake, and easy A. They don’t deserve more ease than the teen across the street or across town or across the country. Like everyone else, they must work hard and persevere to finish the race.

7. They need to fail to learn to appreciate success.

An easy success, then, doesn’t really mean anything, does it? If the course is the equivalent of a no-cut sports team, the final grade is no meaningful award.

By the same token, a hard-won grade in a strenuous class is a badge of honor to be truly celebrated. The student enjoys the relief of completion, the pride of accomplishment, and the satisfaction of a job well done.

There is no substitute for that.

To be good teachers, we need to be brave enough to let our students fail and wise enough to clearly point out the way to succeed.


    • It’s actually not original to me. Jim Berg used it in his book on discipleship, Changed into His Image. But I’ve found references to similar analogies in earlier writings on character, too. It’s an interesting thought, that how we respond is how we are in truth.


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