When you try, but you don’t succeed, what then?

This morning, after breakfast, Albus practiced piano. He always checks with me before getting a sticker, to make sure he’s earned it. Which is awfully sweet. He’s a good kid. Except this morning I really didn’t think he’d earned it. He kept rushing the half-note, always the same mistake in the same place. So I asked him to play the song again, with that in mind. I suggested playing the difficult spot several times over, with the correct notes and timing. But all he wanted was to hack his way through the song and be done with it, regardless of notes and timing.

Then we looked over his dictee results. In French, his teacher had written: “You need to study.” Things is, he’d studied. A fair bit. He’d sat down several evenings last week and worked on his homework, including studying for this dictee. He’d shown me his worksheet. I knew it was true. But the proof wasn’t there in the final test results.

As we were having this conversation, and I was offering more advice re efficient piano practice, Fooey happened by with a question. Albus was extremely rude to her. I reprimanded him. He pushed her. ie. things went from bad to worse, and quickly. I sent him upstairs on a time-out.

Why does he need to act like this? the thought half formed as I raced around the kitchen and cleared the breakfast dishes and wrote a cheque for AppleApple’s sub order and helped Fooey ready her bag for school and tried to remember all the details that needed to get done in the next eight minutes before everyone would leave and the house would go suddenly quiet, and I would eat breakfast and pour a cup of coffee and greet this computer.

Why is he so angry?

And I found myself looking at this morning from his perspective, not mine. From his perspective, he got up and got dressed and ate breakfast and then he practiced piano. And even though he practiced, it wasn’t good enough, and he couldn’t make it better, and he felt frustrated. And then his mother had to sign his dictee and he knew it wasn’t a great mark, and his teacher thought he hadn’t even studied. But he had studied. And he couldn’t make it better, and he felt frustrated.

I called him downstairs, and I said the above, an abbreviated version. He was quiet. Is that kind of how you feel? I asked, and he nodded.

I’m not sure how to make life better for him. Or easier. (Why do parents so often want to make life easier for their kids? But I do. Or not easier, exactly, just gentler.) What is the lesson, if hard work does not pay off in success? You know, it doesn’t always. Some people have to work much harder than others to achieve the very same level of success. I don’t want him to get frustrated, to give up, to not care.

I do want him to take responsibility for the choices he makes. I don’t particularly want to lower the bar.

But what if he’s trying, and it’s not working? Is the answer always: work harder? I’d feel frustrated, too.

The Week in Suppers: Reprised
Merci beaucoup, mes amis blogistes (totally made that last word up)


  1. Carmen

    My mom told me recently that she had never understood grades as a kid: sometimes she tried really hard and got a bad grade, sometimes she did nothing and got a good one. My perspective as a person who gives grades is that the teacher has a picture in their mind of a whole, and they are looking at your work and telling you how much of that whole you have. So if you start out with a lot of the whole, you might not have to work very hard to get the rest, but if you don’t have much at all, you might work really hard and still not get it all.

    The important thing is not to take it as an assessment of your effort (hard in this case, with the phrasing that his teacher chose) or as an assessment of your potential. A grade is a measure of how much of a particular body of knowledge you have; how close you are to a goal. If he needs to study French, it’s not because he’s bad at it, or because he didn’t try hard enough, but because it’s a really big whole that he doesn’t have very much of yet, and it’s going to take some work to get there.

    I don’t know if that perspective would help him any, but there it is if you want to use it 🙂

  2. Carrie Snyder

    Thanks, Carmen. I appreciate the perspective.

  3. Tricia Orchard

    I feel for him. I was always the kid/young adult who had to work really, really hard to make a decent grade. Often, the grades were just “okay” and that was very frustrating. My brother never seemed to do any work and he was always an “A” student.

    My mom was really good at leaving me notes of encouragement and they always made me feel so much better about everything. After my first year of university where I never partied and studied a lot, my grades were not that great and I was really discouraged. I moved home and found in my room a bouquet of flowers and a card from my mom. It was exactly the boost I needed.

    I guess that is all you can do…

  4. Carrie Snyder

    Tricia, I really appreciate your response. It gives me hope, and also an idea of how to help him, just by continuing to encourage him.

  5. m

    I was one of those kids who had it easy in school. The way I learned was exactly how the school system taught. I barely had to study, just show up. In turn, I have a terrible work ethic. If things don’t come easy to me, I drop them, think ‘why bother’? It’s shameful and I’m trying to change, but after many decades of this, it’s not so easy!

    My kids are still too young for me to know how they are going to do in school and what their learning styles will be like, but reading this my impulse would be to respond in this way:

    Remind Albus that while places like schools often have timelines on learning, life does not and it’s life that counts. If you want to learn something, you’ve got to work at it until you get it. Something might take overnight or it might take years, but when you get it, you’ll get it. However, if you give up, you will have lost it.

  6. Clare

    I don’t think the answer is “work harder,” I think it’s “work differently.” You’re absolutely right about how he should have approached the piano piece. What it took for my daughter was for her teacher to tell her that in front of me (more than once): “Your mother knows what she’s talking about. Listen to her. You are lucky she is able to help. Most students don’t have that.” The teacher is quite strict with her if she thinks she’s just banged her way through the pieces without working on the tricky bits. It also got better when she got past being 10, 11, 12…

    As for the dictée, is he studying verbally, writing down the words, using flash cards, mnemonics of any sort? I have four kids too and they all learn differently. It was trial and error to see what worked best. Good luck to you and to Albus!

  7. Fiona

    The answer may not be work harder but instead work differently. Fiacra (7) has a daily dictee in school. We were getting to a bad place with practise at home, almost as soon as he started, the moaning began. We were both getting frustrated. Now we sit at the table, I set the timer on my watch for 5 minutes, he works hard for 5 minutes and as soon as the timer goes off, he’s done. It has made a big change. He can learn quite a few words when he concentrates for 5 minutes. He’s willing to do it because he knows the time is so short. We fit in 5 minutes here and there during the evening.

    You might want to work with Albus and see what works for him, writing out the words, typing them out, playing them out on the piano?

    I definitely believe that more is NOT better, especially for the boys.


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