Punishing children for poor grades

Answer by Isla Harlow:

The biggest mistake I have seen is one that ruins children’s relationships with their parents, and with learning. It greatly increases stress, which is terrible for health.

What is this mistake? Punishing children for poor grades.

It’s so common. That’s what kills me — so many people seem so sure that this works.

It doesn’t. Punish a child for receiving a poor grade and you have effectively destroyed them. (This is any kind of punishment — even just a stern talking-to.) A brief sampling of the consequences (from personal experiences with many affected children — a large sample-size):

  • Parental relationship breakdown. Children resent their parents for the punishment. This puts a stopper on communication and the relationship migrates to the doldrums. It’s horrible. I see it all the time. Kids whose parents punish them for grades hate their parents. They hide things from their parents. I talked to a girl this morning who admitted to once going to sleep at eight o’clock because her father was coming home at 8:30 and she had gotten a bad grade that day.
  • Worse grades. Yep. You read that right. Kids are so stressed about getting good grades that their marks decrease considerably. None of the kids I know who do well in school get punished for their bad grades. The struggling kids do. Stress does not improve performance. This is well-documented.
  • Stress. As mentioned in the previous point, these kids stress about everything. They often stay up till ungodly hours studying before an exam, and then are not only worried but sleep-deprived — a terrible terrible combination. Stress is horrible for your health — this too is well-documented.
  • A warped opinion of learning. These kids hate school. They can’t imagine learning for fun — learning and school result in punishment, and that’s not fun.
  • A warped opinion of failure. The school system teaches kids to hate failure. And yet with enough resilience (and support from parents), some kids manage to escape this damaging view. Parental punishment for bad grades teaches them to hate it even more. A poor test score makes these kids think, “My parents are going to kill me,” (figuratively), rather than “What could I have done better?” I had this conversation with two people today.

I could go on. This is a terrible thing to do to your child. Really.

So how to stop it? Simple! Don’t tie your opinion of your child to their grades. I don’t even think my parents know how to access my grades. (EDIT: My mom says she does know how to get them, but she’s never looked. I guess that cancels out? *END EDIT*) They have never once brought it up themselves. (I’ve told them about my grades — good and bad — just because I thought they might be interested. They generally aren’t, but I keep them updated anyway.)

I am a happy and well-rounded person. I have an excellent relationship with my parents. I love learning and I am doing my best to love failure. (It’s coming along.) EDIT: I also do well in school. At least my peers seem to think so, since they voted me Best Student in this year’s yearbook. *END EDIT*

Teach your children that failure is a good thing — it enables learning, and learning is awesome! (I’m a teen — the only adjectives I’m allowed to use are “awesome” and “cool.” My apologies.) If your child fails at something, discuss their mistakes, why they made them, and how to do better in the future. Don’t punish them.

Please. Please.

This has come up a few times in comments. There is an important distinction between helping your child do well and punishing your child for doing poorly. If a child’s grades are below their capabilities, there is a reason. Maybe they don’t understand the concept (seeing the teacher might help), maybe their study habits are skewed (I recommend evaluating the issue and correcting it), or maybe their test-taking skills need work (often stress- or time-related — both can be worked on).

Whatever the problem is, isolating it and working to remedy the issue so that it won’t be a problem in the future is a far better solution than simple punishment. (It might even allow your child to see how to approach problems that crop up in other areas.)

If you don’t think your child is performing to the best of their abilities, there are better motivations than punishment.

Several people were confused as to how I define punishment. I think my dictionary’s first definition suffices (from Merriam-Webster):

1 a  : to impose a penalty on for a fault, offense, or violation

This is a parent inflicting a consequence on a child for a specific behaviour (i.e. receiving a grade that is considered “unacceptable”).

What are some common mistakes parents make with raising their children?