You Can Do It!

If my gracious readers can accept yet another marathon analogy, I respectfully ask them to plod through the initial sentences of this post; I promise to make a point about your children and your children’s education. Eventually. First though, join me for a thought experiment regarding that deep-seated, enduring foolishness that occurs at Mile 20 both on the course and next to it.

With six miles to go, many runners are internalizing the truism that “the race begins now.” Their bodies, having used up their allotment of glycogen and good sense, are “running on empty”, hoping to achieve by force of will what is no longer physiologically likely. Some are on the way to a transplendent celebration of the human spirit and a well-deserved banquet of food and congratulations; some are on the way to the medical tent with spikey fevers and IV glucose solutions.

Consider the spectators cheering their lungs out and waving those wonderful, hand-made signs. “You can do it!” “You got this!” “Pain is fatigue leaving the body!” It is hard to imagine anything more fun except for the posters that go beyond simple encouragement to wickedly clever: “Run like you stole something!” “I hear there is bacon at the finish line. Hurry!” And my favorite, “Great job, random stranger!”

“Pain is temporary; pride is forever” is inspiring for those runners for whom the finish line is attainable, for those who have to suck it up, guts it out, and overcome a couple more clichés to stagger bloody but unbowed to the finish line.

But what about those who can’t make it? What about those participants who, at Mile 20, are no longer runners, but staggerers? What about the competitors who are prostrate on the asphalt, their hamstrings twitching uncontrollably, their bodies shut down? Will even the hilarity of the placard proclaiming, “You think this is tough? Try growing out bangs” be enough to get them up and running again?

Of course not. Even “Beast mode” painted in day-glow colors does nothing for an insentient runner.

Does the runner sprawled convulsing on the sidewalk not KNOW that the finish line is six miles that way? Is there some INFORMATION that would be helpful? Perhaps the runner didn’t hydrate properly, maybe the runner didn’t train perfectly, maybe-this is frequently the case-the runner ran the first 20 miles too fast.

But at this point in shut-down mode, it just doesn’t matter. There is nothing anyone can do or say to get the runner up and going. Maybe he can guts it out and limp the last ten kilometers, but running at the pace of the previous 20 miles is out of the question. No amount of “You can do this!” is going to matter.

Now imagine an 11th grade student who has failed second year algebra for the second time. Tommy has been to see his patient teacher for extra help; he has attended every review session; he has patiently done homework and worked assiduously with a private tutor. Yet his exams results remain lower than the proverbial snake’s belly in a wagon rut.

The asymptotes of the hyperbola (y = +/- a/b x, as you doubtless remember) are still Sanskrit. Maybe Tommy has learning differences. Maybe he has issues with spatial reasoning. Maybe he shouldn’t be in algebra II because of his poor background in algebra I. What is to be done?

Well, you could try yelling at him. That’s what many misguided parents do. You could make placards and hold them up while Tommy studies. “May the course be with you” becomes even cleverer when applied to math classes rather than the roads from Hopkinton to Boston. You could be supportive; you could be punitive; indeed, you could stand on your head for all the difference it would make. The fact of the matter is not everyone can get though algebra II just like not everyone can run through all five boroughs of NY.

The tricky bit of course is that the direction of the causal arrow gets reversed. Just like runners twitching on the sidewalk have been known to be ungracious even to the most thoughtful care providers, kids who are berated, poked, prodded, “motivated,” and insulted about their performance in math can be miserable to live with. Failing kids can be snarky and turn to prevaricating: “We don’t have any homework;” “I got an A on my test.”

And who could blame them?

When your child doesn’t perform, consider “can’t” rather than “won’t” as an explanation.

And it’s not that he needs more information either. Telling a student “your mother and I expect you to do well in math class” is as helpful as telling a runner with a broken leg that “the finish line is that way.” Really? Is there any doubt in your mind that your child doesn’t KNOW he’s supposed to get good grades?

Nobody ever woke up in the morning and said, “I know what I’ll do: I’ll flunk math to annoy my parents” any more than anyone ever lined up in the dark 26.2 miles from somewhere thinking “it would really bother the people who care about me if I start convulsing and barfing six miles from the end of this race.”

Thinking “can’t” rather than “won’t” is the first step toward finding a workable solution.

5 thoughts on “You Can Do It!

  1. Michael Kelly

    As a miserable math student and hitting the proverbial wall at mile 21 during my first and only marathon, I concur wholeheartedly with the fact that can’t and won’t are mutually exclusive. Thank you for a reminder and a helpful cautionary tale for parents and placard-toting cheerleaders alike!

  2. Jason Wynkoop

    Well put. Our team invests a good deal of time in sorting through how best to support each student by analyzing how much of a problem seems to be attributable to a skill issue (can) and how much to the student’s will (want to). Most problems are a combination of the two and it’s a wise person who understands that passing a particular course or even succeeding professionally at all costs may be possible, but is also possibly a Pyrrhic victory. Parents who push for their child to trod a very particular path often end up with even less: a child who doesn’t succeed and a relationship in tatters–no victory in that.

  3. Claire Law

    I agree that kids aren’t out there to disappoint their parents, and if they don’t get good grades it’s not because they have an option. Treat them as you would like to be treated: with respect! It’s humiliating enough for kids to not do well in a class, or to not make the school sports team when they enjoy walking around school in their blazer that says “soccer”. I see too many kids who are stressed out beyond belief and truly need more support – whether academic, emotional or otherwise. This can lead to many unhealthy behaviors. It’s tough to be a teen. Let’s cut them a break!

  4. Jim Buckley

    Very nicely done – very humorously and accurately describing the problem.
    So now that the problem is defined what’s the fix?
    It takes a lot more than cheerleading and/or berating to change the outcome.
    I contend that the line between “can’t “and “won’t” is greatly blurred in the mind of a teenager. As parents we must walk the fine line between preparing them for the real world that shows no mercy for failure and patiently encouraging them to do try alternatives to past failures. Quiting/giving up is the go to option for nearly every teenager. Getting past ” I Cant” is is real challenge.


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