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Excuse-making by School Children

What teachers and parents need to do.

My last column on "Blaming the Victim" was a departure from my usual emphasis on improving learning and memory. But it did set the stage for this current post on the crippling effect of allowing children to make excuses for underperformance in school.

Most of us know how common it is for kids to make excuses ("the dog ate my homework" syndrome). When we adults were young, we also probably made excuses, blaming the textbook, the teacher, the school, and whatever else could serve to avoid facing the real causes of the problems.

Why do kids do that? The main reason is their fragile egos. Confronting personal weakness is especially hard for kids because they are embedded in an adult culture that inevitably reminds them that they are relatively powerless kids.

I remember a recent dinner-table conversation with my competitive 6th grade granddaughter, who was complaining about a test in which some of the questions were not aligned well with the instruction, which itself was deemed confusing. I said, "I understand that others did do better than you on the test. Wasn't everybody facing the same handicap?" No answer. Then I added, "It doesn't matter who the teacher is or what instruction you get. If you are not first in the class, it is your fault." Again, no response.

W. R. Klemm
Source: W. R. Klemm

One approach that parents and teachers use is to bolster children's egos by praising them richly and often. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Too much praise makes kids narcissistic. Anybody who is not aware of the raging narcissism in today's youngsters must not be around young people very much. The most obvious sign is the compulsive checking of e-mail and texting, all in an effort by a child to be at the center of attention.

I and other professors notice narcissism in college students. In a selective college, most students think they are "A" students, and because of low standards in secondary school and grade inflation they are actually told they are A students. If they don't make A's in college, it is somebody else's fault (usually the professor).

Scholars are beginning to address this growing narcissism. Eddie Brummelman at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and his colleagues studied 565 children between the ages of 7 to 12. They picked this age group because most other such studies have been in adults, and they believed that early adolescence is when children develop narcissistic traits such as selfishness, self-centeredness, and vanity.

Over 18 months, the children and their parents were given several detailed questionnaires that were designed to measure narcissistic traits and parental behavior. There was a small but significant link at each stage between how much parents praised their children and how narcissistic the children were six months later. Because the effect was only small, it suggests that other things also make children selfish and self-centered. I suspect the effect is larger in the U.S.

Maybe school culture is part of the problem. As in Lake Woebegon, "all kids are above average." For brighter students, the instructional rigor is so low that these kids get a false sense of how smart they are and how easy it is to be an "A" student.

I suspect that another factor is that students are not taught enough about how to be realistically self-aware. They may not even know when they are making excuses unless adults call them on it. Too often, parents side with the student in criticizing a teacher when the real problem is with the child.

Some of the blame shifting comes from biology. It is in human nature to claim ownership of things we do that turn out well, but disown actions that yield negative consequences. Experiments support this conclusion. The most recent experiments had a primary focus on our sense of time in association with voluntary actions. The experimental design was based on prior evidence that the perceived estimate of time lag between when we do something and when we think we did it is an implicit index of our sense of ownership. Investigators asked people to press a key, which was followed a quarter of a second later by negative sounds of fear or disgust, positive sounds of achievement or amusement, or neutral sounds. The subjects were then asked to estimate when they had made the action and when they heard the sound. Timing estimation errors were easily measured by computer. Subjects sensed a longer time lag between their actions and the consequences when the outcome (the sound) was negative than when it was positive.

Teaching Kids to Deal with Failure

There is a common denominator to most self-limiting styles of living. It is a fear of failure. Children express this fear by making excuses, which has the unintended effect of blocking the path to success. Excuses may provide immediate relief of anxiety, but it creates a self-limiting learning style that assures continued underachievement.

Whatever one’s station in life, one axiom is paramount: for things to get better for you, you have to get better. This point is well illustrated in an inspiring rags-to-riches success book by A. J. Williams. He points out that a main reason that people do not make the changes they need to is that they are afraid of failure. But, paradoxically, learning from failure is how many people turn their lives around and become happier. Children, I have noticed, are highly resistant to personal change, maybe more so than adults. I am dismayed at how often I show children how to memorize more effectively and they just can't bring themselves to study in a different way. It is as if they don't believe me enough to even try new approaches. Or maybe they have convinced themselves they are mediocre and need the shield of excuses to keep others from detecting their weaknesses.

Louis Armstrong, the famous trumpeter, told an instructive story about fear from when he was a boy. One day when his mother asked him to go down to the levee to fetch a pail of drinking water, he came back home with an empty pail. Upon noticing the empty pail, his mother said, “I told you to bring back a pail of water for us to drink. How come your pail is empty?” Louis replied, “There’s an alligator there, and I was scared to death.” His mother then said, “You shouldn’t be afraid. That gator is as afraid of you as you are of him.” To which Louis answered, “If that’s the case, then that water ain’t fit to drink.”

If there is an alligator keeping you away from what you need to do, have faith you will prevail over your demons. But as long as a child lets fear get in the way, her pail will stay empty.

Other kinds of fear are also self-limiting. Many children fear commitment to learning. Commitment exacts an emotional price requiring dedication, passion, and self-discipline. Children fear confusion and difficulty. They fear disapproval.

Kids need to put their under-performance in perspective. Failure and under-achievement are not permanent. They are not pervasive reflections of inadequacy. Children can acquire learning skills that lead to success. Unfortunately, schools don't teach much about learning skills, being focused on teaching to high-stakes tests.

Kids need to recognize their weakness and strive to fix them. But to bolster their motivation and general attitude about school, they need to recognize what they have done well and strive to do even more of that. Dwelling on under-performance is counter-productive.

The Most Important Thing Kids Need to Learn

Excuse-making prevents a child from developing the attitude that will best serve them throughout life: a sense of personal efficacy, a state of perceived control over one's life. I explain this more thoroughly in my book, "Blame Game, How to Win It." But a summary here will have to suffice.

How children perceive their personal power determines how much effort they will expend to control their lives. If they lack a genuine sense of power, excuse-making applies salve to their wounded egos. Self-efficacy is not the same as self-esteem. Psychologist, Albert Bandura, puts it this way: “Perceived self-efficacy is concerned with judgments of personal capability, whereas self-esteem is concerned with judgments of self-worth.” Both are important for happiness, but it is perceived self-efficacy that drives academic achievement. One practical application where this distinction is apparently not recognized is with school teachers who think the cure for low achievement in school is to foster self-esteem. Teachers should emphasize self-efficacy. Children learn self-efficacy from teachers and parents who enable them to master their environment. Students who are filled with self-doubt do not put much effort into school work. They make excuses. As kids are progressively given the skills to achieve, they develop a sense of confidence in their ability to succeed, which will motivate them to strive for more achievement. When I was a kid, I only became a good student when I discovered, more or less by accident, that I could make good grades. Discovering that I could make good grades if I tried motivated me to do just that. This sense has to be earned. It does not come from excuses.


Brummelman, Eddie, et al. (2015). Origins of narcissism in children. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1420870112

Klemm, W. R. (2008). Blame Game. How To Win It. Bryan, Tx.: Benecton.

Yoshie, et al. (2013). Negative emotional outcomes attenuate sense of agency over voluntary actions. Current Biology.