The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 32 Transcript

Jennifer Gonzalez, Host

Listen to the audio version of this podcast.


Gonzalez: This is Jennifer Gonzalez welcoming you to episode 32 of the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast. In this episode, I’m going to talk about how, and why, we should let our students fail.

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Gonzalez: When we see our children, our students, heading in the wrong direction, our first instinct is to stop them, to protect them from the pain that will inevitably follow from the bad choices they’re about to make. We may try to advise them first, to warn them, to steer them toward a different path, but if they keep going, what comes next? Do we rescue them at the last minute? Do we let them off the hook? Do we try to get the punishment revoked, or get the bad grade changed?

For some parents, the answer to all of those questions is yes and yes and yes, stop at nothing to protect our kids from pain. As teachers, many of us are probably familiar with the parent who begs or threatens to have a grade raised, who “helps” with homework using a very heavy hand, and who monitors their child’s academic work so closely we wonder if the kid even goes to the bathroom by himself.

But teacher and author Jessica Lahey says this approach is wrong, that protecting our kids from pain and failure ultimately damages them. Instead, we should be letting them experience the natural consequences of their choices as often as possible, even if, especially if, these consequences are upsetting. By letting them fall down, what we ultimately do is help them more quickly find the tools to pull themselves back up.

She explores this concept—which she calls autonomy-supportive parenting and teaching—in her book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. And in this episode, Jessica and I talk more about how we can support students’ autonomy at home and in the classroom.

This interview is just a supplement to a full review I did of the Gift of Failure on Cult of Pedagogy. To read that review and connect to Jessica’s website, go to, click episode 32, and you’ll be taken to a full review of the book, including links to other resources mentioned in this interview.

Before I play the interview, I want to thank everyone who has left a review for this podcast on iTunes. I know that when I’m looking around for new podcasts to listen to, I pay a lot more attention to the ones that have a lot of positive ratings, so if you’re enjoying the podcast, I would be grateful if you’d pop over to iTunes and leave a few kind words. And that’ll just bring more people to the podcast. Another easy way to support the show is to tell a fellow educator about it. And if you sense that they aren’t quite sure how one even listens to podcasts—take a few minutes and show them how to do it. There is so much great free learning and entertainment available through podcasts, but to a lot of people, accessing them is still kind of a mystery. So we can all help each other out and get more people listening to podcasts in general and it’ll just make the world a better place. So let’s listen now to my interview with Jessica Lahey.

Gonzalez: Jessica Lahey, you—and am I saying Lahey? Is that right?

Lahey: Uh huh, and you are like the only one, so that’s good. You are way ahead of things right now. Most people say la-hay or some other terrible thing like that.

Gonzalez: I heard someone say that recently and I thought “Oh, that’s not how I’ve been saying it.”

Lahey: Nope, nope, nope. You’re right.

Gonzalez: So for anybody who has never heard of the book, just give us a brief overview of what the gist of the book is.

Lahey: The gist of the book is I just noticed over teaching for you know plus, minus a decade, well for a little over a decade, that my students were getting more and more afraid of making mistakes. And more than that, they were afraid of not looking effortlessly smart all the time. And the gist of the book is what causes that and how we can turn it around. I mean really that was—And at the same time I was seeing it in my students I started to see it in my own children and I couldn’t just be mad at my students’ parents anymore. That was—My first instinct was, from my teacher head was, oh those darn parents, they’re ruining my students, making them harder to teach. But my kids were, you know, doing some of the same things that my students were doing, so I had to take a hard look at my own parenting and realize that I was doing the same thing to my own kids. So yeah, the book is very much about autonomy-supportive parenting and teaching and how we can help kids hear feedback and use it and how we can help kids get more resilient about taking emotional and intelligent challenges and risks.

Gonzalez: And so if I were to describe this book to somebody, and this is how I have been describing it—tell me if I’m correct—is that the earlier the better, we need to have—we need to allow our kids to fall down. And not try to prevent failure and hurt. You know beyond things that are catastrophic, we need to let them experience failure so that they can actually learn from it instead of trying to prevent it.

Lahey: Right. And model it for them. And put our money where our mouth is and actually model that for our kids as well. Let them see us do the same thing. Because we can talk about it all day long but if we don’t do it too, they get that we’re just paying lip service to the idea of being safe all the time. Yeah, we want them to—We want to encourage kids to take risks, but we also want to help them through it when they, when it messes, when it doesn’t go as planned. So.

Gonzalez: One of the things that I really liked about this book is when I first started to read it—and first when—I think when any parent hears the premise of, you know, you need to let your kids just fail more, it’s scary.

Lahey: And we use that word on purpose, because that word is really loaded. And scary. And and the implications are, it just makes parents stop and get sort of get a little oogey. But we did that on purpose, so…

Gonzalez: Yeah, it gets people’s attention for sure. And it’s—you know the thing is it—I think when somebody first hears these ideas I think their first thought is How? Do I just completely let go and just let the chips fall where they may? What I really liked about your book is that that’s really not it. You’re not stopping parenting, you’re—a lot of—You do give a lot of really practical tips in terms of—Okay, here’s what you don’t do, but here’s what you do do instead. And so…

Lahey: Well and if we just did stop—Number one, people have said this is laissez-faire parenting, but I actually think I’m a much more strict parent than I was before. And also if we just sort of dropped, you know, all the oversight and all the helping that we’re doing, that would be confusing as all get out for our kids. So no, it’s not just about stepping back and doing nothing. That would just be—That’s not good parenting.

Gonzalez: One of the things you talk about is—Like I’ve got, my kids are elementary now. My oldest is sixth grade. And you talk about not rescuing them if they forget an assignment at home. So I’m just going to dive right in and get some free advice from you because I haven’t quite worked out this one. So we’re driving to school this morning and I can hear my daughter in the back. She’s looking through her backpack and she starts to say “I left…” blank and I’m thinking “Please, please don’t say you left something at home.” Because they know that I work from home, that I’m five minutes away from their school, so it would not be hard at all for me. And I have dropped things off for them in the past. So my fear is she’s going to be at school thinking “My mom does not care about me because she could do this so easily.” So my only thought is—what, do I have a conversation with her ahead of time about ‘I’m not going to do this anymore’?

Lahey: Yeah, absolutely. You could even just start with the premise that there’s a school in Orlando that just set a rule saying that, you know, if you want an ally, say “Okay there’s a school in Orlando that made a rule saying that no one can drop anything off that kids forget because for a lot of reasons.” The school didn’t want to deal with it. It was getting overwhelming, but also think about it. If you—And this is a great way to start talking to your kids about socioeconomic differences. I mean, the parents that are free to just drop everything and take things to school are parents with access to transportation and parents who don’t do shift work and parents that don’t have to work every minute for minimum wage. So that’s not fair to the kids whose parents can just drop everything and bring the work for them. But in the book, I don’t know if you’ve gotten to it yet, but there’s the little story about my son and his homework and facebook. You know for me, that story—I talk about that story in my speaking engagements because you know if I had that momentary good feeling of “Oh, I really—I made my kid feel good. He got to go out for recess.” Then I get that ability to check off that box and say oh I did something loving and wonderful. And it probably would end up meaning a lot more to me than to him. But what I give up is that incredible breakthrough he had where he started keeping a checklist. His teacher said enough is enough, you have to come up with a strategy. And they came up with a strategy that day. And I am looking at my refrigerator now and the checklist—an improved version, he actually just changed it last week—an improved version of the same exact checklist is on my refrigerator now and a checklist has been on the refrigerator since that day. And it has changed—You know he doesn’t always remember everything. There’s stuff that gets forgotten. But he came up with his own strategy and if I had short-circuited it that day by taking him the homework, you know that never would have happened. I mean you can even say “Look, I’m trying to be a really good mom. And to me being a good mom means that I have to think about not just today, but tomorrow. And tomorrow are you going to remember your homework? Well if I bring it to you today than you might not remember it tomorrow because you don’t come up with a way to make yourself remember it tomorrow.”

So yeah, you can be that honest with kids. They get it. If you say Look, I can’t. You’re screaming and yelling and throwing yourself onto the floor. If I give into you now, that makes me not a good mommy because that doesn’t help you learn anything. And that may not make them happy, but kids, little, little kids can understand logic more than we give them the credit for.

Gonzalez: Right. You know, I think the point that you mentioned that it gives us a good feeling to do that thing for them, that I think that—I hope that that resonates with parents because it does. When I can rush over to the school and hand them the forgotten lunch, it’s such an easy way to serve your kids. And then you feel like I’ve done my good mom thing for the day. They must feel so comforted and so to grab that feeling and willfully push it away because you’re doing the harder thing. I think that’s so important.

Lahey: So in the talk that I do there’s a mention in there about lists in Parenting magazine, like questions to the pediatrician or whatever. And they’re always—They’re different questions but the gist of the questions always is “Am I a good parent?” and “Am I doing this parenting thing right?” And checking off that box in that moment where we make our kids feel loved and safe and rescued, that’s an easy way to check that box off. But as I say in my speaking engagements, you know that’s—My checklist in this moment may not be the important one. Maybe his is the more important one, the one that he comes up with under his power, with his own strategizing. And it’s not as if I’d never recommended a checklist before. I mean I’m a huge fan of checklists. But he had to come up with that as his own thing. And the day that he did that on his own, he was empowered to rescue himself. And you know my checklist, that whole “Was I a good parent?” box, you know that was a gimme. That would have been easy for me to check that one off that day, but you know I think something bigger was achieved in not being able to check that box off in the way I thought I had to.

Gonzalez:  You also talk about the parent portals. And I was so relieved when I got to this part because I honestly don’t even know how to access my kids’. I’ve honestly always gotten the information and my kids have always done pretty well so I’ve always just thought well—And when I saw that you recommended against parents even accessing that stuff because it’s surveillance of your kids’ grades…

Lahey: Which is negative extrinsic control.

Gonzalez: Yeah, so talk a little bit about that.

Lahey: Well, if you look at the evidence about extrinsic controls of kids, and that includes the positive stuff like, you know, the bribes and money for grades and lollipops and stuff like that, but the negative stuff as well, the control, the surveillance, the nagging, all that sort of stuff. That stuff over the long haul, it is really detrimental to learning and to long-term intrinsic motivation to do anything, to do anything we want them to do. And you know the problem is—Here’s the other caveat, power school and its ilk, there are benefits. If as one headmaster said to me recently, “Look, this thing is totally out of control. Parents are checking it way too much. They’re using it wrong.  If parents were using it right, if parents were using it in a way that was beneficial for the kid and the teacher and the parent, then we would not be having this conversation. But they’re not.” And so, you know, for maybe parents in the military, parents who for some really specific reason need to monitor a little more closely or need to feel connected to their kid, that it can be an okay thing.

Generally speaking though, I have gone straight out and said it and said it. I think it is one of the most detrimental things we have done to the parent-teacher relationship, the student, the parent-child relationship and the student-teacher relationship. Mainly because, well for teachers who use it, especially teachers who use it in a small town, and have to like see parents and see students out in public. This weird thing has happened where like if I go out and I haven’t entered grades into the system—and I’m not using it right now, but when this was happening before—you know there’s this kind of feeling like Why aren’t you at home doing that grading?, because you know, really need to see this stuff. And teachers I’ve talked to have said “Look, I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t because if I don’t put the grades in, I’m getting all kinds of emails saying ‘Why aren’t the grades in?’ And the minute I the grades are in, I’m getting all kinds of emails saying ‘Oh, I checked it two minutes ago and this grade looks like and blah blah blah.'”

But also for parents, parents who are checking that ten times a day, that to me means they are not talking to their kid. And they’re certainly not empowering their kid to be their own self advocate. So whether you choose the cold turkey solution that I went with, that my family went with, or you choose the sort of intermediate, you know, I’m going to check it on Friday, why don’t you check it before then. Say this to your kid. And we’ll have a conversation about what’s there together. When we check it together on Friday, you know, I think there’s, there are ways to handle it that are more sane than the way a lot of parents are using it right now.

It’s just—And the funny thing is when I say that, when I talk about how detrimental it is and how it affects relationships negatively, you can see a lot of parents sort of nodding and saying “Yeah, I was feeling that. I could—That I was sensing that and I just couldn’t put my finger on it.”  And it’s not like this has been around forever. It’s a new thing. We could peddle this back easier than you know if it’s—

The other thing that headmasters and teachers that I’m talking—headmasters in particular, and principals and superintendents that I’ve talked to. The majority of the ones I’ve talked to say that if there was one genie that they could put back in the bottle, it would be opening up the parent portal. And then there are a lot of headmasters and principals that I’ve talked to that say based on what I’m hearing from my colleagues out there that have opened it up, we’ve decided not to open it up because it’s just turned into a really negative thing. So you know I’m hearing from people who are really upset by how it’s affected their school community. And people who have taken stands. One headmaster in particular said “I’ll retire before I open this up. I think it’s a really negative thing to do to our school community. I won’t even open it up.”

Gonzalez: So I’m trying to put my mind into some—Of a parent who really relies on that right now. So suppose I’ve got like a seventh grade kid who has historically been forgetful and you know I keep track daily. I make sure the teacher sends a note home anytime anything is missing. My fear then is that if I don’t check then he’s going to start to drop assignments and then his grade is going to get worse and worse. So how do you speak to that parent to get them to let go of that fear and start on a different path?

Lahey: Right. Well, the very first thing that you need to do is realize that if you stop using it the right way, you can actually strengthen the relationship between the parent and the teacher. Because the right way to do it is to go to the teacher and say “Look, I have been relying on the portal to tell me when my kid is not getting stuff in. I’m going to stop doing that. So if things get forgotten in the beginning, you need to talk to my child and make sure that my child is owning that responsibility and owning the consequences. And please hold them to consequences for forgetting stuff. Don’t say No, no, no that’s fine, just do it later, whatever. Hold them to consequences so that from the very beginning they are feeling a little bit of pain from forgetting stuff. And then if things get really bad, if things are starting to spiral out of control and you’re getting worried, then you’re going to need to either e-mail me or pick up the phone and call me because I won’t know. If my kid does not tell me, I won’t know.” That is how we’ve always done things. This is not a new thing. I mean that, you know. It used to be if teachers noticed that a kid was spiraling, they would call the parent or pick up or whatever, or email or pick up the phone and call.

It’s just now that schools are starting to think “Oh, the parents are using the portal. I now don’t have to do that.” That’s where we’re getting into trouble. Someone told me recently that in order to register their kid for classes, they had to log on the portal. So it’s no longer an optional thing. And that’s where I’m getting worried because we should be able to opt out of something that is undermining our kids’ learning and not just our kids’ learning from an educational standpoint but you know from an academic standpoint, from an executive functioning standpoint, from an emotional standpoint from a responsibility and competence standpoint. We should not as parents be forced to opt in to a system that is not helping our kids mature.

Kids using it? Great. Go for it. Kids can check it all they want and find, you know, teachers make mistakes. Maybe we forgot to put something in there or something didn’t get graded or the kid sees it themselves and realizes, oh my gosh, I’m really in trouble now and I need to go talk to the teacher. But for parents, I think we need to keep our hands out just a little bit more. So like I said opening, keeping that channel open with the teacher from the get go and saying look, this is not something I choose to do with my kids. So I’m going to need to be informed actually from you if things start to spiral.

Gonzalez: So if a parent is really resisting—because I like that advice. It would definitely work for somebody who has accepted the idea of constant checking as detrimental. What if somebody has not even bought into that, is still saying “No, that is my job as a parent to keep checking.” How do you explain to that parent the damage that it is doing to their child to be checking constantly?

Lahey: Okay. Let’s pretend that you’ve had a job for, I don’t know, ten years. And you’ve had a boss that really trusts you. And that boss, you know sort of, you have got a relationship that you’ve worked on where you can work independently and your boss is not checking over your shoulder all the time. Now let’s say your boss retires and you get a new boss. And this new boss, you know, has asked you to keep your office door open and has asked you to you know…I’m just getting the lay of the land, why don’t you check in with me every Friday and tell me how you’re doing your job? And you know what, by the way I’m going to need to see your daily reports because I just want to make sure that you’re doing things the way I want you to do them. And all of these kind of things. So think about how frustrating that is to have to suddenly have someone looking over your shoulder and monitoring every single thing you do, giving you constant feedback, asking you to do it their way when maybe you’ve been used to doing it yourself. I mean from my perspective I’ve had that happen and I suddenly dig in my heels and get angry. And feel less, less concerned, less compelled to do the thing, to do my job for the sake of the job itself. Suddenly I’m doing my job for my boss. And that makes me less motivated to do my job. That makes me less invested in my work. And the quality of my work, you know it doesn’t make me a less competent person, but it does make me less interested in really investing.

And you know if you read Dan Pink or if you read Edward Deci, you’ll understand that what I’m talking about is the fact that these external motivators, these extrinsic controls, the surveillance, the control, the micromanaging, makes you feel less autonomous, makes you feel controlled. And it’s sort of human nature to push back against that and be less invested when you’re feeling that controlled. And that’s how our kids feel. And you know that, when I explain it that way to parents and I say—You know and I sort of put them in the position of their child, feeling micromanaged and therefore resentful and maybe a little rebellious and you know all that kind of stuff. It makes a little bit more sense. Because that system of checking in on the computer, that’s micromanaging and that’s controlling and that’s surveillance. And we just don’t—We’re not at our best under that kind of situation.

You can put it into a political analogy. You can put it into a work analogy. We don’t do well as a species when we’re constantly monitored and controlled. And teenagers in particular, not so good for them. You know I love the—Who was it? Oh, Laurence Steinberg has this great quote that I use all the time in his book Age of Opportunity about raising teens. His motto in that, this one particular chapter I love is “Permit when you can, protect when you must.” And so our default needs to be to let them, to give them a little bit of room to have some autonomy. Because if we want it—You know if we really want to foster intrinsic motivation and not be controlling them from exterior punishments and bribes and all that kind of stuff, we need to give them autonomy. We need to let them feel competent on their own. And we need to let them know that we’re connected to them, that we support them no matter what. No matter whether it’s a D or an A, as human beings we love them and we will support them. You know that’s sort of the basic foundation there. So helping parents understand why the portal is such a negative thing usually can tip them in the direction of starting to care.

Gonzalez: So let’s talk a little bit about the actual failure. And why—I know that one of the things that I saw, it reminded me of myself as a middle school teacher. We had a student who was in the gifted class and he did not achieve the B or the A that he had to, to stay in there. And I put the paperwork through to have him moved to the non-gifted class. That was the rule at our school. All of the parents had to sign a big paper at the beginning of the year. And everybody fought me on it. This kid was really, really smart and he was sort of willfully not doing his work. And I kept trying to convince the parents and even our guidance counselor that this is the time for him to be experiencing this, as seventh grader. Then he would—So just in general if I’ve got a kid and it looks like they’re heading down the wrong path, what is the benefit of me letting them hit some sort of a rock bottom as opposed to me rescuing them?

Lahey: It’s funny your story that you just told is almost identical to a story in the book, towards, at the very end of the book. You know a mom that I really respect. She, her son was was in a gifted—She had school choice, he had one of two schools. He was in the gifted school. And you know I’m obviously—I have to put aside for the sake of being able to have this conversation at all that you know we could talk about whether grades are an appropriate way to measure blah blah blah. We could talk about whether testing is an appropriate thing to be doing to kids. We could talk about whether gifted programs and labeling, blah blah blah. Let’s just stick with our scenario because there’s so many tangents we could talk about.

But her son was in a gifted program and he was not pulling his weight. He was doing a—He was being willful about it which is sort of you know what you were just talking about. And she said “Okay fine. This is now—Here’s what we’re going to do: You’re going to go spend a couple of days—Or maybe it was just one day, I can’t remember, at the alternative school. Here is what your day will look like if you fail out of the gifted program.” And it really was a substandard, sort of more rough and tumble. He was going to have fight for every little scrap of attention at that school. And she said, you know, this is your choice and if you’re going to not pull your weight, then that’s where you’re going to have to go to school. And he didn’t want to go to school there after that day. And so she said “Fine. If you want this, this is your thing to retain or lose. And I’m not going to be picking up the pieces. And I’m not going to be saving you anymore.”  And that was a couple of years ago, and he’s still—I keep in touch with her and he’s still doing great. He’s still owning his own education and is—They asked for a probationary semester. I said, “Look, make a deal with the school. You all know he’s not doing what’s up, you know what’s up to snuff. He’s not pulling his weight. So ask them for a favor. Ask them for a probationary semester and if he pulls his weight then he can stay. And luckily he stayed. So for her, luckily it worked out well. But it was in direct response to him being given more autonomy over you know, and actually seeing what was at stake.

And I think we just don’t let kids see what’s at stake very often. We don’t say “Look, here’s what things are going to look like if you—” Or even let them feel it. With a teacher in particular, I think that we tend to deliver the homework or, you know, do an end run and tell— I’ve seen parents come to school and tell a teacher “You may not discipline my child unless you ask me first.” And we see parents doing that, getting an end run around the teacher and not letting the teacher hold the kid to consequences. As you know, in middle school in particular where there’s so many great opportunities to mess up in all these important ways, you know especially in the atmosphere of middle school where we give them more than they can handle. And then that short circuits our ability as teachers, as educators to hold kids to consequences and help them learn a better way to do things. So, oh man, it is so scary to see your kid screw up. And it’s so scary to get to the point really where what you’re talking about is the kid having to repeat a class or go to summer school or repeat a grade even. But at the same time, I was talking to someone recently whose kid is going to have to repeat eighth grade and he’s mortified, And I—We started talking about his kid and I said you know what, for this kid I think repeating eighth grade is going to be a really great thing. I think for him you know maybe there’s a reason he’s repeating eighth grade. Maybe there’s a reason this is happening the way it’s happening. And the dad, he agreed to read an article I’d written you know on sometimes it can be beneficial to repeat a grade. And anyway he’s—Sometimes these things happen for a reason and you know it may not be according to our plan, but it might be better for everyone involved if it happens the way that the kid—You know if we allow things to happen according to their natural course.

Gonzalez: Yeah, and so sometimes if you can let that happen sooner rather than later. Because I know you talked a lot in the book about sort of twelfth grade and then college and what if you have been overparenting right up until that point? And so the consequences may end up having to be more significant like not getting that college scholarship. And then you face those facts and move on from there. I want to just read a quote that I underlined and just—This is where you’re talking about sending your kid to college. And you’re just talking about “Let him have the freedom to create the person he wants to be and understand the paths and influences he does not want to follow. If he fails, and he will, that will be evidence of a dead end experience and he will learn not to go down that road again.” But this part is what I really underlined. “You have lived your life and learned the lessons it has granted you. Now it is his turn.” That part about you have lived your life. I mean I hope that it resonates with parents as much as it did with me because we insert ourselves so often and I think sometimes for egotistical reasons because our kid is a reflection of us.

Lahey: Well and some parents, you know, see it as a do-over. You know I didn’t get into such and such or I didn’t do this and I wish I had. Or you know the thing that happens with college a lot is the pronoun problem where they start, parents start talking about our application and our essay. It happened on a phone call. I was talking to a parent about her son’s college application. He was a former student of mine. And I said—I made a joke about the pronoun problem and in her next breath she said “Yeah, we’re not ready to hit send on our application yet.” And I just didn’t even call her on it because at that point we just had the conversation.

But the other thing that’s been really interesting to me to talk to parents about is the middle school thing is so uniquely suited to these moments of learning and I was talking to a guidance counselor recently and she said—Well, about a couple of years ago. And she said “How do I help this parent of this student of mine realize how important it is for him to get an F on this paper that he plagiarized?” He plagiarized the paper. It was a science paper. The kid wants to be a scientist. And he plagiarized the paper off the Internet. She said “How do I help the parent understand why it’s so important for him to get an F on this paper?” And I said “The kid wants to be a scientist. He can get an F on this paper or if they save him now, and you know forbid the school in some way from doing this, which happens, you know he could go on to be a scientist and he could lose his entire career. You plagiarize something out in the world as a scientist and you don’t just lose a grade on a paper, you lose your whole career as a scientist.” So you know I weigh those two things and I am like oh man, I would much rather my kid learn that in middle school and get an F on one paper than go out there and—And parents say “Well, you know they’ll figure that out along the way.” Well you know what, they might not. You know students come to me all the time and say “Wait you never said we couldn’t take whole sentences off the Internet.” And you know, yeah, I did. But you know you clearly didn’t hear me or you need to learn it again or whatever.

And that’s something—We’re trying to—You know, Julie Lythcott-Haims also has a book out right now called How to Raise an Adult. And I love her title because that’s exactly what we are doing. We’re trying to raise adults. And that’s our job. Our job is to put ourselves out of a job, as Julie also says. So you know, and her book is a really nice adjunct to mine. She comes at it from the perspective of a former college dean at Stanford, a freshman dean at Stanford. And she saw these kids come to Stanford just not knowing these very common sense things that we’re talking about, and unable to cope and unable to hack it. And she was realizing a lot of parents are not raising adults. They are raising dependent children. And that’s a problem, obviously.

Gonzalez:  Yeah, so obviously the best case scenario is that this gets into the hands of as many parents as possible. But if I am a teacher and I read this and I’ve got some parents who are really hovering, overparenting and—How can this book help me work with them?

Lahey: Yeah, so there, it’s been great. The reviews from teachers have been great. There was a piece inside Higher Ed that said it was one of the most important books for teachers. And there was something—Anyway there have been a bunch of great reviews from teachers and I think the reason for that is—So this is a book that is really hard to hand to one parent. But it’s works, it’s been working really well as a community read. So I go around to schools and the whole school says “Oh we’re going to read this together as a community.” And then hopefully the people who need to hear it get their hands on it.

But also the message about autonomy-supportive parenting also applies to autonomy-supportive teaching. And we are at this amazing time in education right now where yeah it’s a challenging time to be a teacher. But we’re also hearing how much more effective it is to use project-based, project-based learning. And small group learning or individual learning or peer-to-peer teaching. And all of these things are wonderful ways to promote more autonomy in our teaching.

In fact I’ve been doing a bunch of curriculum workshops where, where teachers bring their, their, whatever curriculum it is that they’re working on and then we talk about ways to make—To give the kids more autonomy in the process because when kids have more autonomy, when they own the learning themselves, when they are given what is called desirable difficulties. For example, in this book Make it Stick that came out a couple of years ago that I love. Actually it’s a concept that came up well before that, but they discuss it in the book. When kids learn things through their own trial and error and their own sort of exploration, they know the concepts more durably. They learn the concepts more durably and for longer periods of time because it goes in their—It gets encoded in their long-term memory rather than just getting shoved in their short-term memory. When we give kids these opportunities, we’re going to be more effective teachers.

Giving kids more autonomy is scary because we tend to think of oh, movement in the classroom and things are going to get out of control and kids are going to be up and doing all kinds of stuff and I can’t control it. And what if someone comes by my classroom door and sees me not lecturing. I’m not going to look like I’m working very hard. And—

But for example one of the best things I did in my classroom was start handing the—In Latin class in particular, I started handing the answer key over to a rotating list of kids. And letting them not only help kids get the right answers, but they had to do some perspective taking. They had to start understanding oh well I know the right answer, but so and so got the wrong answer because this is what he was thinking. He was thinking that this noun meant this when it really mean that. And I could make the same mistake too. And I bet you if he made that mistake then other people did too. So it’s a matter of learning how to become better teachers. The kids become teachers. The kids start to own the material. The kids start to own their own exploration. That’s good teaching. That’s where the magic happens. And you know, more and more teachers are starting to figure that out. The research is bearing that out. So I actually think this is a really great juncture to start becoming a more autonomy-supportive teacher.

And the evidence that—You know Dan Pink’s work in Drive and Edward Deci’s work in Understanding Self-Motivation. All of that stuff, all of that research that’s in the book applies just as much to teachers as it does to parents or business owners and that kind of stuff. So it’s a message that I think will translate well to teachers. Plus at the same time, you know, if you have a parent coming in saying “You know I want to do it this way.” The teacher can say, “Well, you know I read this book and here’s the research that says that maybe giving your kid a little more autonomy and competence is going to be helpful to them.” It gives them as teachers the ammunition to support what we’re doing with research.

Gonzalez: Yeah, it takes what a lot of teachers have always felt as a gut feeling or something that they’ve just seen in their experience and you’re kind of crystallizing it for them in a way that they can. This has all been really fantastic. What are you working on now? Do you have any new projects going on?

Lahey: I have a couple of articles I’m working on and I have to get to work on the next book. So yeah, the next book. I’m hoping the next book—You know I talked about these three things you need to be in order to be autonomy-supportive and foster intrinsic motivation. One is autonomy, one is competence, and one is a connection to your kid. And this book is very much about the autonomy and the competence and I’m hoping the next one can be more about connection.

Gonzalez: Very nice.

Lahey: The next one is going to be very much about relationships and you know, how to—How we as teachers can connect to what we’re doing in the classroom and make it relevant to the outside world. All that kind of stuff, you know all the stuff, the connection stuff.

Gonzalez: This is sort of what I was starting with when we were talking about how you’re not just saying hands off and let things happen as they will. You really do emphasize over and over again how important it is to give your kids love and support and keep those connections really strong so it’s really not completely letting go at all. It’s really careful, strategic letting go.

Lahey: Well and it’s also seeing that some of the things that we’re doing like the nagging and the micromanaging is undermining our relationships with our students and our kids. So understanding that, you know, the stepping back is actually going to strengthen our relationship because every time we micromanage our kids we’re telling them we don’t trust you. And if we let them have a little more autonomy and we show them we trust them a little bit more, that strengthens our relationship. And it’s a really nice self-perpetuating cycle.

The other thing is that I’m working now with kids who are at risk, at much higher risk of failure. I now teach in a drug and alcohol rehab. So I teach drug addicted, drug and alcohol addicted kids in an inpatient rehab. So these kids, a lot of them are in foster care, a lot of them are, have been witness to violence. A lot of them are witness to addiction in their family. Many of them are in the custody of the state blah blah blah. So the relationship I think for those kids becomes even more important because often that’s the one thing that can be a constant and a positive to help them engage in education. So especially for those kids I feel duty bound to find out how to be the best teacher possible when everything else seems to have failed them. Everything from their school system to maybe their parents and their peer group and all that sort of stuff. So what’s left is our relationship with our students.

Gonzalez: All right. I’ll really look forward to reading that next book. Where can people find you? I’m going to be linking to the book, but where else could people find you if they’re just listening to this and they want to learn more about your stuff?

Lahey: Well at there’s links to my Atlantic author page and my New York Times author page. And I’ve been writing for them for three years, going on three years now. So there’s lots of stuff there. The book’s available there. I’m hoping to get a lot more supplemental materials up. I’m working on a few things like a downloadable pdf chapter of the book that’s actually for kids. I go and speak at schools a lot to the kids. And it’s really great because it helps me close that loop. It’s a—You know it helps me, when I talk to the kids I say, “Look, if your parents back off, here’s how you need to respond in order to keep that cycle going.” I’m also hoping to get sort of frequently asked questions up there and some other stuff that could be helpful. People have asked me about like worksheets and all kinds of sort of stuff, stuff to help them put the takeaways from the book into practice. So hopefully that’ll end up on my website soon. And if you subscribe there you’ll get newsletters on what’s coming out and what’s new and that kind of stuff.

Gonzalez: Oh well we will definitely be looking forward to whatever, whatever else you have. I just think your message is really important and I don’t know I just think it’s something that’s enduring. It’s not something that is just important right now. It really—I don’t know. I just think it could make a really big difference for a lot of people. So—

Lahey: Oh, thank you.

Gonzalez: Let’s try to get more people to read it and I’m just excited that I got to talk to you.

Lahey: Thank you so much. This has just been so much fun.

[music playing]

Gonzalez: For links to the resources mentioned in this episode, go to and click on Episode 32. Thanks for listening, and have a good day.

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