Listen to my interview with Jessica Lahey (transcript):
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Picture this: It’s morning, and your daughter has already left for school. Passing by the kitchen table, you notice her diagram of the solar system lying on one of the chairs, right next to where she was doing her homework the night before. She worked for over an hour on that diagram, measuring each planet to get its size right relative to the others. She colored it carefully, used her neatest printing. It’s due today. And there it is, on a kitchen chair. It was an easy mistake; anyone could have made it. You could have made it. It’s a big grade, and you’re only a short drive away from school.
You have two choices:
(A) Take the homework to school. Within fifteen minutes, that diagram will be in her grateful hands, she can turn it in for full credit, and order will be restored to the universe. Also, your daughter will think you are amazing and wonderful.
(B) Leave it right where it is and let her face the consequences.
In her book, The Gift of Failure, teacher and author Jessica Lahey urges us to choose option B. It’s the harder choice, the one that goes against so many of our parenting instincts. But ultimately, autonomy-supportive parenting—letting our kids deal with the natural consequences of their actions—will help them more quickly develop the skills they need to succeed. In her book, she lays out the research behind why this approach is so necessary, empathizes with parents who have a hard time breaking the “helicopter” habit, and shares tools and tips for making this shift toward parenting and teaching that will help our kids grow into responsible, self-directed, autonomous people.
The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed
by Jessica Lahey
304 pages, Harper, August 2015
Fail Now, Succeed Later
Pulling together research on motivation, growth mindset, and cognitive psychology, along with insights from thought leaders like Daniel Pink, Lahey explains exactly how failure benefits kids, and why parenting for dependency doesn’t.
“Small failures, when the stakes are relatively low and the potential for emotional and cognitive growth is high, are what psychologists Elizabeth and Robert Bjork call ‘desirable difficulties.’ Learning that comes with challenge is stored more effectively and more durably in the brain than learning that comes easily.”
That means if we make life too easy for our kids, if we rescue them from every fall, they will never learn the important lessons that will carry them through life. And this is most effective, as Lahey puts it, when the stakes are relatively low. That means the earlier we let our kids experience failure, the better off they’ll be.
In her chapter on middle school, for example, Lahey discusses the problems students encounter with organization and time management. Middle school, she says, is the perfect time to let students experience failure in these areas.
“Let them feel the pain and inconvenience of their mistakes, and then support them in their efforts to rework the bugs. A few missed lunches or a zero on the homework assignment she left on the kitchen counter will reinforce these skills better than your lectures or nagging ever will. Every intervention or rescue is a lesson lost. They need every minute, every learning opportunity inherent in their failures before they face the much greater challenges and consequences that await them right around the corner in high school.”
But even if a parent can grasp this concept in the abstract, even if we agree with it in theory, putting it into practice is much more difficult.
Doing it Right: Guidelines for Anxious Parents
When I first learned about this book, I resisted reading it. I was already familiar with Lahey’s work and I respected her ideas, but I was a little scared. I was worried that she would advise me to let my kids run around the neighborhood unsupervised, choose their own bedtimes, eat whatever they wanted, and behave according to their own guidelines. In short, I thought she was going to tell me to stop parenting.
But when I started to read, I was relieved to find a saner approach.
“Autonomy-supportive parenting is not negligent parenting, and it is not permissive parenting. Autonomy-supportive parents establish specific and clear expectations, make themselves physically and emotionally present, and offer guidance when kids get frustrated or need redirection. The best part about being an autonomy-supportive parent is that all the negative stuff we do to get our children to do the things we want them to do—nagging, nitpicking, hovering, directing—stops. These parenting techniques are destructive to our relationships with our kids, anyway, so parenting in their absence is a more peaceful and enjoyable affair all around.”
Because she is still in the process of breaking old habits, freely admitting all the mistakes she has made in the past, Lahey can empathize with the struggles parents experience when making this shift. She also offers plenty of practical tips and techniques, so we are not left to flail around in a vacuum. She shows us how to validate and support our kids when they are experiencing the negative emotions that come with failure, how to give helpful feedback rather than nagging or criticizing, and the specific things we can do to support them academically without hovering or taking over.
How This Book Can Help Teachers
As I read The Gift of Failure, I couldn’t help but think of my friend who teaches 12th grade English. Just recently she assigned a research paper and discovered that dozens of her students had turned in plagiarized work. Then she had to deal with the parents of those students, many of whom didn’t want them to receive the zeroes they were supposed to get as a result. If those parents had read this book, it’s far more likely they would have been on board with the decision, that they would have supported this teacher, knowing the consequence would likely prevent many more attempts to plagiarize in the future.
But how do we get the book into parents’ hands? As Lahey pointed out in my interview with her (see below), most teachers wouldn’t feel comfortable just handing this book over to individual parents and saying, “You need to read this.” But many schools are choosing this book for their One-Book-One-School program, so that everyone is introduced to the ideas at one time. And as a teacher, reading the book yourself can help you get a better handle on the research behind autonomy-supportive parenting, which will in turn help you do a better job of gently explaining it to parents.
It can also help teachers adopt more autonomy-supportive practices in our own classrooms, giving our students more responsibility for their own learning, cutting back on the nagging and reminding, and eliminating the practice of adding a few extra points to bring that high “C” up to a “B.” If all of us, together, take a deep breath and leave that homework on the chair, our children might actually thank us for it someday. ♦
When I talked to Jessica, she strongly recommended the book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, by Julie Lythcott-Haims. This book takes on the same issue of the damage done by helicopter parenting, but Lythcott-Haims approaches the subject from the perspective of a university dean.