• Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure, How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed
     
     
    Lahey is an English, Latin and Writing teacher, and a parent of two children.  She teaches middle school.  She was a recent guest speaker at Redwood and her lecture can be viewed here:  

    YouTube of Jessica Lahey speaking at Redwood in fall 2015.


    This 90 minutes provides a fairly good overview of her book, but the specific examples in her book are interesting and illuminating and she provides step by step advice for parents on every grade and development level.  This book is a MUST READ.
     
    The major focus of this book is on becoming a parent who allows your child/ren to grow on their own without overly controlling and micromanaging their every move.  Also, recognizing that failure is an amazing learning tool (see research by Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck) and will be the catalyst for your child's growth and developing independence.
     
    Much of the information below is either a direct or indirect quote.  Sheila's comments are pretty obvious.
     
    By teaching our children to fear failure and by saving them from the setbacks, mistakes, and miscalculations that most likely marked all of our childhoods, we have denied them the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative, resilient citizens.
     
    Given love, support, boundaries and guidance, kids can learn how to engineer their own solutions and pave their way to success.  Play is the very first place where children learn to collaborate, compromise and manage difficulty and messy situations.  Get out of the sand box and off of the slide and let them do it. Stop saving them from every scratch, lost game of Monopoly, or cut from the elite soccer team.  If we want to launch successful young adults, we must extricate our egos from their lives and allow them to feel the pride of their own accomplishments and the pain of their own failures. 
     
    Angela Duckworth (through extensive research) has found that the ability to attend to a task and stick to long-term goals is the greatest predictor of success, great than academic achievement, extracurricular involvement, test scores, and IQ.  She calls it grit.  (Google her research & Ted Talk - good stuff.  Also, Walter Mischel's The Marshmallow Test, Why Self-Control is the Engine of Success will provide you details that lead to the same conclusion, but is a far dryer read.)
     
    Every time we rescue, hover, or save our kids from challenge, we send a very clear message: we believe they are incompetent, incapable, and unworthy of our trust.  We teach dependence.  Children whose parents don't allow them to fail are less engaged, less enthusiastic about their education and less motivated. If you want your kid to love learning and independent inquiry, leave her alone to write for the joy of it instead of entering every writing contest you Google.  Step back a bit from the idea of fixing every little problem, with a long term goal of raising a self-sufficient, capable and ethical adult. Encourage your kids to get up and try again when they fail instead of intervening with the teacher, coach, or peer on their behalf.  
     
    The self-esteem movement is a failure, and doing what feels good has fostered a generation of narcissistic, self indulgent children unwilling to take risks or cope with consequences.  What now then?  Parent for autonomy, for independence and for what is right and good in the long run, not in the moment.  Parent for tomorrow, not today.
     
    Allow your kids to engage in learning for the sake and fun of learning, not to achieve academic excellence in every subject area simultaneously.  (Daniel Pink's Drive is a a great resource for understanding this even more, and a super fun read.  I'm sure you can find him on YouTube or Ted Talks also, but his writing is nothing short of inspiring.)
     
    When kids are fascinating by what they are learning, they are more likely to take on challenge and persevere (again, traits that research by Duckworth, Dweck and Mischel demonstrate are a couple of the keys to success in life).
     
    If you want a kid to stop doing their homework, pay them for grades.  Lahey does an excellent job outlining why paying kids for grades and chores is uninspiring and will eventually backfire. Kids are smart enough to see them as efforts to control behavior, and research shows that control disrupts intrinsic motivation.  Instead, encourage effort and praise hard work and self-determination.
     
    Give you kid the set up she needs to do her work independently (desk, supplies, quiet, good lighting) and then go have your own life.  Set up challenging yet reasonable expectations (homework will be completed thoroughly and lights out at ten pm), then let them figure out the best strategy to meet those expectations (some kids do h/w as soon as they get home, others take a break, others rise early in the am and do it then).  
     
    Kids need limits, guidance and expectations - then they need autonomy to make decisions within those. Over-controlling parenting leads to kids who don't think for themselves or take responsibility for their actions.  
     
    Help them set their own goals, no matter how trivial or grandiose they may seem, and then let them go.  If they realize those goals are not working, help them reflect, revise and reset as they learn from their OWN experiences. 
    Lahey knows it is hard (ok, almost impossible and in some instances, physically painful) to watch your son or daughter make mistakes, fail tests, get cut from teams, not get into ASB or Peer Resource, and harder still not to jump in and fix it all.  Whoa!  By doing so we communicate that we don't have faith in their ability to grow, improve, and surmount challenge. Smooth sailing is not where the real, deep learning happens.  Rough waters and stormy seas are effective learning grounds. 
     
    Less is More - this chapter will reassure you as a parent that you can start having more of your own life, and still be a GREAT PARENT.  Not to mention the fact that your kid will be more responsible and productive (even if it takes a few fits and starts).  
     
    Parents: "My son left his completed homework on the living room table, ran off to school (which is right on my way to my job) and leaving it on the table (so that he can learn from the natural consequence that the teacher will impose) is KILLING ME."  I know this is some of you, but leave it there.  Go to yoga, your job, your hike, anywhere ... but don't bring that homework to school.
     
    Children need structure and guidelines, they need to push our boundaries, they need to test the resolve of their mothers by begging repeatedly for whatever you just said NO to.  Remember: limits make kids feel safe and cared for.  They like being held accountable.  You are building long-term character and they will respect you for that (but they won't tell you that until they turn 25 or so).
     
    Give children the time and silence to think and come up with answers.  If you always provide them, you are creating a dependent child who will feel anxious about her ability to resolve her own issues.  Let her figure it out, and you will be creating a young adult who can think for herself and experiment with solutions on her road to independence. 
     
    In Japan, there is no "gifted" education.  There is instead a belief that everyone is capable of cultivating skills and achieving mastery in a variety of areas, through sustained effort.  No one is born smarter or a genius.  Kids who have been overpraised generally will do the bare minimum to maintain their genius label, but will be frustrated by challenge and will shy away from risk (see Carol Dweck research for more on the growth mindset).
     
    Next follows chapters on age appropriate household duties for kids (and the frustration you may experience as a parent when your kid puts all the red clothes in with the whites and you have a new pink wardrobe, or when he smears the crumbs all over the counter until you want to rip the sponge out of his hand and do it yourself).  It's fun and has great ideas for ways to engage your child in being a responsible and necessary part of the household, and stop you from being an overworked servant.
     
    Next comes advice on your child's friends and this chapter is super, but also super scary.  You know your kid has chosen a few folks who inspire fear in you.  Great tips for how to get through these harrowing times without choosing their friends, screaming at the top of your lungs, or going prematurely gray.  Oh, and your kid an come through with a clear sense of your values and maybe work on developing some of their own.
     
    Onward to athletics.  The machine of youth sports is wound so tight.  What about my son, who just wants to play soccer for fun?  Or my daughter who has never played competitively but might like volleyball?  Or my kid who is obviously the best, most talented player on the team, and his coach is too blind to figure out that he should always be in the game?  This chapter helps you separate your own athletic dreams from your child's (no easy feat) and accept that even the most talented athletes rarely make it in the big time.  One college athlete at Brown recalls that his worst memory from playing youth and high school sports was "the ride home from games with my parents."  That time was set aside to criticize players, second guess coaches and deride referees.  Good time?  Not.  Lahey's suggestion: act like a grandparent - just happy to see the kid play and have fun.  You can't always second guess referees and caches (as you may not be able to see or hear clearly enough to pay such close attention to detail anyway). Enjoy the fun of watching, knowing that even in defeat, or especially in defeat, your child is learning valuable lessons in fitness, sportsmanship and teamwork. 
     
    Then she moves on to middle school, high school, and college specific parenting advice.  For those of you with only high school aged children, I still think the middle school part is good, as you may have missed the opportunity to do some of these things and they are great suggestions (especially since Lahey is a middle school teacher and the mom of a middle school student).
     
    Resist the temptation to talk about college as something that the whole family is applying to, because you are not.  Your student is.  It needs to be a good fit for her.  He needs to be the one who makes the final decision.  
    Be aware that the advice about the college years may sting a little.  For example, do not get involved in disputes over grades, scheduling or incompletes.  Professors don't want parental input - EVER.  If your child fails, and he will, he will learn not to go down that road again.
     
    Great ideas ensue on how be partners with your daughters high school teachers and make the most of your communication with them.  I especially like this one: wait a day before emailing over a perceived emergency or crisis.
     
    Drake story: one of my students had a tough day in an AP class.  I received a middle of the night email about 5 paragraphs long outlining the experience: demanding teacher, unfair test, way too difficult problems, unnecessary stress on all students, etc., and then a demand that I remove the class from the child's schedule.  When I spoke with the student the next day, he informed me that he had really just wanted his parents to listen to him vent (because the test was just one in a string of things that were creating anxiety) and had no intention of or desire to drop the class.  Now he just had one more thing to be stressed about - over-involved parents speaking on his behalf.  A day later I received another email apologizing for the overreaction (which I very much appreciated).  Moral of the story: BREATHE...sit with discomfort...check in with your child on how he wants to handle the dilemma...BREATHE again).  Don't jump in with a quick fix that your student may not even want.
    Don't save your kid; support her.  Listen calmly, then ask her how she wants to handle it or what her ideas are for resolution.  Offer advice when asked for it. 
     
    Homework - another chapter with great ways for parents to free up some time for the things they want to do, instead of doing geography papers or making clever things out of paper maiche.  Once high school begins, parents should not be involved in homework at all.  (Did she just say that?  Yes, she did.)  This is THE STUDENTS journey.  
     
    Grades - Lahey makes a great case for eliminating them (extrinsic rewards undermine motivation and long term learning).  Kids get addicted to As and think about school in terms of report cards - sometimes forgetting the joy of learning.  Research is cited that demonstrates that kids who are not concerned about the impact on their final grades learned more and had higher levels of interest and curiosity.  Grades are not a measure of our children's worth or ability.  They are a measure of skills that make for successful students: executive function, compliance, ability to follow directions, self-discipline.  They have taken on a role of massive importance, which is what learning should be - massively important.
     
    Beware Software Portals (Eschool).  I love her advice about not checking these, but having real live conversations with your students about their learning and encouraging them, in turn, to have real live conversations with their teachers about learning. 
     
    Google famous failures for some fun reading.  Mistakes might just be worthwhile in the end.  
     
    Kids are writing their own stories, in their own voices, with plot points of their own invention.  We cannot edit them into perfection.
     
    Posted by Sheila Souder on 03/28/2016.