Whenever I meet people with well-adjusted, confident teenagers, I ask them about their parenting style. “What did you do to raise such a good kid?” I say, all the cells in my body poised to accept their wisdom. Usually, the parent shrugs their shoulders and says, “Hmm, I don’t know. She [or he] just came out of the womb like this.”
This response always disappoints me. I want THE ANSWER to how I can avoid screwing up my kids. I’ve asked this question enough, though, to realize that nobody can tell me exactly how my husband and I should parent; we have to figure it out on our own. That leads me to reflecting a lot on how my parents raised my brother and me. They were encouraging, loving, and supportive. They had reasonable expectations, assigned us chores, encouraged us to get part-time jobs during summer breaks from high school and during college, helped us figure out our problems, and demanded we do our best in school. They sent us outside, without a plan, on sunny days to play and explore; they supported us through successes and failures; and they pushed us toward us independence. I always felt that they had my back and believed in me.
One of the key elements of my parents’ strategy was to let us fail. Sounds odd, right? But making mistakes helped us learn how to respond in different situations and how to be responsible. They let us mess up in ways that felt enormous at the time, but were ultimately not that big a deal (best example: me in geometry class – disaster is an understatement). This helped us learn that we could overcome challenges and directed us to making good choices when the stakes increased.
All of this brings me to “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed” by Jessica Lahey. I recently read this book in anticipation of attending a lecture by Lahey, the focus of which was Lahey’s book and the research that underscores our understanding of motivation, learning, and child development. Ms. Lahey spoke to a large room full of parents, most, if not all, who hailed from a Boston suburb with very high academic standards and busy children who run from one afterschool activity to another.
“Modern overparenting,” writes Lahey in “The Gift of Failure,” “is defined by an unprecedented level of overprotectiveness: parents now rush to school to deliver forgotten assignments, challenge teachers on report card disappointments, mastermind children’s friendships, and interfere on the playing field.”
In response to this, Lahey advocates for parents to let their kids make mistakes, figure things out on their own, and speak up for themselves. She wants parents to guide their kids toward independence by embracing a commitment to autonomy and competence. Lahey’s premise is not revolutionary to people raised by parents like mine, but it is eye-opening to those of us trying to get our kids through 21st century go-go-go-do-do-do-achieve-achieve-achieve society.
We all want our kids to be successful adults with careers they find engaging and families of their own, right? To do that, they need to be able to stand on their own. That’s where autonomy comes in, Lahey argues. Let kids do their own laundry, make their own lunches, and remember their own homework. Build up our kids’ ability to see themselves as capable of managing the responsibilities of their lives. I have seen this in my own children: over the past few months, my husband and I have increased their household chores and they have responded surprisingly well. It’s been satisfying to have them contribute in new ways, and to see their pride when they’ve completed a task.
Competence is increasing our children’s skill level and showing them ways to use those new skills in other areas. Lahey explains it as “competence = confidence + experience.” Efforts in this area can start small, such as emptying the dishwasher and setting the table, and build up to more complex and “adult-like” duties, such as planting a garden, cooking dinner for the family, cutting firewood, and changing a tire. The advice here is to teach our children how to perform these tasks—not complete the tasks for them.
One of things I appreciated about “The Gift of Failure” is the depth of research that underscores this book. Lahey backs up her theories with scientific studies and resources by other experts. The book’s bibliography is a roadmap for those seeking additional information.
Reading this book helped me integrate a few new parenting strategies into my practice, and it also helped me appreciate techniques I was already employing. Three tips I especially liked in “The Gift of Failure” included:
1) Praise effort, not smarts. I want to say that I knew this strategy before reading “The Gift of Failure,” but I’m not sure that I was consistent with this. I have since switched the way I talk to my kids about their music lessons, for example; instead of “How well did you play that song?” I’ve been asking “Did you practice to the best of your abilities? Do you feel good about your level of effort? I noticed that you practiced hard on that new song—that’s great to see.”
2) Help kids self-motivate. Last summer, I bought my kids academic workbooks to complete while they were off from school. I offered them a prize for each book they completed. They each finished one, claimed their prize, and then stop working on the workbooks, no matter how much I cajoled them. Lahey would explain this as a clash of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Kids who are intrinsically motivated (e.g., they do well because they want to do well) do better long-term than kids who are dependent on extrinsic motivations (e.g., prizes from their parents). This is great insight, and I am working on incorporating these principles into my parenting toolkit.
3) Encourage children to self-advocate. “A kid who can self-advocate can get a good education anywhere,” Lahey said at the lecture I attended. She was specifically referring to the pressure of selecting the right college, but the lesson is applicable to children of all ages. People who can speak up for themselves, whether they are 5, 25 or 45, will have a better chance to be heard and to reach their goals. Coaching our kids to articulate what they need or want, and to make a cogent argument for themselves can start when they are small. We do this without thinking; how many times did I tell my kids when they were toddlers to “use their words” instead of lashing out? As our children get older, we need to step back from jumping into situations that require advocacy and let them take care of it themselves—even if they don’t do they way we would.
Overall, I am glad that I read “The Gift of Failure.” It has given me a lot to think about regarding my parenting approach and the ways my husband and I are raising our children to be independent and competent. I still don’t have THE ANSWER for raising my kids, but I do feel a bit more prepared for the road ahead.
Recommendation: This is helpful read for parents looking for ways their kids be more responsible and independent. “The Gift of Failure” is relevant to parents of students in K-12, and it includes a good approach to how to handle homework pressure. There are a lot of parenting books out there (and not all of them are good), and Lahey’s book rises to the top thanks to her approachable writing style, expertise (she’s a parent and teacher), and extensive research. Additionally, Lahey is an entertaining, approachable speaker, and it’s worth attending one of her lectures if she is coming to a town near you.
Rating: 4/5 stars