Our kids need the Gift of Failure

Resiliency building tips for parents and teachers

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 1.54.58 PMJessica Lahey became a mother and a middle school teacher the same year. She’s used common strategies to grow in both roles.

Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that publishing houses competing for rights to Lahey’s best-selling book – The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed – were also grappling over whether it was a parenting book or education book.

“Publishers say they have to target one audience because booksellers will rarely stock a book in two sections of the store,” Lahey said from her home in rural New Hampshire. Eleven publishers wanted the book, which grew from Lahey’s article “Why Parents Need to Let Children Fail,” published in the Jan. 29, 2013 issue of The Atlantic.

She chose HarperCollins and the publisher chose to market the book to parents.

Lahey said she was not displeased about that decision. Nevertheless, she is very pleased that educators have discovered and embraced the book, anyway.

A game changer

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 8.20.58 PMGroups in many schools, districts, and communities are reading “The Gift of Failure” and discussing ways to refocus attention away from student grades and onto strategies for deeper learning. (Here’s one of them.)

Lahey contends that the best teacher is often failure, or said differently, it’s crucial to discover what doesn’t work. Learning from failure is what motivates children to develop strategies that will help them succeed.

Emerging adults will be happier, ready to meet life on life’s terms, and resilient when inevitable setbacks arise, when (not if) parents and teachers avoid dialing up the pressure on high stakes academic achievement, Lahey said.

It’s better to nurture a genuine love of learning by indulging a child’s natural curiosity to explore and experiment, an approach which also fosters independence and promotes competence.

A surprising viewpoint

 Because Lahey spent a decade teaching English and Latin in public and private schools, most people are surprised to learn that she has banished academic grades as a topic of conversation with her own two school-aged sons.

She’s in touch with what her boys are learning, and asks and answers questions to fuel their learning quest, but she doesn’t ask what grade they received on tests and projects because, she explains, the grade is not what’s important.

Lahey says she learned this in her own classroom. She often tells a great “war story” about phoning a student’s home to report a grave academic infraction: Most of a paper the student turned in had been plagiarized from published sources. The mother begged for leniency. Her daughter was innocent, the mother insisted, because she herself had written (and plagiarized) the paper.

When Lahey pressed, the mother explained her daughter had been too busy with other activities to do her homework.

“Undoing this mess we’ve created is going to take some time,” Lahey said. “Parents’ micromanagement [of their kids’ lives and schooling] is getting in the way of students actually learning. Points and grades are now the focus and learning is third.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 1.56.32 PMAs Lahey’s writing life has grown, her classroom teaching is being crowded out of her life. She now teaches part-time at an inpatient youth drug and alcohol treatment center in Vermont. She writes The New York Times’ “The Parent-Teacher Conference” column, commentaries for Vermont Public Radio, education articles for The Atlantic, and now her own books.

You won’t catch her shying away from her belief in the value of resiliency.

“The warm feelings that snowplow or helicopter parents get from rescuing their kids don’t help their kids,” Lahey said. “Kids miss out on opportunities to develop confidence and autonomy, which is worth so much more than an A.”

An interesting complication is the damaging family dynamic called enmeshment, in which a well-meaning but overprotective parent rescues their child from failure, believing that the child’s successes reflect the parents’ own personal worth.

Lahey’s tips for teachers and parents:

  • Find something positive to call or email home about early in the academic year. This gesture sets a tone that teacher and parents are “on the same team” cheering the student’s learning journey.
  • At Back-to-School night, explain to parents that part of the teacher’s job is to help the child develop into a competent adult. In addition to academic curriculum, students will be learning organization and time management skills. Holding students to certain consequences helps teach life skills.
  • Face-to-face communication is always best, but teachers should use multiple means for communicating class culture. Spending two-hours at school for Back-to-School Night will be a luxury some parents cannot afford. Make a list of who doesn’t attend meetings at school and provide a summary within a few days up by email, phone or letter.
  • Report cards should provide a narrative account of the student’s progress toward mastery, not just a number or letter grade. (Schools that are most successful at this provide teachers with time during the workday to write the narratives, Lahey notes.)
  • If the school provides grading portals, encourage parents to use them in ways that don’t undermine the child’s autonomy. Parents should tell their son or daughter in advance what day they will check the portal. This promotes accountability by giving him or her the opportunity to submit missing work, or ask their teacher for extra help.
  • Help a child succeed by showing them how to break down big goals into small steps. Don’t rush to rescue or the child won’t learn to persevere. What’s critical is that the goal is the child’s, not the parent’s. “Failure isn’t so scary when you’re the person who set the goal,” Lahey said.


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