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Parents: let your kids fail. You’ll be doing them a favor

Summary

If, out of love or a desire to bolster your child’s self-esteem, you picked A or B, teacher and author Jessica Lahey thinks you’re wrong. That question is at the heart of her best-selling book, The Gift of Failure. She realized not long ago that something was wrong with her parenting and something was amiss with the middle-school students she taught. They wilted in the face of challenge. They didn’t love learning like they used to. Parents took bad grades personally. Everyone was unhappy.

Your teenager has a science project due. He hates science. He hates projects (as do you)

If, out of love or a desire to bolster your child’s self-esteem, you picked A or B, teacher and author Jessica Lahey thinks you’re wrong.

We seem to be more worried about raising happy children than competent or autonomous ones.

“Do I want [my kids] to be happy now and not-scared and not-anxious, or, a year from now, do I hope that they pushed through being a-little-anxious and a little scared and became a little more competent?” she told Quartz.

That question is at the heart of her best-selling book, The Gift of Failure. She realized not long ago that something was wrong with her parenting and something was amiss with the middle-school students she taught. They wilted in the face of challenge. They didn’t love learning like they used to. Parents took bad grades personally. Everyone was unhappy.

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She couldn’t pinpoint the root of the problem until she realized: we seem to be more worried about raising happy children than competent or autonomous ones.

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Lahey cites the work of Wendy Grolnick, a psychologist, who puts pairs of mothers and children in a room and videotapes them as they play. Grolnick then labels the mothers as “controlling” or “autonomy-supportive,” meaning the moms let the kids figure things out on their own. Grolnick then invites the pairs back and the children are put in a room by themselves and asked to perform a task. The results were “striking,” Grolnick says in the book. The children who had controlling mothers gave up when faced with a task they could not master. The others did not. Lahey writes:

district wide annual incomes

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Lahey cites the work of Wendy Grolnick, a psychologist, who puts pairs of mothers and children in a room and videotapes them as they play. Grolnick then labels the mothers as “controlling” or “autonomy-supportive,” meaning the moms let the kids figure things out on their own. Grolnick then invites the pairs back and the children are put in a room by themselves and asked to perform a task. The results were “striking,” Grolnick says in the book. The children who had controlling mothers gave up when faced with a task they could not master. The others did not. Lahey writes:

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Time to start thinking about what we want education to deliver for every kid.

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Kids who were raised by controlling or directive parents could not contemplate tasks on their own, but the kids who were being raised by autonomy-supportive parents stuck with tasks, even when they got frustrated. Kids who can redirect and stay engaged in tasks, even when they find those tasks difficult become less and less dependent on guidance in order to focus, study, organize, and otherwise run their own lives.

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Although advice like “let them try and fail” seems blindingly obvious, it is very hard to implement. At every book event for the Gift of Failure, at least one parent approaches Lahey in tears. The parent describes a 16-year-old son who cannot pack a backpack or an 18-year-old daughter who cannot
manage conflict.

“We think, ‘I have plenty of time to teach them,’” Lahey says. “And then they are 17.” So what’s a well-intentioned parent seeking failure (to get to success) supposed to do? Lahey spoke with Quartz about some ways to inhibit the helicopter in all of us and build resilient kids.

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Define your end game: long or short term?

“We rescue because it feels good,” Lahey says.

Lahey admits she is equally culpable, though she has tried to change. One morning she found her son’s homework on the table and decided not to drop it off at his school, even though she was going anyways. She was determined that he become more independent and better organized. She took to Facebook to discuss her decision. “If your husband left his cell phone, would you take it to him?” said one friend.

“I am not raising my husband,” she thought. Rescuing her son would make Lahey feel like a good mom, but it would not help her son’s organizational issues. Parenting for the long term meant leaving the homework on the table and letting her son, and herself, suffer a bit.

As it turned out, the teacher gave her son some extra work and offered some tips on how to remember his homework in the future. The tips have served him well, Lahey says.

Cheer like a grandparent, not a parent

Most of us sign our kids up for sports for the right reasons. We want them to run around, get fresh air, learn how to be part of a team, and have fun. If they show talent, many of us suddenly turn into maniacs, screaming instructions about sports we have never played and questioning coaches at decibel levels we prohibit at home. Some soccer leagues have implemented silent soccer Saturdays in an attempt to silence the parents and coaches and give the game back to the kids. Bruce Brown and Rob Miller, two former coaches who formed Proactive Coaching, asked college athletes, “What is your worst memory from playing youth and high school sports?” The answer was the drive home with their parents. Too much advice, not enough support.

Lahey suggests that if you go to the games, cheer like a grandparent and not a parent. College athletes wanted grandparents at their games because their support was not predicated on achievement.

“Grandparents don’t critique the coach’s strategy or a referee’s call. Even in the face of embarrassing failures on the field, grandparents support their grandchildren with no ulterior motive or agenda,” Lahey writes.