Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure – a bestseller on modern parenting, discusses with HuffPost the significance of giving children the gift of failure. It’s time to let our kids screw up. They’ll regroup, and be better off.
Pain is a part of growing up, and parents should let their kids sit with it “just long enough for them to learn from it.”
That is Jessica Lahey’s message in “The Gift of Failure,” one of the most talked-about parenting books of the year. It’s okay to let your kids botch their house chores, or forget to take their homework to class. In fact, it’s really important.
Drawing on her experiences as a mom and a middle school teacher, plus three years of book research, Lahey argues that when parents swoop in to correct their children’s mistakes, they’re helping in the moment but ultimately doing harm.
“All this swooping and fixing make for emotionally, intellectually, and socially handicapped children,” she writes, “unsure of their direction or purpose without an adult on hand to guide them.”
In a discussion with HuffPost, Lahey shared practical advice on parenting, how she’s tackled common challenges like screen time, drug use, and problematic peers, and her own personal “gift of failure” moments.
How does someone give the gift of failure to their child?
A parent gives the gift of failure by thinking in the long-term rather than in the short-term; by thinking less about checking off the imaginary box — “Was I a good parent today?”— and thinking more about, “Was I a good parent this year?”
We get so focused on making sure our kid is perfectly happy and perfectly worry-free when they go into bed each night. Then we get to check off that little box.
Instead we need to start thinking more long-term than that. To take the words of another author [Julie Lythcott-Haims] that has a fantastic book out about the same topic: Are we raising adults? Are we raising kids who are going to be able to go out into the world and do amazing things as adults?
Also, we need to turn the corner and start, as a society, to value the process of learning more than the visual evidence of learning. We put so much emphasis on the product: on the grade, on the trophy, on the number, on the SAT score. And then we lose sight (and therefore we teach our kids to lose sight) of the joy of the process, whether it’s learning, or running, or playing a musical instrument.
It doesn’t matter how much lip service we pay our kids — “Oh sweetie, it’s all about learning, all I want you to do is learn.” We need to show them that by truly valuing the process.
So when a kid shows us their grade, we don’t get focused on the grade. Instead we can ask things like, “What did you do to get there?” or “What did you do to get ready for this test?” or “What might you do next time?” Those process-oriented questions are what show kids that we actually value the learning.
Your book references “The Nurture Assumption,” which argues that there are limits to the impact that even great parent can actually have on their kids.
Yes. The understanding that we have a very limited influence on what our kids can be and do lies at the very heart of why I wrote my book. It’s why I think it’s so important for us to step back. We are trying to pretend like we have so much control over where our kids end up and what our kids become, and we just don’t. Anyone who has more than one child can tell you that they come out different.
We need to get over ourselves and realize that our kids are actually only going to pursue the things that they really care about. We can try to care about things enough for them, but that’s just fooling ourselves. That’s not going to work. We can’t force our kid to have a passion for something. We can’t force our kid to care about something they don’t care about.
We can get creative with ways to help them care about things that they don’t care about, and as a teacher that’s really important to me. That’s part of my job, to help kids care about things that they think they don’t care about.
But as a general rule, kids are going to love the things that they connect with on a very deep level, not the things that we reward them for doing because we really want them to excel in a certain area, or to go to a certain college, or to play a certain instrument, or to be talented at a certain sport. We just don’t have that much power.
You spent three years working on this book. What is some of the more powerful research that bolsters your case?
There’s a bunch of it. Much of it comes from Edward Deci’s work on human motivation, and of course Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindsets versus fixed mindsets. But the stuff that really spoke to me was the research by Wendy Grolnick on autonomy-supportive parenting. I read her articles and I read her more scientific academic books like “The Psychology of Parental Control” and it kind of made my head explode.
It is really clear that the kids of controlling parents are a lot less likely to be able to complete tasks, and extrapolating out, to complete schoolwork, to complete projects, to complete the tasks of their own lives on their own, without someone standing over them telling them what the next step is supposed to be.
Let me ask about some common challenges facing parents today. How have you handled your kids’ use of cell phones and electronics?
Minecraft happens to be something that my younger kid loves immensely. It creates that flow state; kids do incredibly creative, wonderful things playing Minecraft. So last night, in fact, someone said, “What do you do about screen time limits for Minecraft?”
I said, “I don’t.” We have expectations about the things that need to get done around the house and the ways time will get spent. My children will get exercise. Their homework will get done. They will have time with us without screens. I leave a lot of the rest of it up to my children to learn how to self-modulate.
We talk with the kids about this. Like if my kid spends too much time on an electronic device, or playing a video game, he gets kind of jangly and weird, and so we talk about that. We say, “Do you notice how agitated you are right now? You might want to think about the fact that you’ve been playing a video game with your brother for 2 1/2 hours and it doesn’t make you feel good, does it?”
Instead of saying, “You only have 60 minutes, and here, I’m going to set an egg timer so that you know precisely when to turn it off,” we need to teach kids to learn how to modulate their own behavior. We need to support them in their executive function development, and part of that is learning themselves and learning limits for themselves.
So while there are plenty of things I do put limits on, that doesn’t happen to be one of them. I’d rather talk with them about it and help them understand. As grownups they’re going to have to figure out for themselves where their limits are, so let’s start talking about it now.
What’s your approach for addressing drug and alcohol use?
We have a family history of alcoholism. So therefore I talk to my kids about that, and I explain to them that they’re going to have to be more vigilant about their own drug and alcohol use. That doesn’t mean they’re not going to make mistakes, and that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to try things. But they have a loaded gun to their head where alcohol and drugs are concerned.
I would rather talk to them about that and have them understand that. And my older son has made some really interesting decisions about that. He’s decided that’s a great reason for now not to try it. At least that’s what we’ve been talking about is having that information is a great way for him to make smart decisions.
I happen to also be a teacher at a drug and alcohol inpatient rehabilitation center, so I’m dealing with this on a constant basis. I wrote an article for the New York Times. I asked my students to be really, really open and think about if an adult had said something to them when they were in the depths of their abuse that might — might — have made them change their minds, or made them at least think.
All of them said: “Just Say No” does not work. The whole “Don’t do it because it’s all bad” doesn’t work. But actually having a real conversation with kids about the risks, about the benefits, about why people do drugs and what it does for them, and here’s what can happen. Give kids the information. That is what research has shown to be effective, not “Just don’t do it. It’s all bad.” They know we’re hiding stuff from them. Why are so many people doing drugs if it’s all bad? They think we’re lying to them.
We don’t give kids enough credit. One of the things we need to stop doing is hiding stuff from kids. Give them the full information, and give them some credit for being able to make reasoned decisions on their own.
After I talked to experts about what my drug rehab kids said, they said, “Yes, it completely adheres to the research.” “Just Say No” is a failure. Telling kids, “You should never ever drink. You should never ever do drugs because it’s all bad,” it just does not work for kids. Giving kids information is actually a much better way to go. So I choose truth and I choose information with my own children, and so far so good, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for the rest of it.
How about if your kid gets in with the wrong crowd? When parents protest, it often backfires.
Little kids choose friends based on proximity. It’s whoever we as parents toss them together with in the sandbox. But as they grow up, friendships become about trying on different identities. In my book I write about how to back off around kids’ social life and let them have relationships that actually teach them things. That can be hard to do, because peers have more influence on kids than we do sometimes.
It’s especially hard because there are some kids in both of our children’s lives that I’m like, “Oh no, I don’t want them to spend any time with that kid.” But they’re spending time with that kid for a reason. So we talk to them and find out. Ask questions like, “Your friendship with John is interesting. Tell me about him. I don’t know much about him. What is it you like about him? What is it you admire about him? Why do you like spending time with him?” Actually have a conversation about what it is about John’s personality that your kid is trying on as an identity.
Also, when you think about it, having friends that are a little bit scary for you is not the worst thing. It can actually be reassuring, because your kid is trying on an identity through a friend, but not necessarily accepting it as their own.
Think about the friends you’ve had along the way. You’ve probably had friends that are completely different from you, because that’s intriguing, right? A kid who’s kind of a rebel or dyed their hair black when you were in seventh grade and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, what’s that all about? I would never do that.” You want to know what that person’s about, but you’re not necessarily going to become that person. That person is not necessarily going to be your best friend, but you’re intrigued.
That’s what kids do. They try things on. They take for themselves what works, they discard what doesn’t, and it’s up to us to have conversations with them about what doesn’t work. “I’ve noticed,” for example, “since you’ve become friends with John that you’re eating less,” or, “You’re spending more time alone,” or whatever. Having these conversations about the reality of what parts of the identities your kids are trying on, that’s of value. But saying, “You may never spend time with John again,” is probably one of the better ways to drive your kid toward a lifelong relationship with John.
As you’ve been traveling and speaking with parents, have you heard any responses to your book that caused you to change your thinking about anything?
When parents come and talk to me at the end of a talk, they’re usually a little bit emotional, a little bit nervous, and a little bit worried about something. The number of parents that have gotten really, really upset and cried in response to hearing something that rang true for them has been amazing to me.
I’m so respectful and feel so privileged to be part of that conversation, because being a parent is really scary and we’re just doing the best we can. I was doing the best I could and I just happened to get my hands on a lot of information about what I was doing wrong and possibly how to fix it. Each individual story, when parents come and talk to me about it, yeah, the circumstances are suddenly different. I stop and I think, “Oh my gosh, does the research apply to this situation? To this particular moment?”
What I have to do is actually very similar to what I tell parents: Back up and look at the big picture. Is it really about this specific situation, this specific kid who’s problematic for your child, or this teacher who’s being mean to your child? Or is it really more about teaching our kids how to handle relationships? Is it about teaching our kids about how to handle disappointment? Is it about teaching our kids that learning, in the end, really is more important than the grade they got on that test?
I think it all holds true. It really is more important for us to think in the long run and to give our kids more autonomy over their lives and to teach them how to be competent, even when it comes to all the millions of different iterations of what is essentially the same story. Yes, it is hard to watch our kids be in pain, and be uncomfortable, and struggle with frustration, but it’s really important to give them the space to work through it a little bit themselves before we step in and help.
They need to know we’re there, they need to know that we support them and we’re there in case things really get tough. But for this moment, in this second, I’m going to let you have the discomfort to try to learn how to do this so that next time you’ll be more competent in this moment. There are so many different ways to phrase, “My kid is in pain and I want to help.” But in the end, the answer really has to be: That pain is a part of growing up and it’s important for us to let them sit with it for just long enough for them to learn from it.
Is there anything your parents did for you that many parents don’t do that had a substantial impact on you?
They trusted me. They trusted that I would use good judgment. Yes, there are some dangerous things out there in the world, but they said, we’re going to not only trust our kid that she can handle them, we’re going to tell her that we trust her and let her know through our words and our actions.
Every single time there was a moment where I had to make a big decision about how to spend my time or what the next right thing for me to do was, they didn’t jump in and fix that for me. They trusted me. So the biggest thing my parents gave me was the ability to trust my own kids. I think if you were to ask my kids, “Does your mom trust you to make good decisions?” I hope that the answer is yes, because I’d like to start from a place of trust.
One of my favorite quotes about this, it’s from Laurence Steinberg, who wrote this wonderful book called “Age of Opportunity“. I love this quote so much and I keep it on my desk. It says: “Permit when you can. Protect when you must.”
So, permit and trust our kids; always be there with protection, but only when we must. I’m indebted to Laurence Steinberg because it’s a touchstone for me. It’s something I try to remember all the time. But my parents made it easier for me to do that because I’m operating from the assumption that I think my kids are going to make good decisions.
Writing a book is a great exercise in productivity and battling procrastination. Did you learn any good tips or lessons?
I learned that for someone who thinks in chunks of 800 to 1,200 words, it’s really, really hard to hold 80,000 in your head all at one time. My editor Gail Winston at Harper, she’s an editor for a lot of journalists. Honestly, I had my own “gift of failure” moment because my first draft came back and the basic message was, “Yeah, this is unpublishable.”
Unfortunately, at the exact same moment I was getting the news that I was going to have to basically rework the book, I had a horseback riding accident and I suffered a severe concussion and couldn’t really read or write for a good long time. It took about four months for me to get back to about 99 percent, which is where I am now. It was a huge learning experience for me.
With my editor, I hope I had a good “gift of failure” response. I said, “Tell me what I need to do differently and I will do that. Help me learn from this experience.” So yeah, I cried. And I was like, “Well, I stink and I can never write this book. Obviously I can only write in short chunks. This is a lesson in fear and despair.” But she talked me through it and explained how to do it, and I learned. It took me another six months to get to the place where the book was ready, but I learned a lot.
So now instead of just being confident that I can write a book, I feel competent. I feel like, “Okay, I took feedback. I used it. I learned. And God bless it, the whole process is hard.” Book two hopefully won’t be as challenging because I have skills I didn’t have before. I learned from my immense, disgusting, horrible, earth-shattering failure the first time around. That’s all I could hope for: to learn from it, take feedback constructively, and try not to fall into the pit of despair.
As much as you wouldn’t have wished for it, it sounds like the accident, getting some time away and having that break, might have been helpful.
It’s funny. Someone asked me what my most productive moments are, and I said, “Honestly, they’re after I wake up in the morning but about 20 minutes before I’ve actually opened my eyes and started my day. I think through a lot of stuff and I let my brain unhinge.”
After the concussion, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t write, and I couldn’t look at a computer screen, I couldn’t look at a television, and I couldn’t listen to music. Really, all that was left was laying there.
It was kind of a weird forced silent retreat situation. The kids were at school, my husband was at work, and I was by myself with nothing to do except lay there and think, but not actually write. That was really invaluable, and it helped me understand the importance of that part of my writing process, and it helped me accept that I don’t have to feel guilty about when I go outside and go for a walk, or go outside and go gardening. Letting my brain be quiet and work through the feedback I’ve gotten is actually an absolutely essential part of my writing process.
So now I embrace it. If I’m feeling stuck, I go for a walk. I think I’m a much more efficient writer now, oddly enough, for not just sitting down and gutting it out at the computer screen, but for taking a walk first and letting my brain do what it needs to do in order to get ready and organize all my thoughts. Laying there so much was a nightmare — I’m a hyperactive, goal-oriented person — but in the end I think that quiet time was an incredible learning experience.
As a teacher, are there any pet peeves you have with parents? Any counsel that you’d give to parents on dealing with educators?
For the most part, teachers become teachers because they want to help kids learn. I know there are exceptions to that rule, but for the most part, teachers want kids to learn and teachers are invested in that for a lot of reasons, either because their jobs depend on it or because they just care that much.
One of the things that teachers teach kids is not necessarily subject matter, but strategy, how to deal with feedback, and how to deal with the consequences of their actions. So when parents short-circuit consequences by intervening and saying, “You can’t punish my child. You can’t hold my kid accountable. You can’t make my kid feel sad,” that short-circuits a huge part of the learning process.
Middle school is prime time for failure. We repeatedly ask kids to do more than they’re ready for. Good middle school teachers know this. They are all about teaching kids 10 different strategies so they can find one that works. When a parent comes in and short-circuits the teaching of a strategy for a kid — for example, giving the kid a zero on an assignment so that they figure out a way to not forget the homework assignment next time — that short-circuits the whole learning process.
It’s really like saying, “Teach my kid,” and then handcuffing them and putting duct tape over the teacher’s mouth. It’s really unfair. Teachers and parents have become adversaries, and we’re so entrenched in our position as teacher or parent. We’re have to have a cease-fire and start learning how to trust each other again.
That goes for teachers and that goes for parents. It’s really sad that we’ve gotten to this place where parents see teachers as the enemy and teachers have started to view parents as the enemy. It’s time for us to start trusting each other a little bit more that we know what we’re doing.
How you would have handled your own education differently? You earned a law degree and although it’s relevant to the work you’re doing today, you’re not a practicing attorney.
I went to law school to be a juvenile attorney, and I think if I wasn’t a teacher or a writer I probably would return to that. I was going to work in juvenile court with kids, and I happened to become a teacher because I was given an opportunity to teach during law school and fell so in love with it there was no looking back.
Law school was actually a big turning point for me, and there are things that I wish I had done differently there. This is a story I’ve been telling parents to help them take a deep breath. Before I went to law school, I had done well in school. I had been a good student. I jumped through all the right hoops. I got to law school and I was so entrenched in what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”: I had been labeled “smart” and “good student” and was enamored with those labels.
When it came time to do practice exams in the first semester of law school, I didn’t do them. I thought, I’m smart enough, I don’t have to do them. And I also thought, if anyone sees me doing them, they’ll think this is not easy for me, and I won’t seem as smart. So I didn’t do them.
And so when I got my first law school exam back, it was civil procedure, I had a great professor, and I thought I was doing well in the class — and I got a 68. I was so not familiar with failing that I did not know if a 68 was a failing grade or not. “Oh my gosh, have I just failed an entire semester of law school?” Instead of thinking to myself, “Huh, I should’ve taken the practice exam,” or, “Huh, I must not be good at taking law school exams and I should probably do something differently next time,” my first impulse was to walk to the dean’s office and quit law school. My reaction to failing was: Red alert. Quit.
How insane is that? That’s what we’re doing to kids by making them so enamored with the label of “smart”, with the label of “learning must look effortless”. We tell them things like, “You got an A on this test and you hardly even studied. Bravo.”
Thank goodness, my best friend at the time and the dean talked me down. I went to the professor’s office, and I swore I wouldn’t cry but I did. I cried in his office. He asked how I did on the practice exam. I said, “I didn’t take the practice exam,” and he said, “Well, that was your first mistake.” I did so much better the next semester because by hook or by crook I’d taken a practice exam and nearly failed it. It just happened to count.
So that was an incredible turning point for me. It was my first inclination that I shift from this fixed mindset — “It has to be easy all the time and it has to look easy” — to thinking that feedback, learning, practice, and thinking hard can be a good thing. Because when things are hard and we work really hard at them, we get better at them. It was a big revelation for me and somehow I had to be 26 when I figured it out. I would love to pass this on now so the kids could be twelve when they figure it out as opposed to halfway through an expensive law school where their first inclination is to quit when they get a bad grade.
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Images By Tang Ming Tung via Getty Images