The Gift of Failure

The speaker at this year's Bringing Schools Together conference (October 4 – 5) is Jessica Lahey. Jessica writes the New York Times column, "The Parent-Teacher Conference," is a correspondent at The Atlantic and a regular commentator on Vermont Public Radio, and formerly taught middle and high school English and Latin. She has appeared as a parenting and education expert on The Today Show, Fox and Friends, MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, and many others. 

Her book, The Gift of Failure: Why Parents Need to Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, is full of profoundly valuable advice for parents and for educators. In her introduction to the book, Lahey writes, "Out of love and desire to protect our children's self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness. Unfortunately, in doing so we have deprived our children of the most important lessons of childhood. The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoved out of our children's way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative, and resilient citizens of the world." This message fits closely with Mason Prep's mission, especially as we strive to develop our students' self-discipline, responsibility, and accountability and to help them to become productive citizens of a global community. Although we work very hard at Mason Prep to help our students succeed, we also believe it is very important to help them deal with situations in which they are not successful.

As educators, we know how important it is for students to stretch themselves and to learn from their mistakes. Most of our Mason Prep teachers are also parents of children at many different stages of life, so we understand what a challenge it can be to let your child make those mistakes. While a challenge, this presents a wonderful opportunity for parents and teachers to work together to raise confident and capable learners. Here are some ways parents can help in this effort:

• Think about the long term. Lahey advocates “parenting for what is right and good in the final tally, not for what feels right and good in the moment. Parenting for tomorrow, not just for today.”

• Rely less on rewards and other external motivators and more on the pride of a job well done. According to Lahey, “the less we push our kids toward educational success, the more they will learn. The less we use external, or extrinsic, rewards on our children, the more they will engage in their education for the sake and love of learning.”

• Help your child to develop competence through experience. Allow your child to have responsibilities that you would ordinarily do for him or her. Even if your child doesn’t perform this responsibility up to your usual standard, there is room to grow. In The Gift of Failure, Lahey does a thorough job of explaining the difference between “controlling parents” and “autonomy-supportive parents.”

• Praise your child for his efforts rather than his talents. By praising children for being “smart”, we encourage an aversion to failure; if a “smart” child makes a mistake, he will come to believe that he is not “smart.” To avoid this, children will often take the easy way out and not challenge themselves to grow as learners. Lahey gives an example: “Instead of ‘Great job on that test! You are so smart!’ try ‘Great job on that test! What did you do this time in your preparation that worked so well?’”

• Realize that “rescuing” your child is counter-productive. Many parents feel that their children’s successes and failures are reflections of their parenting skills and even of their worth as individuals. Because of that, they are reluctant to allow their children to make mistakes. Lahey also discusses the role of “rescuing” as parents observe their children’s interactions with other children. According to Lahey, when children grow up “under the wing of parents who continue to rescue – from playground dust-ups, to tween misunderstandings, and the inevitable volatility of adolescent friendships – that child becomes an adult with no clue about how to negotiate, placate, reason with, and stand up to other adults.”

• Make sure your child understands that mistakes and failures do not impact the love you have for him or her.
The wisdom found in The Gift of Failure is too profound to be distilled into one blog post. I encourage all parents to read this book and to follow Jessica Lahey on social media (Twitter/Facebook). We all have the same desire: to raise children who will become successful, responsible adults. Lahey’s writings provide great guideposts along the way.

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