“The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed” (Harper), by Jessica Lahey
A new book written by a schoolteacher has a simple yet compelling message for parents: Back off.
In “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” author Jessica Lahey pushes back against helicopter parenting, which she acknowledges having fallen victim to when raising her own children.
“(T)oday’s parents simply are not allowing their child to muck about in the unpleasant, messy experience of failure long enough to come to terms with the shortcoming of plan A and formulate plans B, C, D and E.” It’s the kids who have failed and regrouped, Lahey writes, “who will create true innovation and change the world” because they think creatively, aren’t afraid to try new strategies and show resolve when they hit bumps in the road.
This approach emphasizes the long view of parenting, which is to raise children who are equipped to make their own way in the world. The stakes in childhood are relatively low, so Lahey argues that it behooves parents to let their children take the reins and not short-circuit their learning.
Lahey cites decades of research on the perhaps unintuitive way parents can encourage academic success in their children: “If parents back off the pressure and anxiety over grades and achievement, and focus on the bigger picture - a love of learning and independent inquiry - grades will improve and test scores will go up.”
On the topic of homework, Lahey favors a complete hands-off approach, even when your child seems to have hit a stumbling block. “Not all answers come immediately. Give children time and silence to think,” Lahey writes. “Not only will it teach them to value quiet; it also shows them that you value the process of coming up with the answer as much as the answer itself.”
Beyond academics, Lahey advocates the return of children as useful, contributing members of the family and, again, allowing them to experience failure. “When the child who loaded those food-laden plates into the dishwasher unloads the dishwasher, she will discover that crust food on the plate,” Lahey writes, “and you will have the opportunity then to explain how to prevent that mistake in the future.”
This tongue-holding parenting extends to the playground and playdates, too. Children learn how to interact with others through free play with other children, Lahey writes. “Adults should give kids the space and freedom to learn this language and work out the tough social moments for themselves because those fights, tussles, silent treatments, and breakups are, despite the tears and heartbreak they cause, invaluable opportunities for growth.”
Furthermore, Lahey advocates withholding judgment on your child’s social choices, even when it comes to a friend you perceive as a bad influence. “Making, keeping, and deciding when and how to part with friends is part of your child’s education.”
The book, expounding on the themes of a viral article Lahey wrote in the Atlantic, is heavily researched and rich with references to other excellent books like “Mindset” by Carol Dweck and “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. The last third of the book meanders from the issue of failure but is still useful, with sections dedicated to executive function skills and advice on developing a positive relationship with your child’s teacher.
For this reader, a side benefit of pulling away from micromanaging was immediately apparent: more time to dedicate to other, more enjoyable pursuits. Lahey’s book comes out just in time for parents to turn over a new leaf with the start of a new school year.
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