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Parents: let your kids fail. You’ll be doing them a favor
Your teenager has a science project due. He hates science. He hates projects (as do you). Do you:
A. Set deadlines for him, get the necessary materials, lay them out on the table with some homemade chocolate chip cookies
B. Ask your neighbor who is a renowned chemist to stop by and wax poetic about the joys of the periodic table
C. Hide and pray
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.
“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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Let them own it
Ever grabbed a sponge from a kid because she was making too much of a mess cleaning up?
The dirty secret of parenting is that kids can do more than we think they can, and it’s up to us to figure that out. (Apparently the French have sorted this out with kids and cooking, and they let their young toddlers wield large knives.) Kids can do dishes and clean a room without a bribe, but to get to clean kitchens and tidier rooms we have to face messier kitchens, not perfectly sorted laundry, and clothes stuffed in drawers while they figure it out.
Lahey cites the example of a student who was struggling in a gifted and talented school. His mother had been running interference for him for years, managing issues with teachers, and nagging the teen to do his work. The alternative was the failing local public school.
Fed up, the mother took the son to the school. She gave him the choice: she wasn’t working anymore to keep him in the gifted program. Her son was shocked at what he saw and stepped up his work. He started to talk to his teachers when he had problems—without his mom setting up the meetings—and did more homework. He was never an A student, but that was not the point.
Praise effort and not outcomes
We love to praise our kids; call it a hangover from the self-esteem movement of the 1970s. But praising kids for being smart rather than working hard pushes them into what Stanford researcher Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset, one in which kids shy away from challenges. Consider this study, which Dweck did variations on for years and I wrote about here:
Researchers give two groups of fifth graders easy tests. Group one is told they got the questions right because they are smart. Group two is told they got the questions right because they tried hard. Then they give the kids a harder test, one designed to be far above their ability. Turns out the “smart” kids don’t like the test and don’t want to do more. The “effort” kids think they need to try harder and welcome the chance to try again. The researchers give them a third test, another easy one. The “smart” kids struggle, and perform worse than they did on the first test (which was equally easy). The “effort” kids outperform their first test, and outperform their “smart” peers.
And here’s the really scary part: the researchers then tell the kids they’re going to give the same test at another school, and ask them to send a note over with their own scores. Forty percent of the “smart” kids lie about their results, compared with around 10% of the “effort” kids.
Lahey sees the results of a fixed mindset in her classrooms. The kids who have been overpraised for their smarts “do the bare minimum required top get by; they never take up the gauntlet of challenging extra work and are reluctant to risk saying anything that might be wrong,” she writes.
Dweck’s advice is easy: praise effort, not outcomes. Lahey adds to that advice: let your kids know about your own struggles. If they see you fail and survive, they will know that failing at a task is not failing as a person.
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.
The teacher is your partner, not your adversary
If we talk to teachers and they talk to us, a lot of problems can be avoided. Easier said than done.
Lahey tells harrowing tales of parents who demand grade changes and refuse to see challenges as learning opportunities. “Teaching has become a push and pull between opposing forces in which parents want teachers to educate their children with increasing rigor, but reject those rigorous lessons as ‘too hard’ or ‘too frustrating’ for their children to endure,” she writes.
Lahey has a long list of suggestions on how to build a better parent-teacher relationship. Some are so obvious it is sad she has to write them down—be friendly and polite; project an attitude of respect for education.
Here are some others:
- Wait a day before emailing a teacher over a perceived emergency or crisis
- Let the teacher know about big events at home
- Let your child have a voice; role-play to help him prepare for tough conversations
Some other excellent books on the subject of extracting yourself from your kids’ lives include Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success and Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.
The somewhat contrarian message in all of them: failure = success.