The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey
Today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting style has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation.
We have taught our kids to fear failure, and in doing so, we have blocked the surest and clearest path to their success.
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 this world.
Our kids can learn how to engineer their own solutions and pave their way toward success
The pressure to succeed from an early age has ramped up for both parents and kids.
They are terrible tools for motivating children to engage in creative problem-solving, and they actually undermine long-term motivation and investment in learning. Even more damaging, the use of rewards and incentives prioritizes scores and grades over exploration and experimentation, which undermines a teacher’s ability to foster self-directed and intrinsically motivated learning.
Failure—from small mistakes to huge miscalculations—is a necessary and critical part of our children’s development.
All opportunities in disguise, valuable gifts misidentified as tragedy.
Gritty students succeed, and failure strengthens grit like no other crucible.
Children whose parents don’t allow them to fail are less engaged, less enthusiastic about their education, less motivated, and ultimately less successful than children whose parents support their autonomy.
It’s going to be the kid who has tried and failed and regrouped in order to try again with twenty-five other plans who will create true innovation and change in our world.
Focus on three goals: embracing opportunities to fail, finding ways to learn from that failure, and creating positive home-school relationships.
Every time I tied his shoes, rather than teach him to do it himself, I reinforced his perception that I believed the task was too hard for him.
Learn to appreciate the positive aspects of hardship and allow children to benefit from the upside of failure
Children who like their parents all the time are not apt to be children who are corrected when they misbehave, called on for their mistakes, or asked to consider the needs of other people.
The catch is that what feels good to us isn’t always what is good for our children.
Marianna has sacrificed her natural curiosity and love of learning at the altar of achievement, Marianna does not get praised for the diligence and effort she puts in to sticking with a hard math problem or a convoluted scientific inquiry.
All kids begin life motivated by their own desire to explore, create, and build.
In Deci’s view, money does not motivate, so much as it controls, and that control disrupts our sense of intrinsic motivation.
As soon as your child is capable of working on his own, and maybe even a little bit before he is completely independent, give him choices.
Is your goal an A on next Friday’s algebra test, or your child’s interest in learning math over the long term?
This is why intermittent rewards can work even if routine, expected rewards do not.
You cannot create competence through praise alone.
Show him that you are dedicated to the idea that success is tied to effort, not innate talent.
We teach our kids that they only need to worry about themselves, and risk pushing them over the line between ineffectual and incompetent right into lazy and narcissistic. Ineffectual and incompetent can be remedied with some patience but the reeducation of a narcissist is a much bigger challenge.
Children who view obstacles as overwhelming and insurmountable give up on their goals.
Failure to develop fluency is a significant handicap in life.
She needs to appreciate fully that she has failed at a social interaction and sit with those confusing, bad feelings.
When we don’t allow our children to experience the full brunt of those uncomfortable moments, we deny them a glimpse into the consequences and impact of their actions on others.
Ability to enjoy uninterrupted and unrestricted free play is also predictive of academic success.
What do you like about Mike? What do you two do together? You seem to be spending a lot of time around Mike; what is it that you find interesting in him?”
“Kevin seems different from your other friends. How did you guys become friends?”
One time my teenage son was going somewhere, I don’t know where, and I said on the way out the door “be careful,” as I always had. I then heard my husband say, “Have fun,” and for the first time, I heard the differences in our parenting approaches summed up in that one exchange. My kid had always been a careful kid, and my words, whether I said them or not, were not going to serve as some magic charm over his experience. All he heard was that I did not trust him to be careful, whereas his father did. That was the last time I ever said, “Be careful,” as he left the house with friends.
Eradicate toxic and harmful people from your own life before fixing your sights on the toxic and harmful elements in your children’s lives, because your example is going to teach them much more about the anatomy of healthy relationships than your words ever will.
Rewards for positive behaviors are intrinsic motivation killers…rewards diminish enjoyment and motivation even in fun.
Parents need to find their own happy medium between the empty praise of participation trophies and the amped-up, competitive drive that sacrifices their child’s sportsmanship, performance, and motivation.
Middle school demands feats of organization, planning, time management, and shifts of focus that young adolescents are not capable of mastering, at least not all at once.
Executive function: the collection of skills and mental processes that allow us to manage our time, resources, and attention in order to achieve a goal.
It’s not coincidental that the students whose parents bail them out, and don’t allow them to deal with the consequences of these failures, develop these skills more slowly.
Keep a family calendar.
Kids should keep their own schedule as soon as they are able.
When I give my students an assignment, I try to look them in the eyes and wait until they are paying full attention.
Write tasks down so your child can refer back to your instructions.
I’m a huge fan of kid-generated checklists.
Teach your child critical listening skills.
It will be important to transition them toward a place of independence where they initiate and complete tasks under their own power.
A clearly and carefully maintained daily, weekly, and monthly calendar is vital.
Choose a time to organize once a week.
Every consequence experienced will hasten your child’s acquisition of these skills.
The first step toward intrinsic motivation is autonomy,
Knowledge in one discipline only fuels facility with another,
Give me a kid with a passion for learning, a kid who has demonstrated some measure of autonomy and motivation. Give me a kid who knows his or her mind.
- They need you to let go.
- They need to be able to make mistakes.
- They need to know that you believe in them.
- They need to know that you are interested, not intrusive.
I hope you started fostering your child’s autonomy and competence well before your son or daughter left for college.
Set goals for the first year. Ask your child what he imagines the first year of college might look like, and then ask him what he could do to turn that perfect fantasy year into reality.
Identify allies on campus.
Check in. Revisit this conversation over the holidays. Is his first year measuring up to his expectations? Why or why not? What might he have done differently?
Locate your mute button.
This process is about teaching him how to solve his own problems, and how to form a plan and follow it through.
Roommate issues don’t involve you.
Professors don’t want parental input.
Kids will ask for help when they need it.
You know, too much support isn’t a good thing. It doesn’t teach you anything, like how to survive in the world. It can be a really huge disservice.”
You have lived your life and learned the lessons it has granted you. Now it’s his turn.
The history of education in America reveals the precarious balance of power between home and school, state and federal, public and private.
Teaching used to be a noble profession, one that garnered respect and fostered pride.
What is lost, first and foremost, in all this conflict, is the trust we must have in each other to help children through their mistakes and emerge with an education.
Kids need the space to fail, and teachers need the time and benefit of the doubt to let that failure play out in the form of learning.
When parents step in to defend a child’s poor choice or mistake or failure in order to avoid the “consequence” of that action or performance, they tend to lose sight of the fact that if the student does not have the experience of making mistakes and living and learning with the consequence of that mistake or failure, college may be a very difficult experience thousands of miles away from the security of Mom and Dad when he eventually has to deal with an experience on his own. Mistakes are opportunities to grow. Failures or unsuccessful attempts are the same, and students need to live through those experiences to develop a toolbox of coping mechanisms to lift them and move them forward.
Adolescents are particularly challenged first thing in the morning due to the fact that teens’ sleep cycles are plagued by a “phase delay,” or delayed melatonin release.
We tend to abandon good, old-fashioned friendliness and congeniality when our lives become hectic and overwhelmed.
Your attitudes toward education will be your child’s attitude. Likewise, your enthusiasm for the process of learning for learning’s sake is vital to instilling the same in your child.
Find out what your child is reading at school and get an audio version of that book for the car.
Find opportunities to ask your child to teach you about something she learned in school.
Ask for details about what is happening at school, and don’t accept “I don’t remember” as an answer.
The value of a thank-you cannot be overstated, and the practice of expressing gratitude is a great lesson to model for your kids.
Dr. Albert Schweitzer: “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”
Keep your eyes on the prize of autonomy and competence, and remember that failure is going to be a vital part of her education, as vital as math or English or science.
“These children are able to do so much more than parents are willing to believe, and they can speak for themselves.”
Teachers respect students who are able to stand up for themselves and self-advocate.
The child you know at home may not be identical to the child his teachers and other students know at school.
Your child needs to understand that in the real world, people must abide by rules they don’t always agree with.
If I allow him to sail through his childhood free of frustration and upset, I am setting him up for misery. When the stakes get higher, and the painful episodes get more painful, he’s going to know how to be resilient and resourceful without me.
These teachers will be the people who will teach your child how to deal with the many challenging, unpleasant, contrary, and demanding people he will encounter over the course of his life.
Kids learn the most about sticking with a task when it’s hard, when they are sure they will never figure something out, or when they are suffering the consequences of their own procrastination or botched planning.
The key is to stay focused on the endgame rather than the moment-to-moment play-by-play, and keep those long-term goals of a growth mindset, autonomy, competence, mastery, and diligence in mind.
Here are some practical steps you can take to help children of all ages learn how to organize, strategize, and take responsibility for their homework.
- Fuel up.
- Get rid of distractions.
- Understand expectations.
- Organize and strategize.
- Suggest your child do the hardest work first.
- Evaluate the end product.
- Complete what can be completed.
- Aim for learning, not for perfection.
If he is really stuck, give him a new way to think about the problem, but do not step in to solve the problem for him.
Whenever possible, reiterate the concept that the harder we work, and the more we stretch our brains, the smarter we become.
“What we discover is more important than what we win.”
Maturing students should be maintaining their own plan book or calendar
Grades are extrinsic rewards for academic performance. Extrinsic rewards undermine motivation and long-term learning. Ergo, grades undermine motivation and long-term learning.
The earliest examples of report cards come from 1817 and focus mainly on how attentive, orderly, and prepared students were for their classes, and don’t contain any mention of academic achievement.
Grades are not a measure of our children’s worth, and often they are not even an accurate measure of their ability.
Grades, for all the weight they carry in our culture, are less important than learning. Learning is the key to understanding our world, and the universe beyond; to communicating with other people, and to innovating for the future of our society.
Emphasize Goals Rather Than Grades
When kids establish their own goals for learning, they gain a sense of ownership and competence.
Take a few deep breaths, and remind yourself of the goal here: autonomy over self-directed goals leads to intrinsic motivation, which leads to better learning and life success.
Communicate to the teacher that your family favors constructive feedback over grades, as the former is more helpful.
Choice is one of the most important aspects of establishing autonomy.
Students who are too afraid to fail tend to produce boring, un-creative, and mediocre work.
Those who equate failures with being a failure, who go into denial, or seek to blame others for their failures are doomed to repeat their mistakes over and over again, gaining nothing from the experience.