Letting Go So Your Children Can Succeed: An Evening with Author Jessica Lahey

The Center for the Advancement of Girls and The Agnes Irwin School, with the support of The Class of 1957 Speakers' Series Fund, welcomed Lahey to discuss how educators and parents can embrace failure as an essential part of learning and help our girls do the same

In her New York Times best-selling book, “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn To Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” educator and author Jessica Lahey asserts that parents today do way too much for their kids. From homework help and delivering forgotten items to making beds and even masterminding kids’ friendships, many parents are engineering what amounts to a mostly failure-free childhood and adolescence. “Out of love and desire to protect our children's self-esteem,” Lahey says, “we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of the way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness. 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 this world.”

As logical as “embracing failure” sounds, parents in 2022 can be suspicious of such an oversimplification, given the complexities of parenting in the world today. They may argue that parents and educators are stuck in patterns of helping because, well, they think they are helping. What if the kids fail classes? Get into trouble? Don’t motivate themselves? Throw away their potential? Stare at their screens more than they already do? What’s more, studies show that girls are especially vulnerable when it comes to failing either because they interpret their setbacks as a lack of ability or because they are more likely to give up when faced with stressful academic situations. The potential pitfalls of backing off are seemingly endless. 

Lahey, a teacher and a parent herself, understands the conflict firsthand. “I wrote this book for me. I had a nine-year-old who could not tie his shoes,” she admits. “I was teaching him learned helplessness. I myself needed a book that told me how to be a better teacher, how to be a better mom, how to help my kids learn better and how to help my students be intellectually brave and not be afraid of frustration in the classroom. What makes for a great teacher and parent is putting aside our need to spare children from failure.” 

In “The Gift of Failure,” Lahey outlines actionable steps parents and teachers can take to help children and teens learn lessons from failure: 

  • While it may seem obvious, be certain that your child knows that your love for them is not based on success in academics, athletics, or performance of any kind.
  • Refrain from offering extrinsic motivators in the form of rewards or incentives, like money or gifts, for good grades or checking in on their grades repeatedly. These practices undermine motivation. Instead, encourage children to be self-motivated by pride in their work and successes.
  • Communicate your non-negotiable expectations  – homework deadlines, managing belongings for school, giving a best effort, getting involved, etc. If your child does not meet the expectations, do not intervene.
  • Be autonomy-supportive, rather than a controller of details. Lahey acknowledges that this is a fine line but can be achieved by valuing your child’s success, and also mistakes. Acknowledge when things do not go as your child may have wanted and talk about the lesson-learned takeaway.
  • Prompt children and teens to solve their own problems. Praise their efforts, not their grades or results, to reinforce a growth mindset. For example, “You worked so hard at that!” The more children believe their success or talent develops with effort and perseverance, the less they will fear failure. 
  • Clean! Household duties give kids a sense of purpose, competence, responsibility and teaches them that they play a key role in the family. For younger children, they can set the table, put dishes away, and vacuum. Older children can change light bulbs, take out trash, make meals, and babysit younger children.
  • Let younger children enjoy free play as much as possible so they can learn empathy and experience peer feedback.
  • Allow kids to set their own academic goals. When they are able to, have them participate fully in their choice of electives in order to foster their sense of agency and ownership around their curriculum. 

Ultimately, Lahey asserts that stepping away will yield successes for 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,” she says.

For more information about the 2022 Center for the Advancement of Girls’ speaker series, visit agnesirwin.org/cag/events.

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