Show of hands, who is hoping to raise autonomous, competent, creative kids? In her practical book, The Gift of Failure, author, parent, and educator Jessica Lahey explains the way today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting style has inadvertently undermined the independence of many of our children. Luckily for us, she can relate. And, after exploring the reasons we find ourselves tidying up after our teenagers, driving that lunch to school, and generally bulldozing uncomfortable obstacles out of the way, Lahey lays out sensible strategies to make changes.
When I think back to my children as infants, I never worried whether they would learn to walk and run, no matter how often they toppled over after a few wobbly steps. Yet, once our children reach school age, we tend to lose our perspective on the value, even necessity, of failure for learning. This is not entirely our fault. The ever-present news cycle and advent of social media have created an inescapable sense that we are under constant threat or, at least, are underperforming compared to our neighbors. We self-soothe by monitoring our kids’ every move and then appropriating their successes as validation of our own A+ parenting. Here’s the catch: every time we rescue our children from a challenge, we send the message that they are incapable. We deny them the chance to “muck around in the unpleasant, messy experience of failure long enough” to develop problem-solving skills, creativity, and perseverance.
Maybe you are already skilled at guiding your children through tough situations without taking over. But, if you are like me, you might tend to give directions instead of prompts and give opinions instead of feedback. Challenge yourself to take a hard look at the patterns and habits in your family. How do you react to a B or a C? What do you do when your child faces a tough social interaction? Do these moments belong to your child or do you feel compelled to intervene? All sorts of disappointments, rejections, corrections, and criticisms are opportunities in disguise. If we simply preserve children’s short-term happiness, we deprive them of the chance to become resilient, capable adults.
Before you get too down on yourself, Lahey offers some hopeful solutions. It’s never too early, or late, to teach children how to problem-solve under their own power. Household responsibilities are an easy first step to instill a sense of purpose. Although kids may do it wrong at first, we owe them the patience and time to work it out themselves. Our reward is increasing self-sufficiency, from toddlers through adolescence. The author goes on to outline challenges and opportunities specific to middle and high school ages then addresses how friendships and competitive sports can develop a strong sense of self alongside courage, sportsmanship, and teamwork - if we can get out of the way long enough. Lastly, Lahey challenges parents to give academic responsibility back to our children, disentangling ourselves from homework and creating strong parent-teacher partnerships.
After reading The Gift of Failure, I made some changes in my own home. I gave my preschooler a wipe instead of cleaning up the spill myself, forgotten homework folders were left on the table, and I bit my tongue during sibling squabbles. I am hoping to lay the foundation for a strong, positive attitude when the real challenges rise ahead. Lahey points out that while potential consequences increase in middle and high school, “the greater risk lies in sheltering and protecting kids from failures while they are still living at home, because failures that happen...in the real world carry far higher stakes.” Although it may seem an arduous task, we must learn to differentiate between desirable challenges and insurmountable difficulties. In the end, our children must journey their own story, even if the parental experience of watching it unfold can be nerve racking. We can, however, be patient and give them the gifts of pride in their own successes and trust in their ability to rise above their failures.