Education: To Live And Let Fail

GiftFailure hc cEditor’s Note: For years, middle school teacher and writer Jessica Lahey had been noticing a number of worrisome and related issues among her students. These issues ranged from students being overly-anxious about grades to not being particularly passionate about learning. But it wasn’t until her own children became middle-school students themselves that Lahey had a powerful personal and professional epiphany about all this. She realized that, as much as she was part of the solution (as a teacher), she was actually part of the problem (as a parent). Or in other words, that she, too, needed some of the advice she was offering the parents of her students.

That realization—coupled with a few more years of writing (notably in the Atlantic Monthly), research, and re-thinking key aspects of her parenting approach—has yielded the game-changing bestseller, The Gift Of Failure: How The Best Parents Learn To Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

Simply put, I think it’s one the most important, thought-provoking, and helpful books about raising children that has been written in a long time. And because much of it has to do with a family’s approach to how their child learns, I also consider it one of the most important books about education as well. –Eric Messinger

What inspired you to write this book?

There was a particular day, and it was the day when a student wrote an essay about being afraid of failure, but it had been something that had been growing over time. Especially as my own kids get older—realizing that I’m teaching middle school and I have a middle schooler—I’m seeing the same behavior in my middle schoolers that I’m seeing in my students… It kind of all came crashing down on the day the student wrote that essay and when my kid couldn’t tie his shoes. That was sort of a black-and-white thing that I was making excuses for and I couldn’t make excuses for it anymore. It got kind of obvious and uncomfortable for my son. It was a progression, but there was that moment of: “Oh man, now I am in deep water.” It was also freeing because I could treat it like a research project and I love to research as a journalist.

What were your parents like when you were growing up?

Both of my parents worked. We lived in a town where there were woods, I had access to horses and swimming and ice skating, and my parents just kind of trusted me to make good judgement calls. I think above and beyond that they gave me the freedom; there were whole days where they had no idea where I was, but more than that was that they were conveying that they trusted me. I was one of those kids that really responded well to being trusted. The more they trusted me the more I believed that I could make good decisions. I think that cycle was a really positive thing for me. I could also do a fair amount of exploring the world on my own without the expectation that I had to be good at everything. I put the pressure on myself but they certainly didn’t.

Do you think parents have to be all in with being either super-involved or more hands-off, or is there a middle ground?

As parents, we are so often faced with an all-or-nothing perspective. I hate that. There are plenty of times when I admit, when I am at speaking engagements, that although I have done a particular thing a certain way, it is going to depend on priorities in other families. [For example], the threshold for when enough is enough is going to depend on the importance of music in the family. I talk a lot about a parent portal for grades. At my house I decided: No. Just because it exists doesn’t mean it is a good thing. In fact if you look at the research on how to get kids motivated and how to get kids intrinsically motivated, these parent portals are a disaster for that. So in our house, when that envelope [with grades in it] comes to our house we hand it back to our son. But, I offer the halfway measure and if you get the cold sweats about not doing it at all, you could say: “I’m going to check on Friday and we are going to have a conversation about it.” But, the way one family does it may not be right for your family. Recently someone said that they found the whole idea of being an autonomy-supportive parent as being too laissez-faire, but what is interesting to me is that I have become a much stricter parent since I started parenting for autonomy. If my expectations and consequences are clear and it is clear that I am going to be following through with consequences, I am a much stricter parent with higher expectations than I had before. My expectations before were that I was going to bug them 650 times to do it, whereas now, I just expect that they are going to do it.

How should parents go about setting expectations?

The expectation in our house is that homework will be done, will be done thoroughly, then will go in your backpack, and then will go in your teacher’s hands. I was really specific [about that], especially with my younger son. I was not going to check on that and when my son had the notebook where we had to sign off on it, we let his teacher know that we would not sign our son’s notebook, he was going to do it. The expectations with my son were really crystal-clear and the consequences were going to be enforced. Our consequences were related to the thing itself. So the consequences were that we would set up a meeting with his teacher and he would set it up. It was his responsibility to make sure things were getting done and if they weren’t, then he would need to talk to an adult about how to change the situation. The clear expectations go with household chores, homework, making sure sports stuff gets to practice, and all that kind of stuff. But, it’s not fair to switch to something like this if we don’t let them know what the expectations are. If you do that, you are setting them up to completely fail and that’s not what we want.

How did your family react to your new view on parenting and setting expectations?

When this all started, I had a middle schooler and third grader. The middle schooler was getting into teendom and there was a lot of eye-rolling. There was the quote: “I know you are doing that ‘gift of failure thing’ but could you really help me out?” We’ve been really open about this and my teens were no exception. It has been a real learning experience battling the natural hiccup in developing the frontal lobe. My younger son has just been a more willing guinea pig, but it has been really fun seeing my older son benefit from this, even the stuff that he likes to get snarky about. I think he does enjoy that I trust him more and I trust him to be competent and to do the right thing.

In terms of the connotation of failure: Should it be kept or changed?

When we were working on the title…[my editor, agent, and I] all decided that the word “failure” should be there. I think, in a way, that it’s important to desensitize us to the word. It was funny because I was speaking last week, and a parent, said: “What happens when your kid really starts to fail?” And I had to stop here and be like: “What type of failure are we talking about here? B-minus-type failure, or something else?” We’re starting to view “failure” as not being perfect all the time. And that’s really unfair to do to kids. If we start to desensitize people to the word and it becomes a normal, expected part of an experience, then it’s going to allow kids to relax a little bit and not feel like they have to be effortless or have to be perfect all that time.

How can schools incorporate your practices?

From the beginning, I wanted to write a book, one for parents and one for teachers. My affection runs deep for my colleagues, and I wanted a book that not only supported teachers and their relationships with their students’ parents, but [I also wanted] to help parents understand how their relationship with their kid’s teacher is incredibly important. Chapter 10 is a love letter to teachers. This book is really hard for a school administrator to hand to a parent—it really works well as a whole-school class read or a community read. That’s how it has been used by a lot of schools… Community reads have been fun because I go to the school and I talk to parents and teachers, and if the school is really into it, then sometimes I talk to students the next day so I can help these students live up to these higher expectations. It’s really nice when I go into these communities that have read the book and have experience with the book.

Have you had any specific experiences with students that you can share?

When I go and speak to kids, it’s really interesting to hear [what they have to say]. First of all, I get a really good picture of how many kids are getting paid for their grades—which is a lot. Then also, kids will say: “How can I help my parents understand that I need more control?” I sort of help them come up with the language to help them talk to their parents. When it gets really heartbreaking is when I hear students [whose] parents are divorced, and they say it’s hard for them to get their parents on the same page. One girl—and this really blew me away—said: “Look, I want to talk to my parents more and spend more time with them at dinner, but I don’t want to just talk to them about school. I want to talk about things not having to do with grades.” She was so sad because there were so many missed opportunities. I had to think of my own time at the table, and ask: “Am I feeding my kids the desire to talk to me? Or am I setting myself up to alienate my kids into talking about those things?” So talking to kids has been a really effective thing because listening to my own kids was where it all started, so listening to other kids is a logical extension of that.

How can you help parents to still trust their kids after their kids “fail”?

I love the book called of Age of Opportunity by Laurence Steinberg… The quote that I love is: “Permit when you can, protect when you must.” I love that the default is permit. Permit and trust because kids need to explore, need to be trusted, and move out of their comfort zone. We tend to default to protect and I think the idea is that you have to default to permit and protect only when things get really dire. Allow kids and allow yourself to get a little uncomfortable first with permit before you head over to protect.

Was there anything that really surprised you when you were doing your research?

I think one of things I talked about was being confused as a parent and looking at the little house on the prairie that was a little simpler. I think that has been a big release for me—to not be as confused. I think you should keep the long term in mind. I think we can agonize over the short term a lot…but every single time I start to stress over that, I have to pull back and ask if it this important long term and if answer is “yes” then I can relax. Where we tend to trip ourselves up is: “Is his homework done today? Is he happy today? Is he growing?” That’s where we tend to stress out.

There seems to have been a change in education from the emphasis being on learning to being on grades. Do you think we can transition back?

We are in a really bad place right now where everything is about the product, the grades, the scores. We’ve completely lost sight of [the fact that] what’s important is whether or not the child is learning… There’s been a lot of push to re-think how grades work. There is conversation going on, but we are in the middle of this extremely polarized educational front with Common Core and state standards—that conversation is kind of on the periphery right now. But I think if things settle down with Common Core stuff, there is a lot to be learned from that discussion about other ways to assess kids that may be useful. We are in an all-or-nothing phase which is really unfortunate… I think the idea of long term over short term, and process over product, would go a long way to help the kids learn more.

To learn more about Jessica Lahey, visit!