Giving Our Children The Gift Of Failure

by Lisa Heffernan
Originally Published: 

Jessica Lahey, educator, mom and author of The Gift of Failure, had a parenting epiphany: After a decade in front of the classroom and an equal number of years as a mother, she came to see that, with the best will in the world and only good intentions, we parents have taught a generation of kids to fear and avoid failure. By doing this, Lahey explains, we have blocked their path to success.

Her job, and all of our jobs, is to instill competence, independence and intrinsic motivation in our children, but it became clear to Lahey that we are not doing this. Instead, we cultivate dependence, smooth the way forward for our children and assume that there is plenty of time—before they reach adulthood—to teach them to fend for themselves.

It makes us feel good to care for our children, to do for them, even when there is a nagging voice in the backs of our minds telling us this is wrong. In order to get one of my sons more organized throughout his middle and high school years, I mounted a large dry-erase board above his desk and made him write down all of his assignments. By looking at the words in front of him, I reasoned, he could not delude himself about how much work he had or how imminent his deadlines were. However, I persisted in reminding him to write on the board and then to read it, so he never had to take full responsibility for it. Freshman year in college, with my nagging absent (or in truth, aimed at his younger brother), he misjudged due dates and eventually made mistakes in turning in his work. During his years at home, the adult in me knew that the whiteboard was designed to keep me out of the process, but the parent in me could not quite let go of my “helping” role for fear that my son would fail in his efforts to get organized.

After Lahey realized her own efforts were similarly hindering her children’s growth, she and her husband resolved to change. There would be no more rescuing their kids from their mistakes, no more swooping down to put things right. Their kids would be required to take on age-appropriate responsibilities at home and at school. Lahey was certain that she owed it to her sons to give up the pleasure we get as parents when we make something right for our kids in exchange for the long-term gain of raising children who are competent and independent and love learning.

Then her younger son left a homework assignment over which he had labored on the living room coffee table when he left for school. Lahey was going to be at her son’s school later that day, and it would be no effort to bring the paper to him. The real effort, she revealed, was in not bringing the assignment to her son. She reached out on Facebook and told her followers that this “whole letting my kids mess up” parenting thing was hard work and, in her words, was “KILLING ME.”

Her followers offered her support, but one particularly intransigent mother pushed back. Lahey’s son had done his homework. Wasn’t she being too hard on him? Shouldn’t she do for him what she would do for anyone else? Really, what harm would it do? Lahey included her dissenter’s comments in the book:

“Jessica I admire you greatly, as I hope you know, but I would not do this. I forget things every day. I have driven things to my husband’s office that he has left on the kitchen counter. I think a certain level of distraction is inevitable in our lives, no matter how hard we try, and high school kids are the most overwhelmed by it. I would be so happy that the homework was done, on time, neat and ready that unless I was unable to do so, I would take it to school. I would save my consequences for homework that was not done or was not well done.”

Being that I was the dissenter, it seemed like a good argument. Or at least, that is what I thought when I wrote it. But I was speaking from impulse, and Lahey’s’ response to me was carefully reasoned. We are not, she reminded me, raising our husbands. Doing something for a friend or my spouse may help them, and that is being a good friend or wife. But when I swoop down and do the same for my child, Lahey explains that “we send a very clear message: that we believe they are incompetent, incapable and unworthy of our trust. Furthermore, we teach them to be dependent on us and thereby deny them the very education in competence we are put here on this earth to hand down.”

I would love to tell you that Lahey is wrong, that I used to drive my kids’ homework to school (which I did) and that they later learned in high school or college to remember things themselves. But, my kids might read this and call me out. Here is the truth: The son for whom I ran gym clothes and homework and lunches and, honestly, everything to school? He literally just called me from college and asked when I will be visiting him next, because he forgot some things at home.

There is no question in my mind that even as my kids are nearly independent (clearly not fully!), Lahey’s book is making me think differently as a parent and, as only the very best books can do, take a long hard look at my behavior. I have failed to let my son fail. And while in his phone call my son included the disclaimer that it was his fault that he forgot his things again and that I shouldn’t feel like I needed to bring them to him, I surprised both of us when I didn’t.

Lahey’s book is surely a gift to parents, a wake-up call that reminds us that our job is not about making our children happy or successful today, but rather helping to nurture future adults who can do this for themselves.

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