“The Gift of Failure”

The Gift of Failure

by Jessica Lahey

A review

Last April during spring break I took the kids to Sesquicentennial State Park to spend the afternoon – feeding ducks & geese, climbing trees, playing on the playground, having a picnic followed by an Easter egg hunt…and some paddle boating on the quiet lake.

We got in the boat, I installed one child at each pedal, I sat on the back bench, and then I was hands off and the kids were instruction free.

I told them nothing – not how to pedal, or how to use the “steering wheel,” or where to paddle us, or how to go backwards, or how fast or slow to go. I didn’t even make suggestions. I just sat there and let them figure it all out. I mean, it was a paddle boat, people, and my children were wearing life jackets – the risks were pretty darn low.

Why not let them figure out how to maneuver a paddle boat? It isn’t rocket science and there aren’t any dangerous parts (unlike a boat with oars or, heavens, a motor).

Why not let them have total control over where we went and how fast or slow we got there? What did I care, really? Why not be content to simply ride and enjoy the sunshine and the water and my beautiful healthy children in such bliss? Why ruin that with helicopter parenting?

And when they disagree, but have not yet come to blows, must I referee? Could I just pay attention and only intercede when truly necessary? Could I keep my mouth shut long enough for them to figure out how to give & take, how to compromise, or how to persuade the other?

I must say, both they and I had a stupendous time on that paddle boat ride. I intervened twice – once because the geese on the island where we’d stopped appeared to be getting feisty and territorial, and a second time when the kids’ disagreement threatened to get physical.

Otherwise, they just explored.

I was consciously following the advice of author Jessica Lahey in this book The Gift of Failure: How the best parents learn to let go so their children can succeed.

Lahey, a middle school teacher, journalist, and parent, submits that modern parents “helicopter parent” at unprecedented levels. The result: stressed out parents raising stressed out kids who lack independence, competence, motivation, and the ability to persevere.

So, she says, “LET. GO.”

Let your children fail while the stakes are only as high as an untied shoelace or a sandbox disagreement. This can create in your children the resilience to overcome higher obstacles like failing to turn in homework or dealing with the “mean girls.” This in turn gives them the ability to persevere through ever more significant challenges: college roommates, ex-boyfriends, job interviews.

She addresses, practically, homework, report cards, social dynamics, sports, and household chores – viewing them all through the lenses of the long-term goal: well-adjusted, capable, independent adults.

It was an excellent read.

And now Samuel (9) and Hannah (7) do their own laundry. Okay, okay, I still measure out the detergent, and do the folding (their folding is of the sort a pupgift-of-failure-coverpy might do).

Some passages I dog-eared:

“Despite the wealth of evidence revealing the folly of these methods [rewards and incentives], we continue to incorporate them into our parenting, and lacking regular performance reviews from some higher authority, many of us look to our children to provide the feedback we need in order to feel as if we are doing our jobs well….Parents, after all, are judged by their children’s accomplishments rather than their happiness, so when our children fail, we appropriate those failures as our own.” – p. xix

Well Jesus may not give me a regular performance review, per se, but he definitely qualifies as MY higher authority.

And I would submit that we appropriate our children’s successes or failures as our own because we are a society of adults with an extraordinarily low sense of self-worth. We cannot stand comfortably in our own skin. How our children do is indeed how we do. We are not our own person.

Also, we’re a culture that judges by the externals. And we reward externals, whether they took great character or not. Modern-day parenting is not immune to this.

“History is filled with stories of extraordinary people, inventers and innovators, who learned how to appropriate the gifts of failure to their own advantage, who did not run from it, but stayed in its company long enough to become comfortable amid the jumbled wreckage of their dashed hopes and flawed plans….the ability to attend to a task and stick to long-term goals is the greatest predictor of success, greater than academic achievement, extracurricular involvement, test scores, and IQ.” – p. xxi

I once heard of a female CEO, daughter of Indian immigrants to America, say that every single night at the dinner table her father would ask his children, one by one, to name something they had failed at that day.

A failure, not a success.

His theory was that if you had not failed at trying something, you weren’t trying enough. He wasn’t celebrating failure so much as he was promoting effort and resilience.

“When a teacher moves around the room, praising each kid, ‘Great job! You are so smart!’ the students figure out pretty quickly that someone is being lied to. They know they can’t all be geniuses, and they begin to doubt our honesty – or at the very least, our judgment…The truth I try to impart to every single one of my students is this: it all gets hard eventually, even the stuff you have a talent for.” – pp. 64-65

Yes, Samuel, my little mathematical brain, it will get hard for you too.

So my kids get a lot less help from me these days on things that, honestly, kids their age should know (and things that I have taught them already) – how to tie a shoelace, how to make a PB&J, how to pack their own clothes (last spring they learned the hard way that when Mom says “pack some socks” they should pack some socks – those were cold feet on that camping trip!), how to remember what’s needed at a dance rehearsal or a Cub Scout meeting or a road trip.

I’m always there to kiss boo-boos. But I’m going to stop trying to prevent them all.

Let these failures teach them now, while the stakes are low, in hopes and prayers and practice of competence, motivation, resilience, and grit when the stakes are high.

Lord willing.

 

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Published in: on January 8, 2017 at 3:09 am  Leave a Comment  

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