Want to help your kids? Let them suck!

An excerpt from Jessica Lahey's book The Gift of Failure, on how helicopter parenting is actually hampering our kids' success.

Photo: HarperCollins

Photo: HarperCollins

It’s hard for modern parents to watch their kids fail—we all want to swoop in and create the perfect outcome when it comes to homework, sports and friendships. But as a parent and a teacher, New York Times contributor and teacher Jessica Lahey believes experiencing failure is key for children’s development. The Gift of Failure gives parents advice on how (and why!) to step back and embrace their kid not always being the MVP.

Here’s an excerpt:

Every time we rescue, hover, or otherwise save our children from a challenge, we send a very clear message: that we believe they are incompetent, incapable, and unworthy of our trust. Further, 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.

But here’s the truth, what research has shown over and over again, children whose parents don’t allow them to fail are less engaged, less enthusiastic about their education, less motivated, and ultimately less successful than children whose parents support their autonomy.

Decades of studies and hundreds of pages of scientific evidence point to one conclusion that sounds crazy, but it absolutely works: 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. Children of controlling and directive parents are much less able to deal with intellectual and physical challenges than peers who benefit from parents who stand back and allow their children to try, and fail, and try again. Furthermore, the failure our children experience when we back off and allow them to make their own mistakes is not only a necessary part of learning; it’s the very experience that teaches them how to be resilient, capable, creative problem-solvers.

The United States has been criticized for producing a generation of inflexible thinkers, students who can memorize and regurgitate, but who are incapable of manipulating information in order to answer questions in novel and innovation ways. This is due in part to the fact that our educational system relies on high-stakes standardized testing as a measure of its efficacy, and because today’s parents simply are not allowing their child to muck about in the unpleasant, messy, experience of failure long enough to come to terms with the shortcomings of plan A and formulate plans B, C, D, and E. Lots of kids can ace a test using plan A, but it’s going to be the kid who has tried and failed and regrouped in order to try again with twenty-five other plans who will create true innovation and change in our world. That kid is not only creative and innovative in his thinking; he is also unafraid to try out new strategies. He will have the courage and resolve to work through thousands of miscalculations as he pursues a working solution. He will be able to regroup in the face of repeated failures and like Thomas Edison, he will learn the lessons inherent in discovering the thousands of ways a lightbulb does not work before inventing the one lightbulb that does.

My flash of insight has been a long time coming. Yes, I’d been uncomfortable with my own overparenting for a while, but I have to credit my students (again) for teaching me what I was too blind to see. Each year, my eighth graders write essays about an experience that has shaped their education, and after much struggle, one of my most tightly wound and anxiety-ridden students handed in the following paragraph:

“Some people are afraid of heights, some are afraid of water; I am afraid of failure; which for the record, is called atychiphobia. I am so afraid of failing that I lose focus of what actually matters; learning. In focusing on the outcome, I lose the value of the actual assignment and deprive myself of learning.”

She wend on to recount all the ways this fear has held her back in school and athletics, but those first few sentences stopped me cold. Her experience as a student, my professional experience with her parents, my own parenting, and my son’s fears all came together in her admission. This student’s parents are wonderful, kind, and caring, and they never intended to create this sort of fear in their child. And frankly, the fallout would be their own problem to deal with save for the fact that the private choices parents make that undermine their child’s social, academic, and emotional development eventually come in conflict with a teacher’s ability to educate their child.

Despite the unbridled optimism and energy of the thousands of new teachers who enter the educational workforce every year, the National Education Association reports that one-third of these teachers will quit after three years, and 46 percent will be gone within five years. According to Ron Clark, the winner of a Disney American Teacher Award, many of these fleeing educators cite “issues with parents” as one of their main reasons for abandoning the profession. In a 2011 interview with CNN, Clark related an exchange with a principal who had been named the administrator of the year in her state but had chosen to leave education. “I screamed, ‘You can’t leave us,’ and she quite bluntly replied, ‘Look, if I get an offer to lead a school system of orphans, I will be all over it, but I just can’t deal with parents anymore; they are killing us.'” I love teaching dearly, but “issues with parents” have inspired elaborate fantasies in which I abandon the profession forever, move to Alaska, and raise sled dogs. “Issues with parents” are the stuff of my nightmares.

Now that I understand the root cause of parents’ fears and worries, I do what I can to convince them that a small blip in their child’s journey means so little in the big picture, and can actually serve as a great opportunity to teach their child about resilience. I back up, let those anxious parent slow their breathing, and help them see that they have a fantastic, kind, generous, and curious child. I reassure them that he will be fine; indeed, he will do wonderful and interesting things in his life and no one will remember whatever transgression or failure triggered our conference. Some parents believe me, but many more do not, and leave my office convinced that the B-minus their child received for the semester spells the end of their dreams for educational excellence, economic security, and a lifetime of happiness.

It’s always been hard to be a teacher and equally difficult to be a parent, and there should be plenty of common ground for mutual sympathy. We are, after all, working toward a shared goal: the education of our children. Unfortunately, parents who put a priority on saving kids from frustration and teachers who put a priority on challenging their students often butt heads, and consequently, the parent-teacher partnership has reached a breaking point. Teaching has become a push and pull between opposing forces in which parents want teachers to educate their children with increasing rigor, but reject those rigorous lessons as “too hard” or “too frustrating” for their children to endure. Parents rightly feel protective of their children’s self-esteem, but teachers too often bear the brunt of parental ire.

I’ve struggled to find the best way to support parents in their efforts to love and nurture their children while teaching them how to step back a bit and allow children the safe space they need in order to fail, particularly when those kids hit middle school. Middle school is prime time for failure, even among kids who have sailed through school up to that point. The combined stressors of puberty, heightened academic expectations, and increased workload are a setup for failure. How parents, teachers, and students work together to overcome those inevitable failures predicts so much about how children will fare in high school, college, and beyond.

 

 

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