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Every day I passed by a table full of lunch bags. Lunch bags that students left at home and their parents brought to them. The table was set aside for parents to drop off items that kids left at home – lunch bags, lacrosse sticks, projects, gym clothes. Day after day, I saw the same names on those lunch bags.
The second I saw The Gift of Failure in the library, I thought of all those lunch bags in the main office. I agreed with the premise, having never read a single sentence. After reading it, I wanted to shout, “Amen!” to the heavens. In other words, I liked it.
The author, Jessica Lahey, is a mother and middle school teacher. As a teacher, she saw how always winning the trophy and never experiencing failure negatively impacted her students. As a mother, she realized though, she was just as guilty of shielding her children from failure as everyone else. She had to change her own parenting before asking others to change theirs. In this book, she illustrates the problems when kids never fail, describes how she changed her own parenting, and gives advice for how parents can make adjustments in their own homes.
Everyone Gets a Trophy
Lahey explains how failure became a “dirty word” in the US. Especially starting in the 1970s, the goal became to raise kids with a high self-esteem. Kids needed to feel good about themselves all the time (even when it wasn’t actually deserved.) Though well-intentioned, Americans began protecting their precious snowflakes from failure in school, sports, and with friends. Though well-intentioned, parents protected their children from failure in school, sports, and with… Click To Tweet
Yet constantly rewarding kids backfires. Lahey points out that extrinsic motivation, such as rewards, are only useful in the short term. In fact, a child given a reward is actually less motivated to perform. By constantly rewarding children, we actually make them less interested in school. Intrinsic, or internal, motivation is what gets us through the long haul. As Lahey put it, “The less we push our kids toward educational success, the more they will learn.” When kids are given money to earn an A, they will work for the grade that school term, but not much longer. When the motivation is to find out how bridges stand up, kids will grow up to be engineers.
Failure is the New Black
The other side of this equation is letting kids fail. Failure is an important part of learning, maybe the most important part. Failure is an important part of learning, maybe the most important part. Click To Tweet When we fail, we learn patience, coping skills, how to think critically, and how to ask for help. When we deny those skills to kids, we create kids, and eventually adults, who can’t function well in the real world.
Parents also send a strong message when we repeatedly step in to shield our children from failure. “Every time we rescue, hover, or 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.” I don’t think we are even conscious of this, but it is heard loud and clear by our children. Sadly, kids come to believe it themselves.
What Parents Can Do
However, Lahey doesn’t believe in just standing back and watching your child repeatedly fail. Instead, you should set expectations and slowly hand over responsibility over time. Work with your child when he fails to learn from his mistakes. Even better for parents, Lahey gives a lot of practical tips for HOW to step back and let your child take more control over schoolwork, friendships, and sports. Lahey doesn’t pretend that it’s going to be easy. For example, she highlights her ownstruggle when her son forgot his homework at home. Should she drop it off at school or make him face the consequences? (Spoiler alert – he faces the consequences.)
It’s so hard to watch your child fail. My daughter is still learning to walk and takes bad tumbles almost daily. It’s painful to watch her fall and know that she could hurt herself. However, she has to learn to walk on her own; I can’t walk for her. And I certainly don’t want to carry her everywhere! Just as we let our children fall down and get the occasional scrape as toddlers, we have to let out older children fail in order for them to learn and thrive. And remember to pack their own lunch.