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The Gift of Failure: Jessica Lahey Talks Letting Kids Take The Reins

Q: When parents promote autonomy—allow their adolescents to take the reins of their own lives, as you so wonderfully put it in The Gift of Failure —what does that do?

Lahey: It allows us, as parents, to say, “I trust you. You may not be competent off the bat because you’ve never done some of these things before, but I trust that you are resourceful enough to learn these things.” Because every time we step in and say, “Let me do that for you,” what we’re really saying is, “I don’t think you’re capable of handling this.” When you hear that over and over again, you internalize it and think, “Oh, I really can’t handle anything.”

Q: You give some ideas of how to start in The Gift of Failure? Tell us more. 

Lahey: I love middle school because it’s the ideal place to give kids the space and room to mess up and figure out how to get it right. It’s set up that way.

When kids move to middle school, all of a sudden we’re asking them to juggle seven classes and lockers and changing materials between class. Most kids do not have the executive function skills to handle that. The system is set up to invite failure on purpose and middle school teachers are set up to handle that. The problem is when middle school teachers get handcuffed by parents who say, “No, no, no. I don’t want you to exert any consequences on my kid if they don’t bring their homework in or whatever.” That breaks the system down.

The way it’s supposed to work in middle school is a fair amount of screwing up, paying the piper, and figuring out how to do it better next time. When we as parents don’t let those consequences fall and have their natural endpoints, we’re stealing so many opportunities from kids. And it’s not like it’s never going to happen; they’re just going to do it later when the stakes are higher. So why not let them do it earlier when the stakes are lower, rather than senior year of college when they look around and realize they don’t know how to do anything by themselves.

The Gift of Failure: Ideas for Middle and High School

Q: So, what would you say to the parent of an incoming middle schooler?

Lahey: Start from a place of being really honest with your kid. “I’ve been doing a lot for you. You’re going into sixth grade and so now is the time for you to learn how to do more of this for yourself.”  And then set super clear expectations. “I expect that your homework will get done on time, be done well and to completion, and get in the hands of your teacher. If that does not happen, then X will be your consequence. The details are up to you—the when, the where, the how, the order you do your homework in.” You can ease into this or you can do it all at once, but letting the details be in the hands of your child is really, really important.

Q: What if your child is in high school? It’s not too late, right?

Lahey: Right. But honesty is so important at this point. Saying, “Look, I read this book or I talked to this person, and I realize we’re doing this parenting thing a little bit wrong and I’d like to make some changes. We haven’t been giving you enough autonomy. We haven’t been allowing you to feel competent on your own and that changes now.”

The problem is if you’ve waited a really long time, there is going to be that inevitable honeymoon phase and then a push back phase. Teenagers, just like toddlers, will test to see where the lines are, and it’s important in that testing phase to hold your ground and say, “No, really. We’re not going to step in and help you with this. We will support you. We will help you think about how to talk to your teachers. But we are really going to stick to this.” You have to get through that testing period and then things will slowly improve.

Q: Is there such a thing as too much failure?

Lahey: Parents have different comfort zones with how much they’re willing to allow their children to fail. Some parents are going to see a B as a failure and time to step in. And for some parents, it won’t be until their child has failed a class. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that is going to happen?” They may have to go to summer school or repeat a class, but really what they’re learning is how to take ownership of their lives. Being able to step back and see the big picture is so important. This night’s homework is less important than the bigger principle at hand.

It’s different for every parent. I’ve met parents who I’m not sure will be able to let go at all because they are holding on so tight. And others, like a mom I wrote about in The Gift of Failure, who was willing to let her son fail out of his school. She was honest with him. She said, “Let’s go visit this other school that you’ll have to go to in our district.” He was kind of scared straight and he took charge. It’s a pretty cool example of what can happen when a kid steps up and realizes, “Huh, I do have some power over my life and my mom isn’t going to save me at the last second.” It was a big moment for that family, and it changed that kid’s life.

Q: A lot of our discomfort with failure is driven by college, specifically a desire to get our children into elite colleges. How do we get over that?

Lahey: I am a firm advocate for the fact that the ability of your kid to self-advocate is much more important than where they go to college. I use myself as an example. When I applied to college, I applied to a bunch of private big-deal colleges, but I went to visit my safety school because my dad encouraged me to. I fell in love with it, so I went to the University of Massachusetts, and was able to sort of cherry pick my education because I had the ability to self advocate.

I’ve seen this over and over again: kids who have been really sheltered and then go to small colleges, where everything is handled for them, and they never really learn how to speak up for themselves. So they may have a good name on their diploma, but what they don’t have are the skills that actually matter when they get out into the workforce. Knowing how to communicate with people. Knowing how to tell people what you need and knowing how to get it. That’s way, way more important, in my opinion, than the actual name on the diploma. I think we’re really misunderstanding what’s important in an education.

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Susan Borison

Susan Borison, mother of five, is the founder and editor of Your Teen Media. Because parenting teenagers is humbling and shouldn’t be tackled alone.