One morning, writer and teacher Jessica Lahey waved her son Finn off to school, only to find his homework lying on the coffee table.
“It would be so easy,” she thought, “to deliver Finn’s homework to his classroom, maybe even surreptitiously slide it into his locker or backpack.” Yet she decided to let Finn go without his forgotten papers.
He returned that afternoon with no noticeable scars or trauma. He’d had to practice math during his free reading time, and his teacher had told him to write a note so he wouldn’t forget his homework again. Mother and son sat down to a plate of cookies.
This anecdote illustrates the thrust of Lahey’s goodhearted if largely redundant new book The Gift of Failure: Let your children face the consequences of their actions, even if that means letting them fail. In the long run, parents who “rescued” them from the vagaries of life, robbing them of motivation and persistence, will hurt them far more than unsympathetic referees or low grades.
Skimming recent developments in psychology, Lahey reminds us that children learn best when motivated by intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, factors. Grades can fluctuate, but self-motivation persists.
She also emphasizes the importance of keeping a “growth mindset,” or of seeing one’s competencies as things to be improved through practice, not finite capacities handed down at birth. For parents, that means praising children for effort (I’m so proud of the work you put into that!) rather than innate ability (You’re so smart! I love you!).
Children need a sense of ownership and responsibility in their lives, she continues, one that’s not provided by a routine in which they’re shuttled from activity to activity and return home to meals that appear on the dining table as if by magic. Children should help out around the house, and see this not as “chores” but as “family contributions.” Why should there be anything special about helping to maintain the household you’re part of?
Lahey, to a limited extent, advocates treating children as the adults-in-training they were for much of history. “Children want to feel capable,” she writes, “and we used to let them, before we took the onus of household duties away from them.”
She is not, however, advocating hands-off parenting. Parents can set firm expectations for their children without micromanaging how they reach them. Tell your children to keep up their studies, but please, don’t write their essays for them.
Like many books borne from magazine articles—this one’s from “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail,” published in The Atlantic in 2013—The Gift of Failure is quite bloated. Lahey makes a good point, then makes it again, and again, and again. She offers few specifics, though her occasional lists—of chores that toddlers can help with, or ways to improve the parent-teacher relationship—are worth photocopying and distributing at the next PTA meeting. And none of the findings in her brief tour of psychology will be new to those who’ve partaken in the collective anxiety surrounding middle- and upper-class education over the last several years.
The Gift of Failure’s greatest shortcoming, however, is its limited scope. The children Lahey addresses in this book, who are so pressured to succeed that they are afraid to fail, are a well-off minority. Harmful as helicopter parenting is, it’s often representative of family wealth that can also be put to tutors, schooling, and a domestic stability conducive to studying.
The predicaments Lahey describes are largely foreign to those growing up with two parents (or one) working full-time jobs. The unacknowledged exclusion of the lower classes from a book on education, so tightly linked to social mobility, makes this one all the more insubstantial.
The Gift of Failure: How The Best Parents Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey. Published August 11th by Harper. 272 pages. $26.99