On one of the pages of the program I compiled for my son’s Bar Mitzvah, many years ago, was a poem entitled, “ Children Are Like Kites.” The message took the rough edges of parenting and smoothed them over in a very easy to swallow way: children run with you for a time; you control the string, letting it in and out as needed, watching them bump around, until they fly high ultimately snapping the strings of confinement, soaring away on their own. It’s a simple metaphor, one that’s filled with hope and poignancy, and in a nutshell, it’s what Jessica Lahey’s book, “The Gift of Failure,” promotes. Letting go, with the confidence in knowing the kites can fly on their own.
The methods by which Lahey suggests parents “let go,” are antithetical to the methods used by those much maligned “helicopter parents,” but she is adamant about their effectiveness. Lahey’s belief is that parents who abhor failure, and will do anything to avoid having their children confront it on any level, will produce children, who fear it. That fear, according to Lahey, and the many parenting, psychology, and education experts she turned to when writing this well-researched book, is what keeps these kids from persevering, moving ahead, and ultimately succeeding.“Today’s over-protective, failure-avoidant, parenting style has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation.”
At first assessment, I understood Lahey’s motives, but I felt her tactics were rather harsh, and her behavior too permissive. Giving your kids the latitude to independently choose their friends, school subjects, whether or not to play a sport or musical instrument, etc., sounds like asking for trouble to me, And even though Lahey makes it clear that “autonomy-supportive parenting is not the same thing as permissive parenting. “ I still could not jump in that pool without my swimmies. In Lahey’s “text book,” rules do not fall to the wayside. They are built in as part of the infrastructure. If we do everything for our children, and send the message that we’ll always be there to bail them out, so to speak (what most people look at as being good parenting), how will they ever develop that intrinsic knowledge of doing things for themselves? Allowing children to “self-rule” is recommended as long as parents help them come up with a system of guiding principles.
Trust plays a big part in Lahey’s philosophy—you have to trust your instincts, the foundation you’ve provided your kids with, and their instincts. That’s a lot of trusting, and if there’s a lack of confidence in any of it, the entire theory will fall apart. The author is a parenting and education writer for the New York Times, and a parent and former educator herself, so her background and experience have primed her well for the subject of this book. In addition to calling on many experts for confirmation of her philosophy, she draws upon many of her own experiences, in her home and in the classroom, as well.
Some of the best parts of the book were the anecdotes of events that happened in her own life. One in particular was how wrestled with whether or not to deliver her son’s forgotten homework to him at school. This brought back memories of similar incidents for me. (Spoiler alert: I caved, she didn’t.)
I did question her methods at times: it’s one thing to stimulate an environment of autonomy, but another to sit back and watch your kids totally flounder, and trust that they won’t make that same mistake twice. I did miss reading more stories of situations where pivoting was required when the outcome was not the desired outcome; life does not always take a linear path, and we must prepare for detours. I’m not sure Lahey provided enough guidance in that area, but understandably, she feels her methods will work. (That’s where the trust comes in again.)
As a practical resource, “The Gift of Failure” scores big. In addition to advocating the rewiring of parenting as some of us know it, coaches, teachers, and parents of all age kids (up through high school) can find useful advice on topics such as:
Chores and Household Duties
All of these factors and the way you and your children deal with them provide prime learning and growth-building opportunities.
As a mom of two sons who are now out of college, I approached “The Gift of Failure” with the assumption that I wouldn’t find much in it for someone at my stage of parenting. What it did do for me was help me go back and analyze what I’d done in the past, and teach me how to tweak and implement things in the future. Even at my stage of parenting, I was still able to glean tips to help me; parenting never ends, you know…it just changes.
By Mindy Trotta, an editor who spent many years behind a desk and then switched to working behind the oven as a pastry chef. Now, having perfected the art of multitasking, she is baking, working as an editor at Better After 50 and Road2College, and blogging at Relocation The Blog.