If you’re a parent, you likely want your kid to flourish and succeed. And according to my guest today, the best way to do that is to let your kid fail.
Her name is Jessica Lahey and she’s a teacher and the author of the book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. Today on the show, Jess gives us a quick overview of the history of parenting in America and why it’s gotten more protective and more involved in the past few decades. We then discuss the many downsides of helicopter parenting and why letting your kids fail is so important for their long-term development. Jessica then gets into the nitty gritty of areas where you should let your kid experience failure and how to make sure these failures become learning experiences.
- The backstory that led Jess to writing this book, including her own failures at home
- The culture shifts that have led us to an age of overprotective parenting
- From child-rearing to parenting
- The ways in which parents freak each other out
- Downsides of overprotective parenting
- How to give your kids more autonomy
- Why frustration is important for kids to feel
- Why you shouldn’t tell your kids that they’re intrinsically smart
- Striving for “autonomy supportive” parenting
- How giving less guidance and advice can improve your relationship with your kids
- How do you resist the urge to just do things for your kid when they’re doing something the wrong way?
- Process over product
- Why it’s so important to assign kids “household duties” (rather than “chores”)
- Why Jess doesn’t care if her kids’ rooms are clean
- How young to start kids on doing things around the house
- Letting your kids do “dangerous” things
- Your kids’ friendships; what to do when they’re hanging out with the wrong crowd
- Handling school, and the importance of getting good grades
- Why letting her kid go to school with a crappy science fair project was one of the best things she’s done
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- AoM series on overprotective parenting
- Building Your Children’s Resiliency
- Why We Do What We Do by Edward Deci
- Drive by Daniel Pink
- Mindset by Carol Dweck
- Wendy Grolnick
- AoM’s parenting archives
- The Opposite of Spoiled by Ron Lieber
- My podcast with Ron Lieber about teaching kids about money
- 23 Dangerous Things to Let Your Kid Do
Connect With Jess
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Listen to the episode on a separate page.
Subscribe to the podcast in the media player of your choice.
Squarespace. Get a website up and running in no time flat. Start your free trial today at Squarespace.com and enter code “manliness” at checkout to get 10% off your first purchase.
The Black Tux. Online no-hassle tux rentals with free shipping. Get $20 off by visiting theblacktux.com/manliness.
Click here to see a full list of our podcast sponsors.
Recorded with ClearCast.io.
Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. If you’re a parent, you likely want your kid to flourish and succeed. According to my guest today, the best way to do that is to let your kid fail. Her name is Jessica Lahey, and she’s a teacher and the author of the book “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so Their Children Can Succeed”.
Today on the show, Jessica gives us a quick overview of the history of parenting in America and why it’s gotten more productive and why it’s gotten more protective and more involved in the past few decades. We then discuss the many downsides of helicopter parenting and why letting your kids fail is so important for their long-term development.
Jessica then gets to the nitty gritty of areas where you should let your kid experience failure, how to make sure those failures become learning experiences. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at AOM.is/giftoffailure.
Jessica Lahey, welcome to the show.
Jess Lahey: Thank you so much for having me.
Brett McKay: You published a book called “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so Their Children Can Succeed”. The back story behind this book is interesting because you’re a middle school teacher, God bless you, and you’re tasked with shepherding these kids into competent adulthood, like they’re that weird phase of life where they’re not like, it’s just weird, but you describe in the book, you discovered that you were failing at this job at home with your own kids. Tell us the back story and that realization you had.
Jess Lahey: Yeah, so full disclosure, I actually, I’ve taught for the last 20 years, I’ve taught every grade between six and 12. I currently teach kids who are in an inpatient drug and alcohol rehab setting so I teach high school English and writing. I don’t get to teach middle school kids that often anymore now that I’m on the road so much. This job of teaching the drug and alcohol rehab kids keeps me just continuously entertained.
Yeah, that’s exactly what happened, is I was noticing that my students were not only less motivated to learn for the sake of learning, which is sort of a constant problem teachers are up against, but they were also less able to learn and a lot of that seemed to be coming somewhere from this like this more directive parenting style or you can call it over-parenting, you can call it helicopter parenting. In the research, they call it a directive parenting style. I was pissed. I mean I was really, I admit this when I talk to parents, I was pissed off at my students’ parents for really just derailing so many learning opportunities and at that moment when I was sort of that peak pissed off, I realized that my own child who was nine at the time, didn’t know how to tie his own shoes.
I joke that when in cartoons, when the lightning bolt comes down and explodes or lights the main character on fire and they’re reduced to an incinerated sort of pile of steaming ash, that’s what I was because you know, as pissed off as I wanted to be at the parents of my students, I had to admit that I was just like them. The book really came out of this interest in helping my students learn better and be better learners, be more resilient but it became pretty urgent when I realized that I was doing the exact same thing that those other parents were doing to their own kids to my own kids and I’d handicapped my own children, not just in terms of their resilience and their ability to just do stuff, but it turns out that the research is pretty clear that it undermines kids’ ability to learn, so like the very things we’re trying to do to make our kids succeed in school are actually undermining their ability to learn.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s talk about how we got here. The guiding ethos of parenting nowadays is yeah, directive parenting, over-parenting, helicopter parenting, whatever you want to call it.
Jess Lahey: Right.
Brett McKay: What was it like in the past and how did we get to this point, what were the cultural shifts that occurred because you kind of give this history of parenting in your book, which is really interesting.
Jess Lahey: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That was really fun to write also because you know, those history, sort of how we got here chapters tend to be on the boring side and so I was on this mission to make the history chapters entertaining as possible and it was really fun. You know, it really is multi-factorial, so we have kids later in age, when we’re older. We have kids after we’ve out in the workforce for a while. We have fewer kids. The media has us believing that things are terribly dire, that our children are never going to get into college, they’re certainly not going to do better than we did economically.
Everything is just really dire. Everything’s an emergency. Everything has to be perfect like in this moment and it’s not really our fault in the sense that you know, the media like I said, has told us that our children are being enticed online every single day, there’s someone waiting on every street corner to abduct our children and sexually abuse them and you know, they’re never getting into college anyway. At the same time, we’re using a lot of the tools that we used out in the workforce to sort of manage our parenting. Like I cannot tell you how many parents I’ve spoken to that have spreadsheets that either when their kids are really little, it’s what goes in and what comes out, like they’re recording their poo and their pee and how much they eat and all that kind of stuff.
Now, parents can log on anytime they want to these grading portals that schools have opened up for parents use and they’re logging on many, many, many times a day. I talk to parents who actually keep the portal open and just kind of hit refresh all day long, so we’re using all these tools, like databases and spreadsheets to track our kids’ progress and all of that is because we just want to know if we’re doing okay because we don’t get, we’re used to performance reviews but we just got to go with what we got, which is looking at our kids and seeing if our kids can give us the feedback on how we’re doing as parents. That’s completely unfair to them, putting a lot of stress and anxiety on our kids.
I’m hearing from kids all the time, you know, “I don’t understand why my parents expect me to be perfect because I can’t be perfect. I’m trying as hard as I can, and I can’t.” We’re judging our own parenting based on our kids and that’s just completely unfair.
Brett McKay: Right. I mean I think you mention this in the book, like in the past, parents thought their job was like keep your kids safe, your job wasn’t to make them happy.
Jess Lahey: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right.
Brett McKay: Now it’s like, okay, we’re keeping them safe and you got to make them happy.
Jess Lahey: Well, and I’m certainly not the first one to point this out but you know, it used to be called child-rearing, so it was very child-centered and now it’s called parenting. It’s very parent-centered and we freak each other out. We go to all these soccer games and we sit in the waiting room outside while the kids are having their music lesson. We talk about like the traveling soccer leagues and how many awards our kids are getting and we sort of freak each other out and we’re doing it to each other, and that’s something that we need each other to get out of too.
A lot of parents are like, “I don’t want to be the first one to step back because then everyone’s going to assume that I’m not doing my job.” I think we got to start undoing what we’ve been doing to each other. We’re each other’s own best supports as well.
Brett McKay: Right. I’m sure the internet and social media is like, just exacerbated the problem because-
Jess Lahey: Yeah, absolutely. You know, the Instagramming, the dirty laundry is off on the outside of the picture so no one can see it. We’re making our lives look fairly curated and we’re making our kids look really curated too and that’s teaching them to, there’s all sorts of stuff that’s happening to them in terms of their social media use that we’re just feeding into because the more we curate our own lives and curate their existence on social media, the more they’re going to do the same.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about the downsides of this sort of directive parenting. I mean what does the research say? What’s happening to kids because of this over-parenting?
Jess Lahey: Well, there’s a couple of things we need to talk about I suppose. The first one is anyone who’s familiar with Dan Pink and the work that Drive was based on “Why We Do What We Do: The Science of Self-Motivation” knows that we have 40 years of really good research that shows that extrinsic motivators don’t work if you want to get your kid to do something, if you want to get anyone to do something. Really, if you want kids to do something that requires long-term focus and if you want kids to do things that require creativity then giving them something like you know, paying them for their grades, giving them a car if they stay on the honor roll. Surveillance, you know, going on the portal, knowing where your kids are all the time because you’re tracking them on their phone.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t do any of these things, I’m just pointing out these are extrinsic motivators and they undermine motivation. In other words, if you want your kid to not want to learn math, pay them for their math grades. It’s really quite clear. The research is really, really clear and we know the research is solid because we have studies of the studies. We have meta-data. That’s one side of it.
What we want is intrinsic motivation, which requires us to give our kids more autonomy, which is kind of like independence. Give them more control over the details of their lives, help them feel competent, which is not the same thing as confident and be really connected to our kids. The problem is, is that under-parenting undermines a couple of these things. Number one, it undermines your connection with your kids because I don’t know how you feel at the end of the day after nagging your kid to do their homework about 100 times but I feel terrible and it’s not good for our relationships.
Also, kids who are more directed by their parents, kids who are told you know, “Do this first, then do this. No, no, no, do it this way not that way. No, no, no, the dishes don’t go in the dishwasher that way, they go this way. No, no, no, don’t use a hammer that way, use it this way.” Kids who are told how to do things step-by-step are less able to be frustrated. They don’t develop the emotional wear with all know how to be frustrated. When you put those kids in a room by themselves to do something without a person there to direct them, when we give kids directions and we make their lives very step-by-step, they don’t develop the emotional wear with all they need in order to be frustrated.
Two of the most important teaching tools I have as a teacher require kids to be able to be frustrated. These things called desirable difficulties. Giving kids work that’s a little bit above their ability level and then letting them figure things out for themselves and giving kids constructive feedback on sort of a daily basis so they can see where they are with their learning. Those things don’t work with kids who can’t hear negative feedback and who can’t get frustrated and those kids are harder to teach.
I can tell when a kid if being over-parented from pretty much the first day of class because they are the kids who are constantly raising their hands and saying, “What do I do next?” I’d rather have kids of average intelligence who can be frustrated than super genius kids who don’t know how to be frustrated. They’re just kids who can persist, kids who are a little more resilient, kids who can take a breath and say, “Oh, no, wait a second. I think I can figure this out.” Those kids learn better. Learn better than their peers who can’t be frustrated anyway.
Brett McKay: You also highlight, and I’ve been seeing more research about this too is that this sort of rising generation of kids, like they’re more anxious.
Jess Lahey: Yeah.
Brett McKay: They have a lot of anxiety problems and depression issues and it might stem from the over-parenting because they’re always told what to do. They don’t know how to deal with uncertainty.
Jess Lahey: You know, it’s that, yes but a lot of it I think actually also has to do with the fact that we expect kids like I said, I hear this all the time, we expect kids to be perfect. We expect them to be good athletes and good musicians and great in school and never get anything below an A. That’s part of the pressure but the rest of it, the thing that I think is actually really hurting them is we expect them to do that effortlessly. To never break a sweat. To never make it look like they have to work too hard because and I have to shout out to Carol Dweck and her work in the book “Mindset”, these kids tend to believe that because we tell them they’re smart all the time and we tell them how accomplished they are all the time, that the minute they look like they’re having to put out an effort, we’re not going to believe them about them anymore.
If they look like they have to work hard, then maybe they’re not just naturally smart. Maybe they’re just faking it so it’s this weird catch-22. I need kids to raise their hands and admit when they don’t know something. I need kids to take challenge problems so that they can embrace these desirable difficulties and yet, kids who believe that if they show any weakness, then they’re less than perfect and they’re not as smart as we think they are, are less likely to raise their hands and ask for help and less likely to admit they don’t know something, and less likely to take challenge problems.
The very things that telling kids constantly how smart they are, how talented they are, how genius they are, undermines a kid’s ability or the likelihood that a kid will push themselves to move outside their comfort zone because when I ask kids about this, they’re so cute. They’re always really clear, they’re like, “Well, of course we’re not going to take the challenge problems because we don’t want to get anything wrong because then you’re going to know we’re not as smart as you think we are. Of course, we’re not going to raise our hand in class because then you’ll know that we’re not as smart, and our peers will know, and our parents will know. Keep the challenge problems away, don’t ask us any questions. Don’t ask us to admit when we don’t know something and we’ll just pretend that we know everything and hopefully, learn something along the way.” That’s not where good learning happens.
Brett McKay: Right, and you highlight this in the book too, not only that expectation of perfection and effortless perfection prevents students from taking on challenges but it also sort of acts as a, what’s the word I’m looking for, a source of cheating. Like it makes people want to cheat.
Jess Lahey: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brett McKay: Right, because they got to be perfect.
Jess Lahey: Yeah, Carol Dweck showed that pretty clearly in one of her experiments that I just love that when you ask kids to report, self-report their grades, kids who have been sort of set up to have a fixed mindset about intelligence, that it’s this thing that you either have or don’t have, they’re more likely to lie about their scores because well, of course, because they want you to think that they’re smart and they’ll defend that at any turn.
There’s a book I love called “Cheating Lessons” by James M. Lange and in his book, he makes it really clear. He says, “Look, if you want to create a classroom full of cheaters, just keep telling them how smart they are and foster this fixed mindset. What we should be doing actually, is making sure kids understand that intelligence is malleable. That the more you push yourself out of your comfort zone, the more you’ll learn, the more you can learn things that are different and new and the more connections you’ll make in your brain.” Yes, telling them that is great and teaching them about that is great but where we really seem to be falling down on the job is by modeling that.
I’m a big fan of talking to our kids when we screw up and show them that we’re willing to try things that are scary for us because we can blah, blah, blah as much as we want but they stop listening after a while. What they really believe is what they see. If we’re modeling that sort of approach, that fearless approach to things that are a little bit scary, then I think they’re a lot more likely to take our word for it.
Brett McKay: Okay, so controlling parenting, directed parenting is like something we don’t want to do. What sort of parenting should we take? What does the research say as sort of the style ethos is the most conducive to producing well-adjusted competent kids?
Jess Lahey: I actually refer to the research of this woman named Wendy Grolnick and in one experiment, she had parents come in and she gave the kids a task to do and she watched the parents to see how the parents dealt with really general instructions, which was be there while your child completes this task. The parents who were really, really directive with their kids where they told the kids how to do the task and gave them step-by-step instructions, when the parents were removed from the situation and the kids had to try a task on their own, the kids were a lot less likely to be able to finish it on their own.
By contrast, the parents who sort of were just there and supportive, while the kids did the task the way they wanted to do the task, and if the kids got frustrated, which by the way, the task they were given was a little frustrating on purpose, the parents that sort of helped the kid refocus, maybe repeated the instructions but didn’t give the answers, those parents were termed “autonomy-supportive parents”. That is just what it sounds like. It supports the kids’ autonomy to do something the way they want to do it and to make the mistakes and to figure out what part of the mistake, not to bring forward with them and to know how to do it differently the next time.
That autonomy-supportive parenting style doesn’t mean that we abandon our kids and say, “Hey, replace this carburetor, good luck, here’s a YouTube video.” They are parents that are nearby and present but not right on top of the kids, not reteaching algebra one when the kid doesn’t understand one tiny homework problem. These are parents that say, “You know, why don’t you think about it a different way, or I noticed that you did this differently four problems ago. Why do you think you did it differently four problems ago and now you’re having problems here with this math problem?”
Autonomy-supportive parenting is pretty magic stuff because the more you let your kids have autonomy, the more competent they’re going to feel, and the more competent they feel, the more they feel like they can attack things and can handle things that are beyond their ability level. It’s this wonderful self-perpetuating cycle and the other cool thing, I get a lot of letters from parents who have gone ahead and backed off a little and let the kids start loading the dishwasher or putting dishes away or whatever the thing is, the thing that the parent thought the kid could never handle on their own, they always say, “Yes, my kid is much more competent now, and that’s fantastic and they’re much more autonomous now and that’s fantastic.”
What’s really magical are the letters that explain that once their kid had more autonomy and became more competent, that their relationship with their kid improved and I hear that over and over and over. It’s certainly been true in my own family. The more we’re spending time talking about things that really matter to the kid as opposed to, “Have you finished that math homework yet? You did this wrong. Do it differently.” That’s the great stuff right there. Like the idea that we can improve our relationships with our kids if we actually leave them alone more and give them just less guidance as to how to get things done perfectly, that’s pretty important to me to make sure that parents understand that this is about our relationships with our kids too, not just about raising competent adults.
Brett McKay: It sounds great, but it’s also really hard to do, right, because like you see your kids, I’ve had this experience, you watch your kid doing something and they’re going it completely wrong, right?
Jess Lahey: Oh, it’s horrifying.
Brett McKay: Something that should’ve just taken a minute, ends up taking 10 minutes, you’re just like, “All right,” you’re so tempted and I’ve done it before. Sometimes I just take it and go, “Let me do it.” How do you resist that urge to step in and just be like, “This is going to be a lot easier if I just do it.”
Jess Lahey: Well, I can tell you right now, it’s going to be a lot harder for parents who are obsessive-compulsive and I can tell you right now, I like the dishwasher loaded in a certain way. I like East/West, not North/South, you know, that kind of thing. I like things the way I like them and that was really hard to get over. I think the easiest way to start thinking differently about it is to start thinking long-term.
Our kid’s growth and development, our kids’ learning, our kids becoming more competent, it doesn’t happen in these like moment-to-moment. It happens long-term. If you can start thinking, “Okay, I got to think, where do I want my kid to be in six months or a year? Do I want my kid to get the dishwasher loaded perfectly right this very second or in six months, would I like to know that my kid will do this on their own without me reminding them? Do I need this math homework to be perfect for the teacher,” and by the way, stop doing your kid’s homework because homework is information for the teacher.
Like when I see homework that clearly parents have meddled in, I get a good sense of what the parents know but it doesn’t give me great information about what the kid is learning. Do I want this homework to be perfect or in six months, do I want my kid to really understand this concept and to be responsible for doing their homework completely, getting it in their backpack, making sure they get it out of their backpack, getting it in their teacher’s hands.
When we deliver items that have been forgotten at home, it makes us feel great. It makes us feel like we’re really, we got our kid’s back and we’re really doing this parenting things and by the way, that teacher saw me deliver that homework, so now they know I’m really on the job. I would much rather have a kid that down the road, will remember to take the homework themselves and allow them to suffer the consequences in the short-term so that in the long run, I have a kid who’s much more competent. That’s just thinking long-term is the first step, and the second step is to start thinking more about process over product. Stop being so obsessed with the perfect homework assignment and the A and the perfect score, and start thinking more about whether or not your kid’s learning something in the moment that you choose to step in.
It’s really hard. It’s hard to hold your tongue and it’s hard to keep from just doing it for them because you can do it better, you can do it faster, you can do it right, but every time we step in and do something for our kids because we feel like we can do it better, they don’t appreciate that as, “Oh great, I don’t have to do that,” they hear, “My parents don’t think I’m competent enough to do that myself.” We’re actually undermining their competence and their confidence every time we step in and take over for them.
Long-term over short-term, process over product. Those are my two big hints.
Brett McKay: Perfect, so what I love about the rest of the book, so you kind of lay out with overarching philosophy but then you get into specific areas where parents can help their children experience failure in a safe environment where the stakes are completely low, that will hopefully build that resilience and competency they want. The first part you talked about is household duties is probably what parents can do right way.
Jess Lahey: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Like I said, it’s hard to do because you could probably do this stuff a lot faster and a lot better than you-
Jess Lahey: You’re going to drop stuff and they’re going to break stuff and you know, food is going to get hardened on the plate, but the cool thing about household duties is you know, like you said, the stakes are so low and I call them household duties actually for a reason. I used to call them chores but frankly, do you want to do something called a chore? I mean that sounds like kind of a bummer to me. In our house, I call them household duties because they’re part of what we do to support each other as a family.
I love, love, love Ron Lieber’s book, “The Opposite of Spoiled”, which is about kids and money and he’s really clear. He’s the “Your Money” columnist at the New York Times. We don’t pay kids to do household duties because kids are supposed to do household duties because that’s part of being a part of the family, not because you’re getting paid for it. Money and allowance is about budgeting and learning about money. Household duties sort of conveys this, if you’re not going to do it, who is going to do it, and it’s going to have to be someone else in the family and it’s going to be why does that person have to do it and not you?
Getting that through from a really young age helps kids understand that they have responsibilities in the family and the coolest part about that is there’s a bunch of studies that show that when kids have a hand in helping the family on a day-to-day basis, even if it’s just little stuff like putting dishes away, that they’re more resilient emotionally, that they’re less likely to be emotionally harmed when big stuff goes down. Like a divorce or a death or really big stuff, stressful stuff. They’re a lot less likely to be harmed by that if they feel like they’re participating in keeping the family going and they’re proud of themselves.
The number of pictures I get via email and my website and stuff, of kids doing stuff parents didn’t expect that they were going to be able to do, it blows my mind, it’s so cool and the look on the kids’ faces, like, “Check me out, look at what I’m doing,” it’s just amazing to me. They’re amazing pictures. It’s such a great day for me when I get one of those emails because it’s like yeah, there’s another kid who feels like they’re competent and whose parent understands that the more they help their kid feel competent, the more competent their kid will become. It’s cool stuff.
Brett McKay: How young should kids get started with household duties?
Jess Lahey: As young as they’re able to pick up a toy and put it back in the box they got it out of. I mean the nice thing is, I’m talking like language from really early on is that we take care of each other and we take care of our things. That starts from toddler hood on and I’m not talking about before a toddler goes to bed they have to have their entire room cleaned. In fact, one of my positions is that in our house, kids get so little autonomy over their lives and their stuff that kids rooms are their own domain. I don’t expect my kids to keep their room clean because it’s just not, that’s not business. It’s not my stuff.
Little toddlers can put a sippy cup in the bottom shelf of the dishwasher. Have a place down low where kids can get their own cup out. Have a stool, have snacks, pre-prepare things for kids’ lunches like carrots and pre-slice things and put them down low in the refrigerator where kids can reach them themselves and put their own lunches together. There’s a little bit of anecdotal evidence, I haven’t seen a big study on this but there’s anecdotal evidence to show that when kids prepare their own lunches, there’s less food waste. They throw less of their lunch away, and they eat more of their own creation and if you help guide their tastes and you help guide their ingredients, that food will be healthier.
Don’t make your kids’ lunches. Like from little kids, like from kindergarten on, help guide them make their lunches but don’t just make their lunches and stick their lunch in the bag and have them have no hand in that. It’s really important to help kids feel competent from a really young age like pre-K.
Brett McKay: I imagine as they get older, increase the level of responsibility.
Jess Lahey: Yeah.
Brett McKay: I think with the guiding ethos be like, have them do more than what you think they’d be able to do.
Jess Lahey: I always say, I mean for all parents, even parents of special needs kids, I say, “Look, pretend like there’s a line. We all have this sort of line of competence for our kids, what we think our kids can do and what we think our kids can’t do. Then let’s just stick our toe just beyond that line.” When I was doing research, there are all these lists in the books in “The Gift of Failure”, of what kids should be able to do at certain ages and what’s really mind blowing is if you look back at lists from for example, Maria lists of chores kids could do at certain ages, there are things that she expected kids to be able to do at a very, very young age that some parents look at it and say, “Oh my gosh, my kid could never do that.”
I did update the list for our new sense of, “Oh, kids can’t do a lot of stuff that they used to be able to do.” At the same time, this isn’t about manual dexterity, this isn’t about what our kids can handle in terms of safety. I always try to remind parents that kids use knives safely when they know how to use knives and they have been using them and that the knives are sharp. Giving kids a dull knife is a really bad idea. Kids who don’t know how to climb a tree because they’ve never been allowed to do it are more likely to fall out because, step on a dead branch that can’t support their weight they don’t have any understanding of what a dead branch feels like because they’ve never been able to experience that.
There’s a reason that we let kids explore age appropriately and if we wait too long to give kids responsibilities and let them experience things that are dangerous, then we are actually setting up a situation where those dangerous things become more dangerous for them because they don’t have a sense of what they can do and what they can’t do. It was really fun to make those lists of what kids can and can’t do mainly because when you go across the country and you talk to people about what they think their kids can and can’t do, there’s such wild swings depending on how much parents have let kids be competent in the first place.
It was fun, recently, I got to watch a kid bring in some horses, just because she’s been doing it since she was really, really little and she’s like 12 and she’s bringing in these huge, massive horses and sometimes two or three of them at a time. The person who was with me has a 12-year old and she just looked at me like, “There’s no way in the world my 12-year old would ever be able to do that,” and I said, “Well, that’s because she’s never done it,” and because the expectation is that she wouldn’t have to do that kind of thing. Be a little more open-minded, push yourself just a little bit to just let your kid try something first to see if they can do it. You might be happily surprised.
Brett McKay: Another area where kids can experience failure and frustration are friendships, right, so they might get left out, they might make friends but I mean peers, as you highlight in the book, have such a big influence on kids, more so than parents.
Jess Lahey: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right.
Brett McKay: Especially when they get into those middle school years. How do you as a parent handle that because you might notice your kid hanging out with the wrong group of kids but you don’t want to tell them, like what do you do about that?
Jess Lahey: Well, so you have to understand sort of why kids makes friendships. When they’re really, really little, it’s up to us, it’s proximity. We choose our friends and the kids of those friends tend to be their friends and it works out great. We get to have total control over who their friends are. That’s fine for kids that are really, really young because friendships at that point aren’t really about exploring identity, they’re more about play and things like that.
As they get older, and especially when you get like towards middle school, friendships become more about exploring identity, trying on other people’s identity, trying on things they see in other people and they start becoming more outwardly focused. Understanding that our kids are going to be friends with some kids that make us nervous along the way, shouldn’t be a reason for us to say, “No, no, no, you can’t be friends with that kid,” and of course, I’m talking within reasonable limits.
My older son who’s now 19, had a friend when he was young that scared me to death. He was a risk-taker, he’d broken like 10 bones before sixth grade, he liked to throw himself off of high places with no regard for his safety. I was positive that come time for driving, that that kid, there was no way I was going to let my kid get in a car with that dangerous child. He matured and he changed over time and also, my son was able to see him break all these bones and say, “Huh, well, that was kind of a bone-headed maneuver.” He got to learn more about his own limits by watching his friend.
In a way, I think we should be grateful when our kids make friends with kids who are different from them, who are experimenting with things that maybe our child isn’t experimenting with themselves because then our kid can look at them and say, “Huh, that is or is not for me.” If your kid has a friend, let’s say your kid is a teenager and they’re making friends with kids who make you nervous, rather than ban your child from being able to be around that person, which frankly, is the fastest way to make your child want to be around that person, is to talk about friendships and say, “Huh, you know, you’ve been spending a lot of time with this kid and I’ve noticed that you don’t really feel good about yourself when you’re around that kid.”
I had this conversation with the mother of a girl recently. Her daughter is friends with a really mean girl and it’s making her daughter crazy and sad and depressed and feel terrible about herself. The mom, I encouraged the mom to have conversations with her daughter like, “You know, every time you come home with hanging out with so-and-so, you just seem sad and you don’t seem yourself. What is it about your friendship with this person that you value?” Model for them really good relationships that you have with people and talk about those relationships.
I talk a lot with my kids about the fact that the thing I love about approaching 50 is that my relationships with my friends are no longer competitive relationships. They’re supportive relationships and that’s one of the great things about becoming an adult is you can throw away that sort of need to be liked and popular and you can be more attuned to what strengthens you as a person. Having conversations with kids about what makes for good relationships is really, really important but if you start saying, “Forget it, you can’t be around that person,” you’re really probably going to drive your child toward that person.
It’s a tricky area. I got to write about it for a magazine called “Your Teen” and it’s really clear that middle school relationships and high school relationships are completely different beasts than elementary school relationships. It’s hard to lose control of who our kids are friends with but that’s what being a parent is all about. Kids are supposed to individuate, supposed to become their own people. If they try on relationships through other kids and not themselves, then great, they’ve had a chance to try something on and not necessarily get that tattoo themselves and say, “Huh, okay, that’s interesting. Maybe not for me but that’s interesting.” Yes, it’s hard.
Brett McKay: Let’s take a look at school, because that’s where parents I think are probably the most paranoid about their kid failing because-
Jess Lahey: Oh, we’re nuts. Yeah, we’re totally bonkers.
Brett McKay: There’s a lot of conflict going on there. On the one hand, we said earlier, extrinsic motivation doesn’t produce self-directed people, right?
Jess Lahey: Right.
Brett McKay: School, the way it’s set up in most places, like we have grades. It’s all about extrinsic motivation and getting the good test score and getting into the great college so how do you balance that as a parent where you’re trying to okay, balance these short-term demands of getting good grades, and getting into college with at the same time, I want to create a child or help rear a child who wants to learn for the sake of learning because he wants to.
Jess Lahey: Mm-hmm (affirmative). This is one of the most, I do this video series on YouTube about frequently asked questions about “The Gift of Failure”, and this one’s right up there because parents are like, “Okay, yeah, I’m with you. This is great. Evidence backs up the fact that we should not be using extrinsic motivators with kids. Okay, now screw you because you’re a teacher and you’re telling my kid every single day that grades are important and you give points and you give grades and you give scores.” That’s absolutely true and it’s been one of the hardest things to deal with.
While I’d love to say, “Look, we need to reform the education system and grades stink,” which they do, they’re not about information, they’re about ranking kids and I’ve written about that at The Atlantic and the New York Times. We have these grading portals that encourage parents to check constantly and micromanage kids’ grades. I think the biggest things we can do are realize that kids are hearing constantly how important grades and scores and all that stuff is.
It’s not like when we say to them, “Sweetie, this French test you have next Friday is really important, or grades in your Junior year, those are the ones the colleges are going to see.” This is not news to them, so if home could be the one place where we’re actually talking about goals, this is something I actually stole from what I do at school. I was an advisor in middle school and one of the things I did constantly was talk with my advisees about what their short-term and long-term goals for themselves were so that I could tap into and use as levers, the things that are important to them.
If they say, I know that their goal is to go to X college or to play soccer and in order to do that, they have to have a C or better, then I can use that as leverage and say, “Okay, well, how are you going to achieve that goals?” Goals are really, really powerful things and it’s the reason that the entire chapter on grades in the book is really about how to talk to your kids about goals. That also means that we have to model that for our kids.
The other thing, unfortunately, that we have to do is just realize, yes, this is the system we’re stuck with right now. As much as I’m optimistic that the system is changing, there’s a whole lot of people working out there working to move away from grades and move toward these things called standards-based report cards, standards-based learning, mastery-oriented learning rather than getting a B-minus and the parent goes in to talk to the teacher and say, “Okay, great, a B-minus, what does that mean? What does my kid actually know how to do?”
There are ways of evaluating kids that would give actual information about what they know and don’t know and that’s called standards-based learning, standards-based evaluation. Until we have that, I think what we have to realize is that our job as parents is to temper some of what they’re hearing everywhere to give them space to breathe. I go to a lot of schools, I get called into a lot of schools that have had suicide clusters and they bring me in to help the parents understand ways to talk to kids that aren’t about heightening anxiety and are more about helping kids know what their goals are and create their own strategies for achieving those goals. That’s called self-directed executive function and executive function is sort of one of the new big areas.
“If we can just strengthen executive function, we can help kids learn better,” but that’s true. Let’s do a little bit more focusing on goals, let’s do a little bit more focusing on the process of learning over the end product, especially with kids who are anxious, especially with kids who are perfectionists. The more we talk about process and less we talk about product, the more we can get their brains off of this spinning, and spinning, and spinning over the idea of getting a 100 instead of a 97, and the more we can focus them on, “Okay, but what are you learning and how are you learning and what study techniques are working well for you and what are you going to do next time if you got a low grade this time?”
All of that process talk is really essential for helping kids get focused on what’s important and in the end, it’s not the grade that’s important because grades are not great indicators of learning anyway, it’s what’s being mastered. That’s our job as parents.
Brett McKay: Also, that means no more doing the kid’s science fair yourself.
Jess Lahey: Oh gosh, yeah, I’ve gotten to write about that a couple places and there is nothing that will motivate a kid more and I say this from experience, than having to sit next to a really crappy, tri-fold poster board with some made-up data at the last second with Sharpie-drawn graphs that they know is crap and that everyone that stands in front of it and asks them how they arrived at their data knows it’s crap, the kid’s embarrassed. When that happened with my own kid, the project that my kids created the next year, completely under his own steam, was amazing because he didn’t want to endure what he had gone through the year before where he knew he’d just completely thrown his hands up in the air and had given up and forgotten about it and not planned well enough.
The next year, the thing he created was not only great from like an objective or a grade perspective, whatever, he was proud of it and letting my kid go to the science fair with a piece of crap project was one of the best things I ever did for my kid.
Brett McKay: I love that. Well, Jessica, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Jess Lahey: Well, everything is always at JessicaLahey.com. Everything from the show notes for the podcast I do about writing with my former New York Times editor, KJ Dylan, writing with Jess and KJ. You can find me on Twitter @JessLahey. I mostly tweet about education and child welfare and that kind of stuff. You can find me at Instagram @TeacherLahey and on Facebook as well.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Jessica Lahey, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Jess Lahey: You are so welcome. Thank you so much for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Jessica Lahey. She’s the author of the book “The Gift of Failure”. It’s available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more about her work at JessicaLahey.com. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.is/giftoffailure, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com. While you’re there, check out our podcast archives. We’ve go over 380 episodes there. All available to listen to, it’s at ArtofManliness.com/podcasts. While you’re there, make sure to subscribe and as always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.