Faculty/Parent Book Club Read: The Gift of Failure

Whether or not you had a chance to read The Gift of FailureHow the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey (the faculty/parent read for 2015-16), or to participate in the bookclub-style talk with the author on April 7, Canterbury Parents’ Page wants to share a few highlights from the book. It’s great that our school offers opportunities for the parent community to ponder topics and share and discuss ideas, especially in collaboration with teachers. In the interest of encouraging ongoing conversation about parenting approaches and our journey as parents and educators, we’re happy to give you a bulleted overview of some of the book’s most important points and topics.

For starters, you might want to check out what Middle School Director David Skeen says about the book on his blog. Look for three posts from last fall, which serve as reflections on his early reading of the book.

  • While it may seem counterintuitive, the theme of the book is that it is often the failures during students’ middle school years that prepare them best for the rigors and higher stakes of high school and beyond.
  • The book is the author’s own parenting approach, which she offers to help us better understand the journey to raising self-sufficient children. The book also includes a history of parenting in America from colonization through the present day in a manageable and entertaining 14-page first chapter.
  • In our campus discussion, Lahey began by sharing several relevant anecdotal stories mined from her experience as a teacher and a mother. 
  • Lahey outlines the progression from parenting as a matter of survival to the helicopter/interventionist approach of today, summarizes an argument against overparenting — a topic that is of interest to many parents today. 
  • Lahey also speaks and writes about intrinsic motivation, which she refers as “the holy grail of parenting”). She believes that we can get our children intrinsically motivated by fostering the following:
    •  Autonomy. The children of autonomy supporting parents know that their parents are there and will support them, but are empowered to do things for themselves. By contrast, directive parents (we often refer to them as helicopter parents) raise children who are paralyzed from making choices for their own lives.
    •  Competence. This is different from confidence. Competence is confidence based on experience. Essentially, our children don’t need our empty praise, Lahey argues. She references Carol Dweck, who writes about the “growth mindset.” In Lahey’s opinion, all labels (i.e- special needs, gifted, talented) create a fixed mindset. We need to praise our children for their work and effort, not the end result.
    • Connection. This primarily refers to the connection between students and their parents and teachers, and secondarily the connection between students and the content. Here are some tips from Lahey with regard to connection:
      1. Don’t put “A” papers on the fridge! Doing this emphasizes the product over the process.
      2. Learning needs to be made relevant for kids. The stuff we learn best is the stuff we care about.
      3. Parenting is like the stock market: lots of ups and downs. As parents we need to let our kids find their answers. Lahey cites author Julie Lythcott-Haims: “Our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job.”

While these are just a few brief notes, we hope you find them useful either as a review of what you read or heard at the book club discussion or as some insight into the book in general if you didn’t have a chance to check it out. As Lahey told the parents and faculty on April 7, if you take only one thing away from The Gift of Failure, it is to teach your children to advocate for themselves.