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Teach Your Kid How To Fail Productively In School, Sports, And Life

During her more than 10 years teaching middle and high school, Jessica Lahey has noticed her students become so averse to emotional and intellectual risk, they’re practically scared to be taught. Nervous about addressing this issue at her suspected source — the parents — she dove into research on topics like resilience, competence, and adaptation, so she could speak to these qualities with authority when telling parents their adorable little cherubs are totally unprepared for the real world.

Her new book, The Gift of Failure: How The Best Parents Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, is the result of that research. In it, Lahey argues that you have to let kids experience disappointment, frustration, and failure if they’re going to become self-reliant adults.

This doesn’t mean you should leave your toddler naked in the wilderness (if you already did that, go ahead and check on them now). Lahey’s definition of failure is a little less severe than that, and her recommendations for how to apply it in the context of your kids’ school, sports, and social lives are practical and easy to follow. Here’s how you can make sure your own kid gets their recommended daily allowance of Vitamin F.

How To Let Your Kids Fail At Home …

“Start orientating your own thinking toward process over product, long-term over short-term,” says Lahey. “Don’t think about their happiness today as much as in the future.” While you’re at it, don’t let your own happiness today get in the way of being a role model for how an adult handles failure.

To that end, in the Lahey household, everyone sets goals that they pursue and discuss as a family. Some of those goals are expected to be easily achievable, but others “need to be scary — something you could very well fail at,” she says. “Then, we model positive responses to failure, and are honest with our kids that everyone fails.” Particularly you, when it comes to the treehouse you swore you were going to build this summer.

… At School

In the context of education, Lahey advises you to be “more goal-oriented than grade-oriented.” Grades are an extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, reward, she explains; and extrinsic rewards kill the kind of motivation that makes kids want to learn. “Don’t post grades on the fridge,” she says. “Post goals.” If your kid’s goal is to be Picasso and the fridge is already covered with their accomplishments, buy a cork board (or a bigger fridge).

When it comes to homework, don’t hover and supervise. “Let your kids know that you are there for them if they really need help,” she says, “but expect them to give it their best shot on their own.” Only lend a hand if their question is specific and legitimate, as opposed to a high-pitched, pencil-snapping whine.

Finally, if your kid has issues with their teachers, avoid the urge to play intermediary. “Encourage your kids to talk to the teacher themselves. If your child is very shy, you might want to role play to prep them for the interaction.” If your fake teacher voice is too hilarious, you may have to tone it down for that last part.

… In Sports

When it comes to sports, Lahey says, “Be more like a grandparent.” In her research, she came across a remarkable result from a poll of college athletes, wherein the majority said their least favorite part of sports during childhood had been riding home from games with their parents. Their favorite part, it turns out, was when their grandparents came to their games. Lahey asserts that this is because grandparents don’t have an agenda, and don’t amp up the anxiety with armchair quarterbacking, and extensive post-game analysis. Also, their grandparents let them eat sugar cereal, but you’re not supposed to know that.

… With Their Social Life

That new friend your kid likes so much, who you caught eating boogers and probably pulls the legs off frogs when no one’s looking? Let them hang out, says Lahey. “Friends are a way for your child to try on different identities. It’s okay if they have a friend that freaks you out a bit, as long as you’re pretty sure nothing dangerous is going on. Ask what they like about their new friend, and you will learn a lot about your own kid. Have patience with your nervousness.”

Just like you should avoid jumping on the phone with their teachers, don’t overreact when things go awry on the playground. “Kids need to use their own voices to tell other kids ‘Cut it out!’ And the kid who throws the sand needs to hear that and see the sad look on the other kid’s face,” she says. “The playground is where you learn empathy. Those moments in the sandbox are extremely formative.”

Why Failure Is So Important

“Failure includes mistakes, setbacks, frustration, and disappointment,” Lahey says. “I want to destigmatize the word. Moments of frustration when you have to either give up or move forward are essential to learning. I can’t teach kids who are absolutely unwilling to try something that they may fail at, or whose parents rush in and rescue them from failure.” She says reflecting on the lessons of failure is equally important: “The ability to take constructive criticism or feedback is key to moving forward and becoming resilient.”

Overall, Lahey’s argument can be understood as a version of the old “get back on the horse” axiom, with a corrective for modern parents, who tend to have difficulty giving their children the reins. So when you drop your kid off at preschool tomorrow morning, don’t tell him to have a nice day: instead, say, “Get out there and fail, little buckaroo!”

The Gift Of Failure By Jessica Lahey