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Q&A with Jessica Lahey


Jessica Lahey Q&A






Jessica Lahey, author of the New York Times' bestseller The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed will be speaking at The DoSeum's annual event Outside the Lunchbox Luncheon on September 23rd.  She will be discussing the contents of her book and facilitating discussion about the trajectory of education in San Antonio with locals who care about the subject.


The DoSeum has had the opportunity to ask Lahey some questions about her book and we encourage all to read about her ideas on how to raise a successful, independent adult.  


What originally drew you to the subject of parenting and childhood development?


I’ve always had an interest in working with kids, and when I went to law school to study juvenile and education law, I assumed I’d be working in juvenile court. However, halfway through law school, I was asked to teach a class at the Duke University Talent Identification Program (TIP). My first day of class, I met those middle school and young high school students, and that was it. I was hooked. I finished law school, but have taught ever since. My professional life as a teacher and my parallel life as a mom has informed much of my writing on both education and parenting, and I let my curiosity about how kids learn and grow inform the topics I write about.


How has personal experience impacted your findings in the book?


The book was born out of my personal experience, when I realized that the very thing I was angry with my students’ parents about—rescuing, overparenting, and controlling kids into a state of helpless dependence—was the very thing I was guilty of doing with my own kids. At that point, I looked for a book that would tell me how to back up, start over, and begin doing things better for my kids. I just could not find it, so I started researching and writing that book, a research-based book with specific advice about what to do, when to do it, and how to raise more autonomous, competent kids. I lived every bit of that book, and it changed my parenting and my relationships with my children, so at least on that count, I got what I needed out of writing the book!


In the book, you draw from your experiences both as an educator and as a parent. How do those roles differ in a child’s lives in terms of allowing for failure?


I think part of my problem in coming to terms with my own overparenting was that my teacher brain was not talking to my parent brain. I was doing things at school that were really useful for kids’ development of executive function and independence, but not carrying that over into my home. Maybe it was parental guilt, the need to see validation for my own parenting in my children’s lives and comfort…I don’t know. It’s hard to cut down on the extrinsic (external) motivators at home, but it’s really hard to do it at school, what with all the scores, grades, honors, etc., so while parts of stepping back and supporting kids’ autonomy is easier at school, the system fights against what we know works for fostering autonomy and competence in kids. Things are improving, but we still maintain a carrot-and-stick oriented society. We say we care about childrens’ learning, but they know what we really value: high grades and test scores.


Simply put, why is failure important for a child to experience?


Mistakes are where learning happens. Mistakes are where kids figure out errors in logic, strategy, and planning. Given proper support, kids have the opportunity to pick out the salvageable parts of a mistake, carry them forward into a new attempt, and learn new skills and approaches. It’s not really the failures themselves that are valuable, but the adaptations kids make in the face of those failures. As a middle school teacher, that’s what most of my job is: being there when kids mess up and helping them come up with new strategies that might work out better next time.


What are intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, and how can caregivers and educators use them to benefit children?


Intrinsic motivators come from within. When we are motivated to do something for the sake of the thing itself—for me, it’s writing, or cross-country skiing, or gardening—we are operating from a place of intrinsic motivation. The thing or activity itself is what matters, not some reward we might get for doing the activity. Those rewards are extrinsic motivators, motivators that come from outside, and there are positive and negative motivators. Grades, trophies, money and other bribes are extrinsic motivators, but so are the threat of punishment, surveillance, nagging, and other attempts to control. All of these extrinsic motivators, both positive and negative, undermine long-term drive to work for the sake of the thing itself. If that thing is learning, then that’s a disaster for kids and their teachers.


How do you define “modern parenting” and how does it impact children?


Modern parenting is driven by extrinsic motivators and the tendency to use our kids to validate our parenting. If our kids are on the honor roll and cello prodigies and on the traveling soccer team, we must be great parents. If our kids are messy, or failing math, or bad at team sports, then we, as the logic goes, must be failures at parenting. That flawed logic is not fair to parents, and it’s certainly not fair to our children.


What is the line between over-parenting and being too distant from your child? Is it possible to allow for too much failure?


Kids need to feel supported and loved for themselves, not for their scores and awards. If we show our love, consistently and honestly, there’s no danger of being distant. I think I’m a much more loving and consistent parent than I’ve ever been, mainly because my kids know that I’d rather spend my time with them in a positive and supportive way, not nagging and sniping and reminding. As long as parents’ expectations are clear, and we are honest about our motivation (that in order to be good parents, we must give kids a sense of autonomy and opportunities to feel competent), and subsequently hold them to consequences when they fall short of those expectations, kids can understand why we won’t step in and rescue them every time.


Many reviewers have noted that instead of lecturing caregivers and educators on your successes as a parent, you illustrate your own mistakes and how you learned from them. In the context of the book and in terms of general writing, why is it important to point out your own failures to convey a message?


I have no interest in waggling my finger at parents; that’s not my place. I can only talk about what I have experienced as a teacher and a parent, and go from there. Every family is different, every child is their own person, and I respect parents who are working hard to do the right thing for their children. I can only speak to what I have learned, what I have seen over my career as an educator, and what I have experienced in my own life as a parent.


Since writing the Gift of Failure, have any of your opinions or findings changed? What would you add to the book now?


I’ve learned a lot more about the science of learned helplessness, and there’s been some great new research on how the brain works in regards to learned helplessness and the urge to seek control over one’s environment. I hope to write more about that in the future, though!

Posted by Miranda Clark at 4:00 PM
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