Thursday, January 11, 2018

Rapid Review: The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey

The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey
In November, I joined a book club begun by the director of the Montessori school my preschooler attends. The first book we read, and finished discussing last night, was The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey (Harper, 2016).

The actual subtitle of the book is "How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so their Children can Succeed." That works, sure. I would subtitle (or sub-subtitle) the book "The Ways You are Micromanaging Your Child's Life, Why You Must STOP, and How to Begin Supporting Your Child's Independence with an Eye on Autonomy, Whether Your Child is 2 or 17."

Or, maybe, "How to Stop Doing Everything for Your Child because How will they ever Learn: Magic isn't a Thing"

Or, maybe "Eventually, Your Child Will Resent Your Overreach, so Let's Take a Moment and Reflect"

Or, "How to Encourage Growth, Independence, and Autonomy in Your Child through Learning and Goals, and the Necessary Mistakes that will Come with Them"

Clearly, I'm not in the publishing-side of the writing business, but these pretty much sum up the theses of the book and why the book is super useful, and I love it. I have a tendency to micromanage everyone, not just my child. Evidently, I'm not alone.

Our family has always been Montessori-minded in our choices of how to support Henry's growth, so this book falls in line with that parenting and educational style. A reader who has not yet embraced, or touched toe in the ocean of encouraging child autonomy (and doing it), would likely find this book overwhelming. But to be overwhelmed isn't as uncomfortable as wondering how to encourage a child's independence and not knowing how to.

The Gift of Failure is written by an educator and mother, and while its primary audience is middle-class (or, parents with time and money privilege), any reader can absorb the teaching philosophy and adapt it to their lives. Sometimes, the writer gives an overview of the history of education, or refers to it, and it's always the history of the education of white families; the history of education for people of color, people with disability, and people in the working-class are not included. So, any history of education is generic New England-centered. Which is typical, I guess, but I think should be noted. While the book is not a definitive history of education in the United States, I do wonder why a historical overview of education is even included if it's to be so generic and limiting in whose education is overviewed.

In the same vein, I didn't grow up in a middle-class home, so I felt more aware of/outside of some of the cultural norms/assumptions of the middle-class. But, frankly, I was glad to learn them and it helped me better understand other parents I interact with.

From The Gift of Failure
In terms of style, the writing is clear and accessible. The book improves a great deal, after about Chapter 3, once the writer has fulfilled the genre expectations of a book on education (historical overview, applicability, etc.). As soon as she starts providing specific anecdotes to illustrate her points, from her own parenting experience and in the classroom, she's in her element. Don't skip the first three chapters--just be patient.

Although the book is geared more toward parents of children in kindergarten through high school, it has positively affected our family's parenting style, almost immediately, we have become more nuanced and purposeful. I had not realized that Henry (newly age 4) was ready for the next level of independence and we had inadvertently been restricting him by supporting an independence he'd grown past.

For example, while reading the book, I realized that our tendency to think Henry was stubborn and lately grouchy was not true--exactly, he was but not because of a growth spurt or new changes to his personality but the logical effects of his having his independence restricted and his decisions undermined.

Now, I no longer make Henry's lunches. We're in month two of this and going strong. He has a lunch-making station in the kitchen (small table, food and container supplies within his reach and area), and he prepares his own lunches, from selecting the food, to storing it, to packing it (including installing the freezer bag each day). He has found this task incredibly enjoyable and well worth the time, patience, and effort he has had to summon in order to do this on his own.

The result is that he now eats with more zeal at school, looks forward to discussing his choices with his friends and teachers at lunchtime, and takes part in creating grocery lists. He loves taking his own cart to the grocery to select his food from the shelves. This is unwittingly supported by other shoppers who have never seen such a thing.

Now, he's learning how to ration his food, and the effects of eating all of his applesauce in two days and, thus, not having applesauce for his lunch for the rest of the week. It has been pleasurable to support this as a parent, has made our mornings easier because he understands what tasks need to be completed, and that time is part of that. Now, I am able to complete my own chores in the morning alongside him. The first day was jaw-clenching for me, but by day three, I was acclimating. He has learned how to cut strawberries, take freezer bags from the freezer, make a sandwich, and select what he thinks will satiate him at school.

After reading this book, I have taught Henry how to mop and how to set the table for dinner. At school, he was already setting his own place at the table for lunch, but I was not continuing that skill at home. Now, he sets the table, enjoys selecting placemats, and lighting a candle. He has begun making dinner as well, and we hope he will have one day a week he makes dinner for all of us.

And the joy he gets from controlling his own world is SO worth everything. But this is only working because I read The Gift of Failure. Henry isn't a unique kid, just a four-year old who thrills in controlling his own life to the extent he can.

This is the sort of book that will divide your life into how you parented before and after reading it, even if you've already endorsed a style of parenting that is independence-oriented. It will inform decisions you make, give you the patience to keep your mouth shut when your child is about to make a "mistake" or "fail," help confirm or disavow ideas you had or had inherited from your own parents, and overall, support your own independence as a parent. The writer "thinks through" phases of learning that you might not have encountered yet, or fully considered, and so it's helpful in that way, too.

Of course, you won't find everything in the book applicable to your own family and children, but that's to be expected and not the point. While H is our only child, other parents with multiple children found this book worthwhile, too (maybe because independent, self-sufficient children make a larger family function much more smoothly than overly dependent children whose inability to do tasks overwhelms the adults or older children). 

As a former teacher of college students, I'd recommend the book even to parents of a college-aged person if you act on the desire to control their lives, from their living decisions to homework outcomes, to interactions with their professors; please read this book--even if you are paying for part, or all of, their tuition. It's also a useful read for educators (from preschool teachers to college professors), as it will help you better understand why your students have certain behaviors or expectations, ways to encourage independence in learning in the classroom, and how to approach parents (or help the student approach their parents) so that everyone is sharing in supporting the child's growth and learning.

Other topics discussed in the book:

  • A parent's role in homework: why you might be frustrated and how to solve this
  • Effective ways to communicate with your child's teacher and when to begin bowing out of classroom-related communication and give your child the helm
  • Paying your kid for good grades? What?!
  • Friendships: how to support your child in learning how to navigate friendships and promoting healthy friendships, even if you yourself would not have chosen these friends
  • Why it's not too late to transform your parenting style, and how the author did it
  • Forgotten homework: on how to teach your child the skills required for remembering what to bring to school and why it's not heroic on your part to drive forgotten homework to school (you're not saving anyone)
  • How to deal with the problem of grades, and why shifting to creating goals is better for learning, growth mindset, and pleasure in the study process
  • How to avoid being a surveillance state your child lives within, and why you shouldn't be
Some satellite discussions that occurred in our book club:
  • On gratitude: how to encourage it in your child without forcing them to say "I'm sorry" like a script
  • At the dinner table: "I don't like it" and other complaints that unravel us and how to shift the focus to enjoyment
  • That time I yelled and other confessions about patience
  • How it works that every child in the family, from age 5 to 15 prepares dinner each day and have begun learning how to create recipes on their own
  • The problem of raising children in a majority white city
  • To compete or to play: children in athletics, and the commodification of sport and child, and what to do about all of that

Here are some snapshots of pages that stood out:

On fostering a positive relationship with your child's teachers

On grades
(so GLAD to read this in writing after teaching for 13 years)

On the problem of material rewards and inauthentic praise

On how to cope, and you must, and it's hard, with a child testing limits

On failure and executive function
Making errors is not a pointer on the intelligence yardstick

On parent-teacher relationships
On learning: your enthusiasm leads to your child's + a reading tip