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When Less is More: A Review of The Gift of Failure

Can parents be overly attentive to their kids? This month, I decided to review The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey to find out.  This teacher, journalist, and parent addresses the pitfalls of being too responsive to your children.  According to Lahey, without a chance to learn from failures, kids miss out on the opportunities to figure out how to solve their problems.

“The less we push our kids toward educational success, the more they will learn,” Lahey claims.  If you don’t believe her, she suggests you try to the following exercise.  While your child is playing LEGOS or dolls, ask if you can join in.  Then, try to take a new direction with the toys. Most likely, the fun will end.  The reason?  According to Lahey, “The quickest way to kill off your child’s interest in a game, topic, or experiment is to impose your will on her learning.”

It’s not just a love of learning that’s lost.  Lahey explains that when children lack the competence gained from experience they are more likely to take risks they are unprepared to handle.  It’s also a confidence killer.  “Overparenting teaches kids that without our help, they will never be able to surmount challenges,” Lahey argues.  So “in order to raise competent, capable adults,” Lahey maintains, “[You] have to love them enough to put their learning before [your] happiness.”

Lahey recognizes this is difficult; however, she insists that the best part about autonomy-supportive parenting is that parents no longer need to engage in “nagging, nitpicking, hovering, [or] directing.”  That’s not to say you are supposed to dismiss your high expectations.  Lahey points out how “children react favorably to parents who hold children accountable for lapses in behavior or failure to uphold expectations.”  What Lahey discourages is “bribes, rewards, excessive monitoring, or pressure” because these actions “corrode a child’s sense of autonomy and therefore his intrinsic motivation.”

The reality is that our children are counting on us to teach them the ways of the world.  Lahey believes, “If we lavish praise for inherent qualities in an attempt to bolster their self-esteem, we do them a huge disservice.”  Lahey explains the dangers of a fixed mindset and the belief that children succeed because they are smart and not because they worked hard.  When in truth, it’s the kids who have developed problem-solving skills from real-life obstacles who learn the value of not giving up.

In The Gift of Failure, Lahey examines the downside of competitive sports and offers strategies for negotiating the transitions of middle school.  She includes a host of informative anecdotes as well as practical strategies.  Whether you need help establishing nonnegotiable expectations with tasks like homework or want assistance with guiding your child’s time-management, Lahey’s insights into organization are wonderful.  So if you’re struggling with loosening the reins, check out The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey for a better understanding of how the best parents learn to let go so their children can succeed.



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Victoria Winterhalter is a mother, teacher, reader, and writer on the education and environment beats for RFM. She has been with RFM since its founding in 2009 and has contributed photos and written numerous articles on education, parenting, and family travel.

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