The Gift of Failure — Old School Is in Session!

failureYesterday I wrote this book review on Goodreads. Today I post it here and on my education blog, RAMS English II the Sequel. And in school this afternoon, I will read an excerpt at a meeting of school leaders, especially as regards the opening of our electronic grading software to parents.

The book proposes that parents who trust their kids and afford them autonomy “opt out” of the practice of checking up on Johnny and Suzie via the Internet. First, though, they let both child and teacher know so everyone’s on board and the responsibility of honesty falls to the student. I love the idea and will suggest that we explain the option with any communication about the opening of the program (which, alas, will only throw flames on parental obsession with grades instead of learning).

And now, without further ado, my review of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

Sure, this book is for teachers in a way, but it’s for parents in a bigger way. The title says it all, and if you live in a competitive district where grades and sports and status are the be-all, end-all, you’ve come to the right book. Too bad you’re probably a teacher like Lahey. Too bad you’re the choir being preached to. What we need, then, are willing parents. “Willing” as in “to listen.” If we can get parents that far (at least the ones who need this), I expect Lahey’s arguments and research can take it from there.

Bottom line (up near the top): Every PTA in the country should be book-grouping this. Read. Sit down. Discuss. Then do, no matter how difficult it may seem. Your child slash student slash favorite person on earth will love you if you do. Stopping the madness, after all, is not easy. Ask those salmon leaping upstream against our cultural whitewater. Grizzlies. Exhaustion. Not easy at all.

In the small-world department, Jessica Lahey quotes an English teacher whose son I had for a student years ago. Whoa! I’ve never had THAT happen before, and it gave an already “immediate” read even more immediacy. In a word (or two): Way cool.

In an email blast, I have recommended this book to all of my students’ parents, assuring them that they’ll be all the better for it, especially if they have questions and concerns about their children’s friends, household chores, sports obligations and experiences, homework, and grades.

Basically Lahey’s message is this: Relax. Take a deep breath. Look at the big picture. Give your child the gifts of autonomy, responsibility, choice. Let them fail and learn from their failures. As one wag puts it in the book, in biology such things are called “evolution.”

Alas, too many parents have evolved into helicopters, safety nets, excusers (of their kids), accusers (of their kids’ teachers or coaches or fill-in-the-blank authority figures). They swoop in to protect Johnny and Suzie from disappointment, failure, frustration. They rationalize. They do the work for their kids. They give their kids a free pass on contributions to the family. They pay for grades and/or for chores.

Bad, bad, bad. It doesn’t work. And you know, I know, and a certain kid will SOON know that, once he or she hits the dreaded world comma real, a big surprise is in store. One Junior will be unable to deal with because Mom and Dad cruelly denied him the experiences and skills he needed to be a resilient, creative problem solver who knows how to try, try again until he gets it right.

(Can I get an amen? Amen!)

People of a certain age (ahem) will recognize Lahey’s message. It’s old school. It’s very much the parameters-have-been-set-but-hands-are-off approach my parents used, for instance. They set expectations and communicated them, yes. But then they went about their business while I went about mine — sometimes with great success, sometimes with great disappointment. If I wanted advice, they were there for me. Otherwise, I was on my own. It was all about learning and desire, not grades and cut-throat competition.

Roll call, then: I cannot remember my parents helping me with homework once. I cannot remember my parents squawking about my grades — yes, even my D in algebra one term — once. I cannot remember my parents driving to my school to drop off work I had forgotten once.

Number of times my parents helped me with a science fair project? It is to laugh. Number of times my parents called my teachers when I was given a detention or (once) suspended for fighting? Why would they? Just deserts, was their attitude. Number of times my parents screamed at a ref, ump, coach, or player (much less me) while watching a game I played in? “It’s a game,” my mom would say if I griped. “Have fun and remember the ump is as human as you are.”

The problem is, my parents’ world looks like Never Never Land now. And practitioners of the ‘Copter will say, “That was then, this is now. My kid has to be the best or he just won’t get in the school he [read: “I”] wants.”


In flowing prose that reads like butter, Lahey goes over lots of familiar (to education folks) research such as Carol Dweck’s work on praise. Empty praise is worthless. Praise for just showing up? Worthless. Praise for a grade? Worthless. It has to be more specific than that. It has to be about the child’s own solutions or beginning attempts at same.

And I love the quotes Lahey peppers throughout. Voices from the wilderness. Clarion calls of common sense. Examples:

When parents step in to defend a child’s poor choice or mistake or failure in order to avoid the “consequence” of that action or performance, they tend to lose sight of the fact that if the student does not have the experience of making mistakes and living and learning with the consequence of that mistake or failure, college may be a very difficult experience thousands of miles away from the security of Mom and Dad when he eventually has to deal with an experience of his own. Mistakes are opportunities to grow. Failures or unsuccessful attempts are the same, and students need to live through those experiences to develop a toolbox of coping mechanism to lift them and move them forward.

— public high school teacher/administrator

As a college president, … someone who oversees the review of roughly six thousand carefully crafted applications every year, let me promise you: We don’t care. Show me that your kid is great at math, or that she truly loves to play the cello. Tell me he edits the high school literary magazine and has an extensive stash of nineteenth-century Russian novels. But the expensive trips to far-flung poverty? Fifty-two activities scattered across the seven days of the week? Honestly. It doesn’t help. Give me a kid with a passion for learning, a kid who has demonstrated some measure of autonomy and motivation. Give me a kid who knows his or her mind. But these things are harder to come by if the child has been tutored and handheld from birth.

— Debora L. Spar, Barnard College president

It’s all here, from advice to parents of kindergarteners to advice to parents of college students. And yes, advice for teachers like me, too.

Well done. Well written. And about time….


2 thoughts on “The Gift of Failure — Old School Is in Session!

  1. I remember to this day the 56 I got in Latin … for the semester. Despite, or perhaps because of that, I managed to get through law school and recover from the E I achieved (!) for the first semester of the year long freshman property law course. I never did recover from whatever grade I got in cellular biology in college, which may explain why medical school is not in my rear view mirror.


    PS Don’t encourage any student in their right mind go to law school these days.


    • I think we all have a story like that — a failure that pushed us. Imagine what would’ve happened if it were deus ex machina (thanks to parents), as is the case with so many kids today….


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