Jessica Lahey Of Lyme, New Hampshire To Release New Book
VP: Where did the inspiration for the book come from? Was it one specific event, a series of events, or a lifetime of experiences?
JL: My students and my kids are always my greatest inspiration, but in this case, it was a series of realizations I had in the classroom that prompted me to look at my own parenting decisions and practices. I’d been noticing that with each passing year of my 10-plus years of teaching, students were becoming more and more afraid of failing, more afraid of making mistakes, and less able to let go and take intellectual risks. Students were freezing up during free writes and exams, and anxiety levels were going up. When I saw parents fostering that behavior in various ways, I had to look at my own parenting and figure out if I was complicit in this unfortunate decline in my students’ (and my own kids’) lack of confidence and courage.
VP: Would you classify your book as a self-help book for parents? Or perhaps more of a story of your own personal journey?
JL: It’s both, I think. I wanted to understand and remediate my own parenting, so I did a year of research and documented what I found as I put it into action in my own home. Some of my favorite writers —A.J. Jacobs and Gretchen Rubin, for example—write this way, and I’ve always loved reading that process of self-discovery and learning laid bare.
VP: Why, in your opinion, are parents so reluctant to give their children the same room for mistakes that they had growing up?
JL: It’s scary! Parents are having fewer kids, and the perception is that everything is harder—getting into college, getting a job, making it into adulthood safely and competently—and that scares parents into micromanaging their children’s lives. Add to that the failed self-esteem movement of the 1970s and our obsession with keeping our kids happy all the time and shielding them from all pain, and we’ve gotten ourselves into quite a pickle. Our kids are frightened, less competent than they need to be, and reliant on their parents much longer than young adults used to be.
VP: What characteristics and life skills does the gift of “failure” offer to children in the long run?
JL: I tried to focus on skills that contribute to intrinsic motivation, or motivation based on internal, personal drive. I spend the first third of the book on the research behind over-parenting and its polar opposite, “autonomy-supportive” parenting. The last two-thirds are about autonomy-supportive parenting in specific areas—sports, homework, household duties, etc. The thread that runs through all this is about the ways parents can give kids autonomy and competence in everything they do, whether that’s school work, music lessons, sports, or even play.
VP: This is a question more relevant to myself and other older students, but how can young adults who have already taught themselves “never to fail” undo that lesson and assume a more fulfilling life that includes making mistakes?
JL: That’s harder—old habits (and fears) are hard to break. Ideally, kids get to grow up seeing their parents take risks, embrace new experiences, and make mistakes with an attitude of optimism and fearlessness . . . but of course, that’s not always the case. I think young adults who are afraid of failing need to understand that being afraid of something doesn’t mean it won’t happen. It will. It always does, even to the most outstanding, brilliant, and overachieving human beings on the planet. Reading about how inspirational people encounter setbacks, regroup, and move forward can be a great source of inspiration and can help reframe your perception of “normal.”
VP: Is there one key lesson or piece of advice that the book conveys to parents, and what would it be? How best can parents give the gift of failure?
JL: Intrinsic motivation, or motivation that comes from within rather than from grades, bribes, pay, incentives, coercion, or praise (also known as “extrinsic motivators”) is the key to learning. You can’t have “flow,” that state of blissed-out immersion in a task or activity, without it. Intrinsic motivation comes when you have three things in place: autonomy, a sense of competence, and a connection to the people around you and to the world as a whole—a sense that what you are doing matters to those you love and to the real world, in other words.
VP: What is the most important thing you have learned from writing this book?
JL: That writing a book is hard, but it’s one of the two best ways to make a living. The other, of course, is teaching.
To get your hands on a copy of The Gift of Failure as soon as possible, pre-order it on Amazon, B&N, or Powell’s. If you can’t wait until August for more of Lahey’s sharp insights, you can read her articles for The Atlantic or follow her biweekly columns for the New York Times’ “Motherlode” blog, aptly named The Parent-Teacher Conference.