Jessica Lahey is the author of The Gift of Failure.
What was your inspiration for writing The Gift of Failure?
I’d been thinking about the topic for a while, as so many of my teaching colleagues were. However, despite the fact that I was writing for a couple of different education blogs, I could not write about my own students, or their parents’ tendency to overparent. Fortunately, an academic article came out with quotes from guidance counselors and teachers that allowed me to talk directly about the impact overparenting can have on children and their learning. I’d seen my own students become more and more paralyzed by their fear of failure and this was having a terrible effect on their intellectual risk-taking. They were reluctant to write rough drafts, take chances, get messy with the material, lest they blow a quiz or show their vulnerabilities to their classmates. I simply wanted to help my students – and my own children find their bravery so they could enjoy learning in all its messy, inexact glory.
What was the most surprising aspect of your research?
Wendy Grolnick’s research on the power of autonomy-supportive parenting. Kids who have been encouraged, but not directed or controlled, to complete tasks are much more likely to be able to cope with frustration when their parents are not around. The children who are told by their parents what, when, how, and where to do tasks are nearly incapable of completing tasks when the parents are removed from the room. Grolnick herself commented that she was surprised by the difference between the children with the autonomy-supportive versus directive/controlling parents.
How did your own experience as a parent inform your writing?
That’s easy. If I was looking to blame my students’ parents for causing this fear of failure, then I’m culpable too. My students at the time were middle school students, and my older son was in middle school as well. I am these parents, so I can hardly cast stones. I had to look at my own parenting in order to problem-solve, and that was really difficult for me.
What message would you like the reader to take away after reading your book?
It’s never too late to step back and allow kids to fail. If your child is older, you may have less time to teach them how to become autonomous and competent, but you also have their more fully-formed frontal lobe on your side. You can come clean, admit that you have made your own mistakes and want to change. Model the same bravery you’d like to see your children exhibit in the face of their failures in the way you adapt your own parenting. Kids respect that. They know when we are simply talking the talk. They need to see us put our own fragile egos on the line if we expect them to do the same.
What was the toughest part of the writing process?
The day after I handed in my rough draft, I went for a trail ride with my husband and was thrown on my [helmeted] head. I’ve been riding my entire life, but I’d never landed on my head before, so it was pretty scary when I had no idea who I was, who my children were, or what my recently completed book was about – let alone how to get home. It took me about four months to get back to baseline, and during that time, my editor, agent, and I realized that there was no way to get edits done in time for the planned August 2014 release. We pushed the book by a year, and while it was devastating to me at the time, it was a fantastic opportunity to really dig in and write the book I wanted to write, without the pressure to do more than my brain could handle at the time.
What books have had the greatest influence on you?
I’m a huge fan of writers who are curious about something, and get their hands dirty in the pursuit of knowledge or personal journeys. A.J. Jacobs, Bill Bryson are some of my favorites in this genre, but any author who is willing to take a risk, learn something interesting, and tell me about it in beautiful prose is an author I want to read.
I don’t know that I do. It helps that my kids are now almost 12 and 17, so they need less of my moment-to-moment attention than they once did, but I’d be lying if I said I was pulling it off effortlessly. As a teacher and a writer, I have a schedule that works pretty well with my kids’ school schedule, but as I head into an incredibly travel-intense book release, my spouse is taking up more of the childcare responsibilities. I could not go on this extended book tour without his help. I dedicated The Gift of Failure to my children but as I wrote in the acknowledgement section of the book, I am the lucky one in the marriage equation.