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Jessica Lahey to speak in Sonoma on ‘The Gift of Failure’

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Take a moment to think about your proudest moments as a child. Were your parents present? Probably not, says author Jessica Lahey.

When we spoke by phone a few days prior to her appearance Oct. 5 at the Presentation School, Lahey pointed out that, as kids, our greatest accomplishments in terms of competence typically came when our parents weren’t around. “It is so important to give our kids opportunities to fend for themselves,” she said. “You are depriving your children of a sense of accomplishment and competency if you do everything for them.”

Lahey was teaching middle school in New Hampshire and raising her own kids when she read a piece of research about today’s children being increasingly afraid of failure. She had been struck by this in her own classroom and she worried that she too was falling into the trap of smoothing all the bumps on her childrens’ road in life.

She penned a blog post that attracted the attention of the education editor at the Atlantic. Her follow-up article, “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail,” was published in 2013 and became one of the most shared and talked about articles that year for the magazine.

“In the weeks that followed, I read everything I could on the topic but none of the books suggested a way forward – they didn’t provide tips on how to start,” she said. “So I wrote the book I wanted and needed, heavy on the research, but two thirds is how to change, become a better parent by letting your children learn from their mistakes.”

Last month, Harper Collins published “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”

The book is a brisk and engaging mix of research and specific and doable tips, like age-appropriate household duties for your children. Lahey even provides short scripts for tough conversations with your children. “I was amazed by how much parents really wanted a how-to book,” she said. Parents would stop her and ask very specific questions about what they should do with their children.

“Based on all that I learned in my research, I chose to go all in and to completely change the way I parent, but I realize that isn’t for everyone,” she said. Her book suggests some compromises. “So much that is written about parenting is very all or nothing. And parents can be very judgmental of each other. You breast-feed or you formula-feed and there is no in between. People on the other side are BAD! And that is just so damaging and I didn’t want to go there.”

When asked the most frequent push-back she gets from parents, Lahey said that it usually revolves around grades. “They admit to checking their children’s grades online several times a day and say, ‘The stakes are just too high now to let my kid fail a class. Grades matter, that’s just the world we live in now.’”

Sonoma parent and Presentation School head Scott Parker put it this way: “How do we to walk the fine line between letting kids crash and letting kids burn?”

Lahey answers that, “things that feel scary or feel good in the moment may not be the same things that might be good or bad for them in the long term. Our tolerance for risk has really gone down – whether it is failing a class or just playing outside with friends.”

She notes that parental “alarms” go off quicker today than they did for previous generations.

“As parents we should be focusing on raising a great adult, not a straight-A student,” says Lahey.

The most important thing that she wants parents to take away from her book is that parents today need to “parent for the long term, not the moment.” Inserting yourself into your child’s homework to avoid tears or so their grade doesn’t suffer solves today’s problem, but isn’t helping you raise a better kid.

Also crucial, she said, is the role parents play in modeling competence, independence and resilience.

“Kids need to see our faults and struggles. Do we want our kids to know how to navigate life but don’t want to share the struggle of how we do that with them?” she asked, rhetorically. “Are they just going to magically learn all this without being taught? The most important education kids get is seeing how their parents handle things, and showing them what we value with our actions.”

Lahey’s articles appear regularly in the Atlantic and she is already hard at work on her next book about helping kids connect what they are learning to the real world. She’ll soon be back in the classroom part-time, and she continues to get feedback from parents reading “The Gift of Failure” through pretty high-tech means. “As an author, if I buy my own book on Kindle, I can see which passages people have highlighted. It is so valuable to know what resonates with people.”

Tickets sales to Lahey’s talk at 6:30 p.m. on Monday night ($20) have been brisk, according to organizer Nana Howell, because the relevance of the book crosses all boundaries – income, achievement, age and gender.

The event takes place at the Presentation School, at 20872 Broadway, and is co-sponsored by the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation and tickets are available on both the SVEF and the Presentation School web sites.

Email Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.