Book Review of "The Gift of Failure" by Jessica Lahey
Wednesday, February 3, 2016
Posted by: Christina Mimms
Reviewed by Sarah Barton Thomas, Middle School Director, The Montgomery Academy, Montgomery, AL
In her new book, The Gift of Failure, middle school educator, author, and parent, Jessica Lahey weaves her tale of learning the value of failure. Her first paragraph lays out the clear, if alarming, thesis of the book: “Today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting style has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation.” She then goes on to share her own story of being an overprotective, failure-avoidant, parent and teacher and how she grew into one who models and embraces failure and struggle for her children and students. Along the way, she shares her research base, including Edward Deci’s Self Determination Theory (a favorite of mine) and provides practical applications, such as how she was transparent with her kids about making the change to be less “do for” and more of a guide for “do it yourself.”
In the last two decades or so, childhood and parenting have changed. What used to be called childhood — unstructured play, balanced schedules, time at the family table — now gets labeled as “free range kids” as if these ideas are radical. Allowing children to fail or struggle has also become out-of-style. Parenting, coaching, and teaching trends have leaned toward the happiness of our children rather than celebrating their struggle. The over-scheduled lives of our children have led us —the adults in their lives — to do more for them. Or our own desire for things to be a certain way has inhibited our ability to let kids take control of things. (Specifically, I’m thinking of learning to tie my shoes or the proper way to load the dishwasher.) Difficulty and patience have given way to comfort and expediency and the losers, in the long run, are our children.
Lahey offers specific advice, such as her “guide to successful sideline parenting” and shares her narrative of personal and professional anecdotes to allow the reader to access her content in a sensible manner. Her chapters on homework and grades offer insight into providing student feedback and autonomy that will allow them to grow from struggle and make their own academic choices. As we rethink our practices of teaching and learning, feedback is a key element which deserves a review. We can ask the question, are we providing feedback that encourages students to become more motivated, autonomous learners? Or, are we simply providing a numerical or alphabetical evaluation system in order for them to move on to the next course or school? These are tough questions to ask but they are worth it for the sake of providing an authentic learning experience for our students.
“Students recover. People do it all the time. And failure helps them learn about themselves … Students need to fail, because this is when they learn to succeed.”
In all of our divisional parent nights at The Montgomery Academy and in our language with students, we are talking about failure and struggle. We are speaking of these things with a positive tone to set the message that failure is a part of the learning process. In fact, it is really the most important part of the learning process. If we constantly achieve instant success, it is unlikely that we will gain the deep learning that is necessary for critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. We have a collective responsibility as the adults in the lives of these young humans to make struggle and failure a regular, if not celebrated, practice of life.
This is not meant to scold us or to put all of us in the same guilty bucket of providing a free-wheeling life for children. This is a call to action for adults, both teachers and parents, to build opportunities for their own success through failure. Perhaps this means letting them forget that P.E. uniform or homework assignment. Or maybe it means a few more chores, done to their best effort, and a little less comfort. In learning the value of failure and hard work, they will reap the rewards of autonomy, self-reliance, and competence in a way that will serve them for life.
Sarah Barton Thomas is middle school director at The Montgomery Academy in Montgomery, AL. Reach her at Sarah_Thomas@montgomeryacademy.org or follow her on Twitter .