Author Jessica Lahey lives in Shelburne, Vermont, with her husband and two sons and teaches high school English at a drug and alcohol rehab center for adolescents. (Photo courtesy of Lahey)

SCDS speaker examines parenting methods, role of failure in first book

Jessica Lahey will discuss her 2015 book, “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” on Tuesday, Oct. 22, at 7 p.m. in the Matthews Library. 

“The Gift of Failure” has been published in 14 languages, and more than 100,000 copies have been sold in English. 

Lahey’s second book, “The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence,” is scheduled for release in 2020.

Q: Why did you decide to write “The Gift of Failure”? 

A: I had been teaching for about 10 years when I realized that my students were less interested in learning and more in being perfect — arguing about the difference between a B+ and an A-. 

At the same time, they were less motivated, and their parents were saving them all the time. 

Consequences for forgetting something at home? Nope. Parent delivered it. 

Consequences for treating another kid badly? Nope. Parents said it had to have been the other kid’s fault; their kid would never do that. 

As a teacher, I was feeling demoralized. So many learning opportunities were being lost to the points and grades arguments and to the so-called “helicopter parenting.” 

As angry and frustrated as I was at the parents of my students, I had to admit I was doing the same thing to my own kids. 

I realized my 9-year-old kid could not tie his own shoes, so I did that. I caused him to be helpless and incompetent. 

I had to research this to figure out how to fix it for my students and my own kid. 

Q: Why are so many parents overprotective these days? 

A: That’s an entire chapter in the book, but the short version is that we have fewer kids at an older age and after spending more time in the workforce or in school. 

Pair that with an era in which we can’t expect our kids to do better than us economically, with media saturation about the challenge of getting into college, getting a job, vaping, the opiate crisis, online pornography and the dangers of being sold into the sex trade — and parents are nuts. (Much) of this hysteria is fueled by overblown or outright manufactured “news,” but it affects us. It stresses us out and makes the stakes feel incredibly high. Just ask the parents being indicted in the Varsity Blues investigation.

Q: What research did you do for the book? 

A: I’m an over-researcher, both for my teaching and my journalism. I love researching, and I don’t feel as if I can see the whole landscape unless I read everything. 

I started general — books on the topic, academic review articles — and mined the bibliographies of those (books and articles) for more specific ideas and takes. I read the consensus view, and I read the minority view. I read all of it. 

I interviewed a lot of people. I recorded them, then used a transcription service to turn those into text. 

The book I’m working on took me about a year to research and write the proposal for. Proposals include chapter summaries and a sample chapter, so you have to know the landscape. 

(There was) another year of research before I was ready to start writing. The book was due on Oct. 10, and it’s taken about a year to write. 

Note to future writers: Don’t write a book if you are not prepared to spend five years preparing to write, writing and talking about it so people will buy it.  

Lahey’s writing office is packed with resources on topics covered in her books — from books on adolescent development, substance abuse, history of substance abuse, and memoirs on substance use and abuse to education theory, child welfare, poverty, literacy and teaching techniques. (Photo courtesy of Lahey)

Q: What surprised you most during your research?

A: That the very things I was doing because I believed it would ensure my kid’s emotional and academic success were doing the exact opposite. I was undermining his motivation, learning, competence and confidence every time I swooped in and fixed things for him.

Q: What’s your writing process? 

A: First of all, I use a program for writing called Scrivener. It allows me to organize the bones of my book into folders, one for each chapter based on the proposal I’ve submitted to my publisher, and in each folder I have research, ideas, approaches, fragments of text and transcripts of interviews. 

Then I flail about — I just write. I try to pin down my chapter “framing stories,” the narrative that will contextualize all that research. 

Once I get serious about a chapter, I nail down the framing story and start organizing the research in the context of the story and try to integrate them into a seamless whole. I write every day, even on weekends, because I like to, but also because it’s my job and habits are important. 

It’s harder to get in the groove when the writing isn’t in the front of my brain. 

I’m in the final stretch before my book deadline, so I’m spending 12-14 hours a day writing, honing and working on edits I get back from my agent before we submit to my editor. 

Q: What questions do parents ask you the most, and how do you respond?

A: How do I start? How do I stop taking over, being so directive and let my kid experience life so he can learn from his mistakes? 

When you feel the urge to take over, stop. Breathe, shift your thinking from this emergency, this urgent moment, and try to think long-term. 

Do I want to ease my child’s discomfort by delivering this forgotten homework assignment or these soccer cleats, or do I want to raise the kind of kid who will have the strategies in place to remember for himself next time? 

Long term over short term. Process of learning over grades, points, scores, trophies.

Q: If parents wanted to read your book for advice but couldn’t, what would you want them to know about your book/message?

A: First I’d tell them they don’t have to read — they can listen. It’s available as an audiobook read by me, which was very cool. If they can’t listen, either, I’d say these are the biggest points:

When we do too much for our kids — direct them too much, control them too often — we may help them in the short term, but in the long term, we render them less able to learn. 

The problem is that learning happens best in the presence of “desirable difficulties,” tasks that are a wee bit beyond a kid’s comfort zone — things they have to untangle, parse and work on to figure out. 

Children of highly directive parents are less likely to be able to cope with frustration when things get difficult and thus are less able to finish difficult tasks on their own.

So, in short, when we over-parent, we undermine learning. 

We can fix that by focusing on the process of learning instead of the end product. 

(This) allows us to teach kids we really do care more about learning than the grade; it helps diffuse anxiety in kids and increases the chances that kids will stay interested in learning for the sake of learning itself. 

Kids learn best when they are supported through successes and failures, so, if we do nothing else, we need to love the kids we have, not the kids we wish we had. 

By David Situ

Originally published in the Oct. 15 edition of the Octagon.

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