The Gift of Failure | Jessica Lahey

Summary of: The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed
By: Jessica Lahey


Are you seeking a parenting playbook that empowers your children to learn from their failures and triumphs? Look no further, as this captivating summary of ‘The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed’ by Jessica Lahey embodies these principles. The book is a treasure trove of insights into the evolution of parenting and draws upon the wisdom of philosophers like John Locke to emphasize early autonomy for children. Prepare yourself for an enriching journey that scrutinizes the limitations of today’s education system and offers practical solutions to kindle intrinsic motivation in children through autonomy-supportive parenting.

Evolution of Parenting Styles

Parenting styles have gone through an evolutionary process that has shifted from emphasizing children’s early autonomy to protecting and sheltering them until they leave the family nest. In the seventeenth century, work took precedence over children’s education, but philosopher John Locke advised parents to let their children make mistakes and face the consequences of their actions. In the nineteenth century, child labor was prevalent, and teenagers were seen as practical, cheap labor. Dangerous child labor practices led to regulations which prohibited children under a certain age to work, and children went from being “useful” to “useless” in their families. With growing divorce rates and couples having fewer children later in life, the focus shifted to caring for children as developing adults. Psychological books about children’s education became popular, with a focus on self-esteem playing the most central part in a child’s behavior. The self-esteem movement reinforced self-esteem in American society but turned people into narcissists, according to psychologist Jean Twenge.

The Downside of Perfect Grades

Grades fail to instill intrinsic motivation in children and dampen self-driven motivation with external rewards. Parents should establish non-negotiable expectations and let children learn how to cope under pressure.

From a young age, children are taught that good grades are their ticket to success and respect in society. However, this mentality comes at a significant cost. Grade-driven education eliminates the possibility of failure and also fails to instill intrinsic motivation in children. To make matters worse, parents often resort to external rewards such as phones to motivate students, which can further dampen self-driven motivation.

An experiment conducted by psychologist Harry Harlow showed that regular rewards killed a monkey’s interest in completing a task, as opposed to monkeys who received no reward. Humans exhibit similar behavior when a child is enthusiastic about a task; they will persevere, even when facing challenges.

To foster enthusiasm, children must be allowed to find their own way of solving problems. That’s why taking a step back and letting the children decide how, when, and where they accomplish a task is key. Parents can establish non-negotiable expectations, such as homework deadlines, but they should let their children fail if they do not meet these expectations. This is the only way for children to learn how to cope under pressure and become intrinsically motivated learners.

Autonomy-Supportive Parenting

Parents play a crucial role in their child’s education, but there is a difference between being involved and being controlling. Psychologist Wendy Grolnick studied autonomy-supportive and controlling parents and found that children who were controlled by their mothers gave up faster than children who weren’t when faced with frustrating situations while playing by themselves. Being autonomy supportive means setting limits for your children so that they can test their standards against yours. Autonomy-supportive parenting involves helping children discover different ways of dealing with problems. Parents who hold their children responsible for not meeting expectations are preferred by children over controlling parents who extensively monitor their children. Switching to autonomy-supportive mode takes time and effort but the goal should be to support your child, rather than direct him or her. Remember that controlled parenting seems supportive because it uses rewards, but if you allow your children to struggle with problems, they’ll learn the necessary patience for coming up with solutions. As long as you show your children that your love isn’t dependent on their success, you’ll always be on the right path.

The Power of Praise

Praise behavior, not persona, to develop a growth mindset in children. Focusing on effort rather than performance helps children to persevere and fear failure less.

The way parents praise their children can demotivate them despite good intentions. Praising a child’s behavior rather than the child creates a growth mindset, while praising the child itself promotes a fixed mindset. A growth mindset focuses on effort, allowing children to believe they can develop any skill as long as they practice it. Conversely, a child with a fixed mindset perceives specific skills or abilities as unchanging throughout life. Praise can thus affect a child’s level of perseverance and their approach to challenges. Studies by psychologist Carol Dweck show that students praised for how hard they worked persevered and had a better ability to deal with more challenging tasks, while those appreciated for intelligence gave up faster. Western schools tend to group children according to their ability, unlike Japanese schools, where all children are believed to have the potential to develop high degrees of skill. By valuing effort rather than performance, children can see failure as an opportunity to learn.

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