The Gift of Failure

Exeposé Arts and Lit online (7 September 2015)

Are you scared of failure? It’s a tricky one, isn’t it. When I asked myself this question, my instinctive answer was no. Why should I be? Trial and error is the most natural way of learning. All animals do it.

But then memories began to surface. A Level results day. Violin exams. My driving test. My second driving test. My third driving test (I’m a questionable driver). Before each of these, there was definitely a creeping dread. A knotted-stomach, cold-sweat-inducing, cliché-fulfilling sensation that stemmed from one thought, and one thought only: what if I fail?

So yes. Maybe I am scared of failure. But then, so are many of my housemates, classmates and friends. And we’re not alone, according to Jessica Lahey. Lahey is a teacher, journalist and mother. She writes the bi-weekly “Parent-Teacher Advice” column for the New York Times, and is a regular contributor to US magazine The Atlantic.

In January 2013, Lahey penned an article for The Atlantic entitled: “Why Parents Need to Let their Children Fail.”

“I’d noticed that my students were becoming increasingly dependent, fearful, and anxious about the prospect of failure,” she told Exeposé. “Where they used to be able to write rough drafts, and try ideas out in writing, they were no longer able to be brave on the page.”

It was tempting to believe it was the parents’ fault, Lahey admits – but as a parent herself, this meant she would have to look at her own behaviour too. “If they were complicit, I was complicit,” she explained. The article went viral – and prompted Lahey to delve deeper into the issue of over-parenting.

After reading everything she could find on the subject, Lahey adapted her own teaching and parenting to be more “supportive of childrens’ autonomy and competence.” Helpfully for others, she also put what she had learned into a book: The Gift of Failure.

The book was released in August, and delivers “one of the most important parenting messages of our time,” writes Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs. It’s also a message “that any parent can and should embrace,” writes Publishers Weekly.

But does this mean we’d have to be parents ourselves to really understand The Gift of Failure?

Exeposé put the question to Lahey – and got a resounding no. Teachers, coaches, ministers and youth volunteers were all a driving force behind the original article’s popularity, she said – and can all find something useful in the book. “Anyone who works with kids can find helpful information,” she said, “as there are chapters on how to help kids be more autonomous around homework, sports, their social lives, and how to form healthy parent-teacher relationships.”

Lahey may be an experienced writer, but putting the book together wasn’t all plain sailing. We asked her what particular challenges arose. “I’m a journalist, so I’m used to writing in 1200-word blocks,” she explained. “Organizing and executing 80,000 words was so much harder!”

“It was a real challenge to keep the whole book in my head,” she said, “and make sure something I wrote in chapter two connects to something else in chapter ten.

Exeposé asked Lahey to sum the book up in three words. Her response: “Autonomy, competence, and connection.” And if readers could just take away one thing from reading the book, what should it be?

“That kids really need the freedom and space to mess up, try again, learn, get frustrated, and feel uncomfortable as they sit with their failures,” Lahey answered. Lahey is already hard at work on her next book – and while her new project bears some relation to The Gift of Failure, she jokes that it’s “different enough that I’m reading another couple hundred books to get ready to write!”

The journalist also plans on continuing her work with the New York Times and the Atlantic. “I have my dream job, and I’m going to keep doing it as long as people keep reading my work!” she said.

>>View original Exeposé Arts and Lit feature>>

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