‘The Gift of Failure,’ by Jessica Lahey
When I was learning to drive, my mother sat in the passenger seat pressing her foot on an imaginary brake, gripping the door handle for dear life. She couldn’t do it for me; she could only watch. It wasn’t pretty, but I did learn.
As you read Jessica Lahey’s new book, “The Gift of Failure,” a picture emerges of childhood today unfolding the way a young person learns to drive, except the car is the kind with controls on both sides and the parent riding shotgun is quick to take the wheel outright rather than letting the kid figure it out. Together they arrive at the destination — college, the workplace or simply chronological adulthood — but the child was really just along for the ride.
To Lahey, these failure-averse parents experience an “adrenaline-fueled oncoming-headlight glare” born of a desperate need to prove their parenting skills. Any day they can “help” their child — on the playground, rushing breathlessly from sandbox to swings to ensure nobody gets hurt; at home, shuttling forgotten lunches or assignments to school and doing the student’s homework; in class, contesting grades; or at sports, second-guessing coaches and referees — they reassure themselves that “Yes, you are a good parent today.” It’s a parent’s ego trip, but children pay the price. When parents try to engineer failure out of kids’ lives, Lahey says, kids feel incompetent, incapable, unworthy of trust and utterly dependent. They are, she argues, unprepared when “failures that happen out there, in the real world, carry far higher stakes.”
It’s no revelation that children need failure; others, including Madeline Levine, Wendy Mogel and Paul Tough, have taught us that. But Lahey adds the welcome perspective of a middle-school teacher — one of those incomparable people who impose order, compassion and even humor on the chaotic, snarled intersections of adolescence. In this book, she is a whistle-blower for the kids. One story involves a student she calls Marianna, whose mother approaches Lahey not to discuss her grades (which are great, perhaps in part because of her mother’s obsession) but to lament Marianna’s loss of passion for learning. We picture Lahey sitting across the table trying not to scream as she finds the wherewithal to tell the mother she is the problem. We’re in suspense, rooting for both Marianna and Lahey, wondering whether this mother will be schooled, when pages later we read: “I take a deep breath, cross my fingers, and tell her the truth.”
Lahey’s prose here is gripping, yet the storytelling releases us too soon. We want to know exactly what Lahey said. How it felt. How Marianna’s mother reacted. (One surmises it wasn’t, “O.K., you’re right, I see the light.”)
Likewise, Lahey relates a conversation with unhappy parents whose student just earned a B-minus. We hear Lahey offer kind words about his character and capabilities, with reassurance that in the long term, “he will be fine.” But let’s face it, we’re in this mess precisely because parents don’t buy that oversimplified message. We desperately need brave educators like Lahey to summon the guts to tell it like it is. And to illustrate why, as Lahey recounts it, even award-winning educators are leaving the profession because of “issues with parents.”
The Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle wrote in her 2014 book “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success” that “schools don’t teach failure but maybe they should.” But Lahey knows that education itself inherently offers that lesson. “The ugly and wonderful truth about middle school,” she says, is that “failure is not an if proposition, it’s a matter of when.” Or it used to be. Now that parents shelter their children every step of the way, we have “failure deprived” college students (as administrators at Stanford and Harvard call them) and entitled, anxious 20-somethings who can’t function in a world that’s sometimes cold or cruel or indifferent. So how can teachers snatch back their critical role and give children the necessary space to fail? They could start by making parents read Lahey.
THE GIFT OF FAILURE
How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed
By Jessica Lahey
272 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.