The Gift of Failure: an author Q&A

Randi Olin and Jessica Lahey
@randiolin @jesslahey

In her highly acclaimed book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Children Can Succeed, author, teacher and parent Jessica Lahey offers insightful and practical advice about how to avoid the pitfalls of overparenting. I had the opportunity to interview Jessica about her book, including the public reaction to her groundbreaking message: modern-day parents need to allow their kids to make mistakes instead of “fixing” everything for them.

Randi Olin: It’s been two years since the release of The Gift of Failure (full disclosure: I have two copies at home, one I keep in my office, the other stays bedside.) Tell us, what has the reaction been to this idea that parents need to step aside and let their children make mistakes in order to succeed? What kind of resistance, if any, have you experienced to the concept along the way?

Jessica Lahey: I’m used to pushback when I write about education and parenting, as it’s such an emotionally fraught issue, but to my complete shock, there’s been almost none. Sure, I show up for an event, and there are parents there with looks of, “Okay, try your best, lady, but I don’t plan to agree with you” on their faces, but for the most part, audiences have been amazing. It’s been fascinating to find out that parents across the country are feeling a little…uncomfortable with the way they see their kids’ education and free time play out, and have a sneaking suspicion that they may be holding their kids back from becoming competent and independent.

I also hear a lot that while people know they are overparenting, they just don’t know how to turn that ship around, and so they appreciate the direct, simple suggestions for changes in day-to-day behaviors. I know that’s what I needed as a parent, and it’s the reason I wrote the book, so it’s nice to find out I’m keeping plenty of good company! 

RO: Through your book tours and talks, you’ve likely spoken with many parents who have shared their own stories about parenting and learning how to let go. In light of these interactions, has anything about your own parenting perspective changed since the book’s release?  

JL: I’m a lot more willing to forgive myself for missteps. I’ve also realized that my opinions about how I should parent change, depending on the phases of my kids’ lives (or of the moon!) and their different stages of development and personality.

RO: We’d love to learn more about what it was like for you to balance a book tour and motherhood, that couldn’t have been easy.

JL: My husband and I have been married for 20 years, and the first 15 have been all about his career. We’ve moved a lot, I parented alone a lot when the kids were little, and my teacher’s schedule allowed me to be home when the kids are home, both after school and in the summer. When I sold The Gift of Failure in 2013, my husband and I agreed it was my turn. He scaled back his work, and made sacrifices to be at home more. Plus, my kids are older—now 17 and 12, and very independent. I also take my younger son along on trips whenever I can. That’s actually been one of my favorite parts about touring. 

RO: If you could write a follow up chapter to The Gift of Failure, what would that look like?

JL: I have, actually—one that had originally been in my outline for the book but did not make the cut. It’s one directed at the kids themsleves. It’s basically what I talk about when I meet with middle and high school students, and is the flip side of the advice for parents, about stepping up and taking control of all the small moments, so the kids can feel more autonomous and competent in their own lives.

RO: Have you changed your mind about anything you’ve written in the book?

JL: I think my ideas have developed as I’ve toured and continued to research. I talk much more about the positive feedback loop of autonomy and competence and the evils of learned helplessness, and how Wendy Grolnick’s research on the impact of “autonomy-supportive parenting” affects learning. Kids who are overparented and not able to sit with frustration or push through when their initial instinct is “I can’t,” are simply less teachable and less likely to learn in deep, meaningful ways because one of the most powerful tools in my teaching toolbox—desirable difficulties—is not available to these kids, no matter how smart they are at baseline. Kids who can’t work through frustration are simply less able to learn.

RO: Do you feel the parenting climate is moving in a different direction since the book’s release and, if so, how can you tell?

JL: A little. I think parents are more likely to admit that overparenting feels bad and that it not only undermines their child’s confidence, but gets in the way of solid parent-child relationships. Nagging feels bad. Doing surveillance on your kid feels bad. Having a good relationship based on trust and encouragement feels great.

RO: What are you up to these days? Tell us about your newest projects and what inspired them?

JL: I’ve been working on a show with Amazon Kids called The Stinky and Dirty Show. It’s based on the Jim and Kate McMullan series that started with the book I Stink!. It’s all about resilience, innovation, and helping kids feel competent, even as they make mistakes and learn from them. The pilot aired last year on Amazon and got over four thousand five-star reviews, so I’m really excited for kids to see the rest of the series.

I’ve just started my next book, and am deep into the research on that. I’m also working on some longer-form pieces and while I plan to keep writing about education, I will be writing more about child welfare and juvenile justice issues.

And best of all, I’m still teaching. I teach adolescents in the setting of an inpatient drug and alcohol rehab. It’s fun and hard and challenging—just as teaching should be.

You can buy a copy of Jessica’s book here!

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