This morning my 8 year old son called me from the school office to ask me to bring his gym shoes to school.  My son is so absent-minded I wouldn’t be surprised if he went to school in his pajamas.  “Our absent minded professor,” my wife and I say, hoping to put a positive spin on the obvious flaw of our first born.  “No,” I told him, “you’ll have to sit out PE today.”  I spent 5 years as an Assistant Principal and watched parents march in with shoes, bookbags, lunches, papers, and projects.  Parents who wanted their children to succeed by not allowing them to fail at anything.

Does this sound harsh?  Try reading The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey.  A former middle school teacher, Lahey has effectively captured the prevailing parental attitude of viewing failure as a dirty word.  “Today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting style has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation,” writes Lahey.

Lahey connects this parenting style to the common belief that we are living in a harmful world full of dangers.  Certainly the constant wars and 9/11 have served to fuel this narrative.  Parents want to protect their children from danger and become enmeshed in their children’s lives.

Lahey also connects growth mindset to this style.  If children are told they are smart, athletic, etc. and are thus praised for their attributes rather than their effort they (and their parents) seek to preserve this narrative by taking only nominal risks and protecting their place.  Risk and failure have no place.

Speaking of failure, Lahey argues that many parents view parenting as a competition with pass/fail grades.  “Parents, after all, are judged by their children’s accomplishments rather than their happiness, so when our children fail, we appropriate those failures as our own” (xix).  The success of their children on the soccer field, for instance, reflects on them.  Parents are looking for extrinsic rewards for their parenting just as they are offering extrinsic rewards for their children’s successes.  (money for A’s, for example)

Arguing for an end to grades (standards-based report cards are preferred) as well as School Information Systems which allow parents to hover, Lahey offers practical tips for parents, teachers, and administrators to empower students and allow for risk-taking and failure.  Lahey organizes her book into chapters on sports, middle school, high school with specific suggestions for each context.  Later she explores homework, grades, and parent-teacher partnerships.

Next week I’ll release my interview of Lahey for the podcast when I’ll explore the implications for school design and we’ll dig a little deeper into the context of Catholic schools.