I’m about to fling my baby bird out of the nest. My older son, Ethan, is headed to the wilds of middle school right after Labor Day, and I’m remembering a stark thought that I had in a pang of early motherhood. Shortly after Ethan turned a year old and was experimenting with walking away from me, I realized: If I do this parenting thing right, one day he won’t need me anymore. Then: Maybe I should screw it up.
“The problem is that we do eventually need to fling them out of the nest, but often they don’t have the skills to fly,” empathizes Jessica Lahey, a New Hampshire-based high school teacher and author of the upcoming book “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”
“It’s important that we get our kids to the point where they don’t need us at all, and that’s really counter-intuitive,” she says. “Those moment-to-moment things that you do to save your kids—like when they’ve forgotten their homework on the table and you run it up to school for them? That’s going to end up biting them in the butt down the road.”
Sure, Lahey says, it might feel like you’re being a great parent in the moment, but in the end, it probably makes you feel better rather than helping your kid. “It doesn’t allow them to say, ‘Oh, crap. I forgot that homework on the table. What kind of system can I put in place so that doesn’t happen again?’ It makes it so that they don’t have to put a system in place.”
Lahey, who has two boys of her own (Finn, 10 and Ben, 15) says that the inspiration for her book came from the realization that that it was harder for her to teach the heavily overparented kids. In fact, she realized parents were getting in the way of their kids’ own learning. Lahey says this revelation informed her teaching style, but “it also forced me to look at my own parenting and say how am I complicit in this, too?”
So, for example, when her older son forgot to follow through on a dog-walking job that he’d promised a neighbor, Lahey resisted the temptation to step in and help him. “The dog peed and pooped all over the house. He was begging me to call the neighbor and explain and I said no, this is your responsibility.” Instead, he went through the process of regaining his neighbor’s trust, learned how to set reminders and use a calendar.
“Middle school is such a fantastic place to let your kids fail because the stakes are still low. Kids are going to make some of the big mistakes”—whether that’s forgetting their homework, cheating or worse—”and they’re going to get a taste of real consequences. But it’s still only middle school.” Lahey points out that parents often continue to do things for their kids well into middle school—whether that means meddling in their homework or buttering their toast—because they believe, erroneously, that their kids aren’t capable on their own.
“The book is about how on earth to get your kids to be intrinsically motivated,” says Lahey, citing that much of her own research was informed by the findings of author and motivation expert Daniel Pink, Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, and Clark University psychology professor Wendy Grolnick, who writes about how well-meaning parenting often backfires.
“Kids need to feel autonomous, competent, and connected—both to you and the material they’re learning,” according to Lahey. So, in other words, using extrinsic motivation—money for good grades, for example, or punishment for bad ones—divorces kids from their own desire to learn, she explains.
So how do we foster independence, competence, and an intrinsic desire to learn?
Here are Lahey’s top five ways to let go and win at parenting:
1. Resist the urge to save your kid. Lahey says her favorite quote about this is from a soccer coach who, whenever one of her players would say, “My mom forgot to pack my shinguards,” would look the kid in the eye and say, “Well I guess your mom won’t be playing soccer either then, huh?” Ask yourself, are you doing this for your benefit or for your kid’s?
2. Don’t obsessively check your kids grades online. “The best way to kill a kid’s intrinsic motivation and love of learning is to hover and tell them what to do and how to do it,” says Lahey. “My kids would play with Legos for hours under their own power. If I want to kill that, all I have to do is go into their room and say here’s how we’re going to play Legos. The minute you say they have to play according to these rules, they’re like forget it, we’re done. The same is true of math, science projects, everything else.” Instead, Lahey advises that parents spend time with kids setting up clear expectations (“I expect that your homework is completed and turned in on time”) and clear consequences (“…and if it’s not, you’ll need to address the issue directly with your teacher and figure out how to make up the missed work and restore the teacher’s trust in you.”), then leave them alone to figure it out.
3. Encourage competence, not confidence. “Competence is a feeling of confidence borne out of actual experience, as opposed to confidence, which is what we tend to give our kids by overpraising them.” Statements that praise effort (“I’m so proud of how hard you worked on this project”) versus empiric qualities (“You’re so smart!”) can actually have the opposite effect of what’s intended. “When you say to your kids you’re so smart, it sets them up to avoid any challenges or situations that could possibly screw up that impression. Carol Dweck has shown that if you tell a kid that they’re really smart, they’re less likely to take on a challenge because they’re afraid of messing up the label that you’ve now given them. Instead, praise them for effort.”
4. Help kids develop goals—theirs, not yours. Lahey’s years of being a student advisor have taught her that kids need concrete goals of their own in order to grow and progress. Avoid goals that are too big or amorphous, like “I’m going to get an A in math.” Instead, something like “I’m going to hand in all my homework on time” is a goal that can be monitored over the course of a semester and checked off on a calendar at the end of every week. As a parent, you can check in with their progress and help them evaluate their performance, but you shouldn’t oversee or intrude. If they’re struggling to achieve their goals, ask questions: “What do you think you could do differently next week in order to be able to turn in your homework on time?”
5. Get in on the act. Parents can set up their own goals for the week and share with their kids, suggests Lahey. “My husband and I do that with our boys every week. We sit down at dinner and discuss what our goals will be for the week.” Because parenting is a learning process, too.
Adrienne Wichard-Edds is a freelance writer. She lives in Arlington with her two boys (Ethan, 11, and Liam, 9) and one husband. She just started tweeting @Wichardedds.
Jessica Lahey tweets @JessLahey.
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