Last year, Jessica Lahey, mom, teacher and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so Their Children Can Succeed, gave me the permission to stand down and provided me with the push I needed to send my older son into the wilds of middle school without me hovering, smothering or freaking out.
Of course, his lucky younger brother got to reap the benefits of having a mom who’s been there/done that, which made me a much mellower fourth-grade mom the second time around. But Lahey’s advice was never far from my mind this past year, which was filled with new experiences and newfound independence for all of us. On the brink of a new school year, I reflect on what went well, what didn’t, and what I’d like to work on for the year ahead.
What went well:
I didn’t rescue them (much). When my fourth grader left the homework that he had worked so diligently to complete on the kitchen counter, I resisted the urge to rush it up to school for him. I went for the middle ground: I took a photo of his work and emailed it to his teacher with a note that said: “I wanted to make sure you knew that he had done his homework, but please don’t let him off the hook for forgetting to bring it to school.” He had to work out the consequences of forgetting his homework with his teacher and spent extra time redoing the sheets during his free time at school, but he spent the rest of the year making a habit out of putting his homework in his backpack before he went to bed (almost) every night. And my 6th grader, who has the appetite of a velociraptor, forgot his lunchbox at home once…and never again.
I backed off, and they rose to the occasion. Midyear, my younger son turned in a hastily dashed off project for his fourth grade social studies class; while technically it met all the requirements to earn an A, we both knew it didn’t deserve one. I didn’t say a word about it. Later, he would tell me that when he saw what his classmates had turned in (whose parents may or may not have been as hands-off as I was), he secretly hoped that his project wouldn’t be put on display along with the others (it wasn’t). It was thrown in the trash and never talked about until months later, when he confessed that he had been embarrassed about the lack of effort he put into it. When his next social studies project rolled around, however, he planned it out in advance, asked me to take him to the store to buy materials, and created a thoughtful diorama by himself that he was proud to put his name on.
I did not obsessively check my middle schooler’s grades online—and to be honest, it was quite liberating. Instead, we checked them together periodically at the beginning of the year so that I could show him how to use the system. By the end of the year, I barely checked his grades other than to talk to him about how he was doing. If a grade didn’t match up with his expectations, we discussed how to approach the teacher to ask for an explanation so that he could handle things better in the future. For the most part, his teachers were patient and responsive, even generous in helping him understand where his missteps might have been. They recognized that middle school was a whole new world for him, too.
Occasionally, however, a teacher wouldn’t get back to him, and he’d be more inclined to drop the issue than press for an answer and seem rude. But Lahey, a teacher herself, believes that polite persistence is a skill worth cultivating. “Being able to face an adult who scares you or advocate for yourself when you’re intimidated is one of the most important skills we can teach kids. I’d even put that above where you go to college,” she says. “To me, the ability to advocate for yourself”—without getting emotional or grade-grubbing—”is more valuable than the kid who has been coddled all the way into an ivy league school but still can’t speak up for himself.”
Lahey says that, as a teacher, she respects a student’s ability to calmly come talk to her about why they believe they’re right or why she should listen to their point of view far more than she does an e-mail from a parent. “I also suggest to my students that, when advocating for themselves, they consider the opposing perspective so they can understand what the other person is thinking and figure out how to persuade them to see things from your side. Teaching kids how to argue intelligently and stand up for themselves is maybe the most important thing we can do for them.”
What didn’t go so well:
Individual goal-setting and the weekly check-in. Oy—I was just not smooth about this at all. My kids saw right through me. I made a few awkward attempts to steer our dinner conversations toward whatever personal, academic or professional goals each of us might have been working on that week, but these were often met with eye rolls, and my kids would call me out for “doing the mom thing.” I couldn’t even really get my husband to buy into it, and it didn’t take me long to give up the ghost on this one.
Lahey (who says her own kids often call her out for “pulling the Gift of Failure thing”) lets me off the hook a little here: “This is not about perfection; this is about a bigger-picture frame of mind. You don’t have to do a formal sit-down and write down your goals all the time, but you should direct your language toward process over product. Think more about how you’re achieving your goals rather than what you’re achieving, and think long-term rather than day-to-day. If you look back on what you’ve been doing over the past year you can see how much ground you’ve covered. The last thing we need to be doing as parents is beating ourselves up over doing one more thing wrong.”
What I’m going to work on this year:
Keep fostering age-appropriate independence and self-reliance—which, for me, means loosening those apron strings an inch at a time. I’m trying not to say “no” to things just because I’m scared of them or because I’m afraid they won’t get done the way I would like. This goes for everything from encouraging my kids to make their own lunches to allowing them to go to the movies with friends on their own. I will continue to stand firm on turning down requests that are dangerous or inappropriate, but I will strive to tamp down my own anxiety and allow my kids to stretch their wings and see how well they work—or don’t work, in which case I’ll bandage them up and let them try again.
Leaving the game on the field. Athletics have always been a part of all of our lives, and both kids play multiple sports—some for which my husband is the coach. After a game, I always tell my kids how much I enjoy watching them play—which is 100 percent true—but sometimes, particularly for a sullen athlete, that’s not enough. Our car rides home from games often start out as a verbal highlight reel, but they can all too easily devolve into emotional gripe fests.
Whether it’s us as the coach/parents offering what we hope comes across as constructive criticism or allowing our kids to vent about a bad call or an unfair play, we want to avoid giving a disproportionate amount of airtime to something that really is just about having fun and getting exercise. (How disproportionate? A friend recently posted these statistics from the NCAA on her Facebook page which show that, of the 8 million high school athletes across the country, less than 6 percent will play in college—and the chances of playing professionally are just a tiny fraction of that.)
So starting this season, my husband and I have decided to put sports in its place, which for us means that any discussion of the game, good or bad, needs to end before we get in the car to drive home. Once we’ve listened to and participated in the post-game download, we need to stop offering our perspective—no matter how helpful we feel it is!—and shut it down.
In her book, Lahey cites a survey in which college athletes were asked “What is your worst memory from playing youth and high school sports?” The resounding answer was “the ride home from games with my parents,” which is the only punch in the gut I need to help me stick to our resolution. Our hope is that this will minimize opportunities for sports-related stress and open up opportunities for better connections with our kids.
Lahey is right when she points out that those (often long!) car rides home are “an invaluable little conversation jail—that’s where all the good stuff comes out, and it’s a shame to waste that.” We won’t anymore.
Adrienne Wichard-Edds is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to On Parenting. She lives in Arlington with her two boys and one husband. She tweets @Wichardedds.
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