The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

The critical school years are when parents must learn to allow their children to experience this feeling so they can grow up stronger.

Home » Book Summaries » The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

Karsen: From the Parents Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. Written by Jessica Lahey.

In this New York Times bestseller, the title focuses on the school years when parents must allow their children to experience the inevitable disappointment and frustration that occurs with life’s problems, so that they can grow up to be successful, resilient, and self-reliant adults.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, the title of this book is The Gift of Failure, but most parents would think at first that they should be giving the gift of success to their children. How can failure be a gift?

Vincent: The author, Jessica Lahey, is a teacher, writer, and mom. She often writes for publications like The Atlantic and the New York Times. She says that most of the time when we try something for the first time, we fail. But that’s okay, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Somewhere over the last few decades, many parents have started to deny their children the right to fail.

Karsen: So what happens to children when they don’t have an opportunity to fail?

Vincent: Well, it turns out that there are worse implications than you might think. When you don’t let kids figure things out on their own, we deny them the skills that they’ll need later on in life.

So if you are overly controlling when you raise your kids, it could have the opposite effect of what you’d want it to be.

Karsen: What’s the most common parenting style today?

Vincent: Lahey says that the predominant parenting style today involves protecting and sheltering our children until they leave the home. However, it didn’t always use to be this way.

For example, in the past, children’s education was geared toward early autonomy. In seventeenth-century New England, work took priority over education. Many children died at a young age because of poor health and poverty. So those who did survive would help their parents with housework or on the farm as soon as they were able to contribute.

Karsen: That’s quite different than the average childhood today.

Vincent: Yes, definitely. There was a philosopher named John Locke during this time that wrote that parents should let their children make mistakes and face the consequences. He argued that not doing so would make their minds weak, and prevent them from having the resilience to try again after they fail.

Karsen: So when did things begin to change from this?

Vincent: Well, for the next few hundred years, childhood remained to be a difficult time. In nineteenth-century America, one in six children between the ages of 10 and 15 were employed. They worked in factories, and these teenagers were seen as practical, cheap labor.

It wasn’t until later that the working situation and family structure changed to allow parents to focus more on their children. Also, government regulations curbed dangerous child labor practices by prohibiting children under a certain age from working.

Karsen: So in a sense, the children went from being productive contributors to the family to less useful, at least from a work perspective. What else changed?

Vincent: Well, divorce rates increased and couples were having fewer children later in life. So one impact was that children’s education became more focused on caring for the children.

Research on children’s psychology also advanced, with the 1969 bestseller The Psychology of Self-Esteem. In this book, Nathaniel Branden argued that self-esteem is the most central part of a child’s behavior.

Karsen: That’s quite different than what many parents and schools put a priority on, which is oftentimes their GPA or the grades they get in school.

Vincent: That’s a good point. Instead of fighting to survive hundreds of years ago, today’s children are fighting for perfect grades in school. Although grades were created as a way to measure progress and success, Lahey says they fail to instill intrinsic motivation in children.

Starting at a young age, children are pushed to get good grades. They’re taught that they won’t have the life they want without getting good grades. So everyone tries to get A’s, but also creates a situation where failure is no longer an option.

Karsen: Some parents will bribe their children with extrinsic rewards. Like a new phone or video games. What does the author say happens when you do this?

Vincent: Well, the author says that these external rewards actually will dampen intrinsic or self-driven motivation.

There was a study by psychologist Harry Harlow that was performed with monkeys. It showed that the monkey’s interest in resolving a task stopped when they were rewarded regularly, as opposed to monkeys that received no reward at all.

Karsen: So if a child is enthusiastic about a task, they’re going to persevere, even when it gets more difficult. How should parents foster enthusiasm about school?

Vincent: Lahey actually says that parents should take a step back by letting children decide themselves how, when, and where they complete a particular task (without expecting gifts or money in return).

She says that it’s okay for parents to still express an opinion in school activities, but they can do so by establishing nonnegotiable expectations, such as finishing homework on time. However, if their children don’t do it, they should let them fail. The author argues that this is the only way for them to learn how to cope under pressure.

Karsen: And this failure allows them to develop healthy behaviors that unlock future success?

Vincent: Yes, that’s the theory here.

Karsen: So this is a big shift in thinking, where education is more about guiding children to make their own decisions instead of authoritatively dictating decisions.

Vincent: Right, parents must be involved in their child’s education, but there’s a difference between being involved and trying to manage everything in your child’s school life.

Lahey says that parents should strive to be autonomy-supporting parents, instead of controlling parents.

Karsen: What type of impact does this have on the children?

Vincent: Well, one example is in psychologist Wendy Grolnick’s research, where she studied autonomy-supportive and controlling parents. She found that children who were controlled by their parents gave up faster than children who weren’t controlled by their parents. Being autonomy-supportive allows children to build more resilience when faced with difficult situations while they’re playing by themselves.

Karsen: What does taking an autonomy-supportive parenting style look like?

Vincent: Well, it means that as a parent, you’re setting limits for your children so they can test their standards against yours. The research shows that children prefer parents who hold them responsible for not meeting expectations, rather than controlling parents who monitor their every move extensively.

Switching from controlling to autonomy-supportive styles can take some time. The goal is to support your child, rather than direct them.

Karsen: So autonomy-supportive approaches would value your child’s successes in addition to their mistakes.

Vincent: Yes, valuing their mistakes as well as their successes can help them discover different ways of dealing with problems.

The opposite approach would be that controlling parents provide solutions before children have had a chance to solve it on their own.

Karsen: It can be difficult as a parent to watch your child struggle, but it sounds like doing so will help them learn the patience and skills to come up with a solution on their own.

Vincent: Yes, as a parent, you also want to make sure that you show your children that your love  isn’t dependent on their success. And just like it’s okay for your children to fail, it needs to be okay for you as a parent to fail too.

Karsen: Definitely. What about praise, how should praise be used or avoided?

Vincent: That’s a great question. Lahey points out that praise, when used inappropriately can actually demotivate your child. It comes down to how you use it.

The first thing to know is that you should praise your child’s behavior, not the child themselves. So for instance, you can praise someone by saying “You’re so funny!” or you can praise a behavior like, “You did this so well!”

Praising someone for who they are is an example of passing judgment and creating a fixed mindset. This means that you see that a skill or trait as fixed, with an inability to change throughout life.

When you praise the behavior, you’re establishing a growth mindset. This reinforces the idea that everyone can develop skills as long as they practice them.

Karsen: That actually makes a ton of sense. You want children to know that they can improve and succeed if they stick with it and work hard and they don’t internalize their mistakes.

Vincent: Exactly. You want to focus on the effort. One psychologist, Carol Dweck, found in her research that students labeled as smart before the study started were far less likely to persevere with challenging tasks. They actually gave up faster than students who were valued for how hard they worked.

Karsen: For example, instead of telling your child that they’re wonderful after they get a good grade, instead, parents should focus on valuing the effort that they put into studying for a test.

Vincent: Right, it’s best to praise by saying something like, “Wow, all of your hard work studying really paid off.” The more that children believe their talent can develop with effort and perseverance, the less they will fear failure.

Karsen: Putting in the effort seems to be a key theme here, how else can you give children a sense of purpose and accomplishment?

Vincent: One of the ways that Lahey recommends helping children learn competence and responsibility is through household duties.

Children with chores feel responsible and purposeful, and this is an important part of building an autonomous, self-driven life.

Karsen: So to feel a sense of purpose, children should be encouraged to take responsibility for household work and chores.

Vincent: Exactly, and when parents take over if their children are making more of a mess than helping, this actually has a detrimental effect. When you save your child from mistakes by taking over for them, it teaches them that being independent isn’t important.

Karsen: So helping your children establish their own system of doing things will help them learn how to take initiative, but also will help them figure out how to get things done. The author recommends not calling these household duties “chores” though, right?

Vincent: Yes, Lahey says you should refer to household duties as “family contributions” instead of chores since this will show them the value of their chores and how they play a role in the family.

Karsen: At what age should children start taking on these household tasks or family contributions?

Vincent: Even young children can be responsible for some household chores. As they get older, the tasks can become more complex and you won’t have to supervise them as much.

So generally, children between six and 11 and set and clear the dinner table or vacuum. By age 12, children can cook meals, care for younger siblings, or start doing minor repairs like taking out the trash or changing light bulbs.

The goal though isn’t to load them up on chores, but rather to form a family bond and help them feel like they’re contributing to the family.

Karsen: In addition to perseverance and grit, many researchers have said that emotional intelligence and social skills are necessary to be successful later in life. How can parents support a healthy social life?

Vincent: The author says that our social life begins in infancy when we’re looking at adult faces and mimicking their expressions. So the sooner that children realize that social skills aren’t fixed, the better.

The research shows that children develop their social skills largely through communication with other children. It comes from free play, and parents should try to be as hands-off as possible during these times.

Karsen: That’s interesting that these skills develop with interactions with other children and not necessarily through communication with caregivers.

Vincent: I thought so too. There was a study by psychologist Hara Estroff Marano that showed that free play in kindergarten is a 40 percent better predictor for academic success than standardized testing.

So when children play with other children, it fosters empathy through immediate peer feedback. And if parents intervene when children push each other, they actually prevent them from seeing the consequences of their actions.

However, if children see other children crying after being pushed, they learn how their actions affect other people, which makes them better equipped to resolve issues with other children.

Another study showed that children become less upset if they see emotional healing after their parents have an argument compared to when conflict stays unresolved.

Karsen: How about the impact of diversity on children’s relationships?

Vincent: Oh, that’s a great topic. Studies have shown that children who have relationships with children with different interests and backgrounds are helpful. It makes it easier to interact with new people later in life. So they’re able to better communicate and adapt to others when they’re an adult.

Karsen: Are there times when parents should intervene in play time?

Vincent: Sure, commonsense would tell you that if other children are having a dangerous influence on your child, like with drugs or violence, then you should talk to your children about it.

Karsen: That can definitely be a slippery slope. Okay, another area I’m curious about is when it comes to bad grades. What should parents do without being too controlling?

Vincent: This was the part that I had the hardest time wrapping my head around too. Of course parents want their children to have the best grades and go to the best colleges. The author says though that supportive parents can get nervous and resort to controlling techniques to get their children back on track.

Karsen: Which is what the author says you should avoid, right?

Vincent: Yes, the author’s augment is that grades aren’t the end-all, be-all. So there was a study in Japan that looked at the performance of students in math quizzes across two groups. One group was told their results would impact their final grade, and the other group was told the purpose of the quiz was to monitor their progress.

Can you guess which group did better?

Karsen: Well, I’d guess the first group because there was a consequence to performing poorly.

Vincent: That’s what I would have guessed too, but the result was surprising. The second group, which was told the quiz was just a tool to monitor their progress, performed far better and learned more from the quizzes compared to the first group.

So the grades can have limited value, and the reality is that they’re not going to go away anytime soon though. Having a good GPA will continue to be important to get into a good college.

Karsen: Overall, what should parents do when it comes to their role in their child’s education?

Vincent: The best takeaway from this book is that parents should help children set educational goals. So help them set self-determined goals instead of the goals dictated by the school. If you talk to your kids, support them, and focus on their effort… this is more important than the end result. When they reach their self-determined goal, it will give them a sense of self-affirmation and success.

Giving children choice is also important. If they pick their own courses, it gives them a sense of ownership over their education.

If the child feels like someone else… like you or the school is making the decision for them, then they run the risk of becoming disengaged because they may feel that everything has been planned out for them.

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this book is that if parents try to protect their children from making mistakes, they’re actually stopping them from learning how to be independent and teaching them that failure is bad. Instead, parents should let their children fail because it’ll help them learn and equip them with the tools to enjoy a self-sufficient, driven life.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki. See you next time.


In the tradition of Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed and Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, this groundbreaking manifesto focuses on the critical school years when parents must learn to allow their children to experience the disappointment and frustration that occur from life’s inevitable problems so that they can grow up to be successful, resilient, and self-reliant adults.

Modern parenting is defined by an unprecedented level of overprotectiveness: parents who rush to school at the whim of a phone call to deliver forgotten assignments, who challenge teachers on report card disappointments, mastermind children’s friendships, and interfere on the playing field. As teacher and writer Jessica Lahey explains, even though these parents see themselves as being highly responsive to their children’s well-being, they aren’t giving them the chance to experience failure—or the opportunity to learn to solve their own problems.

Over-parenting has the potential to ruin a child’s confidence and undermine their education, Lahey reminds us. Teachers don’t just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. They teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight—important life skills children carry with them long after they leave the classroom.

Leave a Comment