“The one day you don’t ask me if I’ve got every little thing is the day I forget them.” Thirteen-year-old “Jack’s” voice rose as his eyes, shoulders and mood plummeted. The next few hours of Jack’s life began to take shape in his mind, and they didn’t look good.
Not a coincidence, I thought. I bet you don’t forget your cleats again. But all my husband and I did was tell Jack there was nothing to be done about it now. We didn’t get upset, or raise our voices. We simply informed him that he would have to present himself to his coach, tell him he’d forgotten his cleats and face the consequences.
As soon as Jack skulked out of the minivan in his uniform and his sneakers, I grabbed my phone and sent a message to Jessica Lahey,* author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. I told her what happened, letting her know that she’d inspired me to stop running through the “Do you have…?” list with Jack as I always had prior to his soccer games. He is, after all, just a few months shy of fourteen years old. Shouldn’t he be able to collect all his gear for a game on his own?
Yes, I believe he should. But I’d never given him the chance to carry this responsibility before.
The Gift of Failure takes on the American trend—one might even call it a crisis—of overparenting. Writer, speaker, middle-school teacher and mother to two boys, Jessica expands on her excellent writing in the New York Times and The Atlantic to offer breathing room to parents and kids struggling to keep up with crazy schedules, hyper-competitive parenting and other pressures that never seem to let up. In The Gift of Failure, she explains how our kids are capable of more responsibility than many of us parents allow seem willing to let them take on. By not granting our kids that responsibility, we’re depriving them of the much-needed experiences of trying, failing and learning how to recover. Our kids need to build, over time, the necessary skills and confidence to succeed on their own so that they don’t end up living in our basements when they’re thirty-five years old. (My words, not Jessica’s.) And that means we have to allow them to fail.
How does this philosophy play out in practice? Examples from the book include Jessica’s own son, whose completed homework remains on the living room table after Jessica discovers it there moments after he leaves for school. A young child is encouraged to put clean dishes away, and if a dish or two is sacrificed in the process, it’s worth it for the sense of accomplishment gained when that child finally figures out how to do the task right, on his own. Kids—especially older kids—get some agency over how and when to do their homework, even if their methods run counter to those their parents would prefer.
Why is it crucial for kids to take these steps now instead of waiting until kids are older? Because in childhood and adolescence, the stakes are lower than they are in adulthood. A teacher or a coach handing out a bad grade or detention or bench time may seem catastrophic to a kid. But those consequences aren’t nearly as severe as a failing grade from one’s college professor, a poor performance review at work or getting fired from a job. Moreover, if we protect our kids from bad consequences as they grow up, how will they build the coping and recovery skills—the grit, to use a popular buzzword—they’ll need to rely on to rebound from the inevitable bumps and bruises life hands to them later on.
I find a lot of merit in The Gift of Failure, and I’ve have already begun to examine my own parenting to see how I can encourage my kids to take on more responsibility for themselves. Those stories I hear of parents showing up in college professors’ offices demanding their kids’ grades be changed or calling corporate offices to tell interviewers why their son or daughter ought to get the job make me cringe. I will not be that parent, so I need to endure a bit more whining now as I shift more responsibility onto my kids—with two exceptions.
I believe independence is a necessary virtue, but another virtue is helping out someone you love who has a real need. Sometimes, the best thing a parent can do is model that in a family, everyone is there for everyone else. Is your kid having the worst week of her teenage years? Maybe it’s okay to bring in that forgotten homework. Then, when things calm down, you can tell her that you made an exception that day. Is your house five minutes away from the athletic field? Honestly, had that been the case last weekend, I think I would have retrieved the cleats. But after the game, I would have explained to Jack that he would need to assume responsibility for making sure he had all of his gear packed for every game from now on, secure in the knowledge that either he would do what he needed to do, or some away game in the future would drive this lesson home for me.
Also, I feel compelled to add that if one of your kid’s chores includes taking care of pets, that’s not a place to let natural consequences prevail. Don’t let your pets go unfed, unwalked, etc., to teach your kid a lesson. Your kid will have to learn some other way.
Jessica messaged me that I had left her hanging. She wanted to know what the coach had done with uncleated Jack.
I messaged her back: “Is the lesson learned if someone lent him a pair of cleats??” Somehow, a three-way trade had been organized whereby Jack wore a teammate’s cleats and the teammate wore the coach’s cleats.
Lucky Jack. Jessica thought the forgotten cleats probably still made an impact, and I agree. In any event, I won’t be running through the list of Jack’s gear with him before games anymore. That’s up to him.
Next I turn to the brand-new ballet slippers ten-year-old “Emmie” lost last month–two weeks after we bought them. What lesson am I going to pull out of that?
*Full disclosure: I do know Jessica from online interactions, and we recently met in person when she came to read at my local independent bookstore. I want to clarify that I’m not in the habit of messaging random authors whenever my kids forget stuff. However, if Jessica’s or any other author’s book makes a difference in your life, by all means drop that person a line and let him or her know!