Raising a resilient child
Jessica Lahey
Teacher, writer, #AmWriting podcast co-host, and author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

With distance learning methods and expectations varying from school district to school district — and, in many cases, from household to household — it's easy for everyone in the family to feel like they're failing right now. But Jessica Lahey sees our strange new reality as an opportunity to build resilience. A teacher for more than 20 years and mother of two, Jessica is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so Their Children Can Succeed, and co-host of the #AmWriting podcast. She joins us to explain how to teach your kids (and yourself) how to push through failure and frustration as they learn, live, and play in the age of coronavirus and beyond. From measuring ingredients, to helping in the garden, to taking forest walks as a family, Jessica says this moment will resonate with children for a lifetime, giving them a chance  to learn from experiences that are relevant and important to family life. 

Listen to this episode to learn:

  • Why all kids can benefit form being given more autonomy, and creative way to foster it
  • The drawbacks of "directive parenting," and how to encourage kids to persevere through frustrating moments of failure
  • Tips for how to stop projecting our own fears, anxieties, and stress about the COVID-19 pandemic onto our children (turn off the news!)
  • How to lean on teachers for help with homework and homeschooling
  • Pros and cons for "distance learning"
  • How to expand your child's definition of "learning" and apply it to practical and fun tasks in and around the home

For more information, visit http://www.jessicalahey.com/.


Click here to read the full episode

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Full Transcript

Raising a resilient child

Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts Podcast, brought to you by Care at Work.

Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard. With so much information out there right now about how to best handle this work and parent from home thing, it can be hard to know if you're doing it right. There's really no right, but there are people who can help to guide us. That's why I'm happy to bring you today's guest. Jessica Lahey has been a teacher for more than 20 years.

She wrote a New York Times bestselling book called The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. She's also the co-host of the #AmWriting Podcast. In this episode, Jessica shares some much needed advice and guidance and how we can keep our kids focused, playing, and learning while we're all figuring out how to be together at home. Have a listen.

Jess, thank you so much for joining me today. We had this scheduled a while ago, and were supposed to do it in person, but in this new reality, unfortunately, we have to do it over the phone.

Jessica Lahey: Thank you so much for having me.

Emily: Let's just start by, you're a mom, you're a teacher, and your husband is an infectious disease doctor.

Jessica: Yes.

Emily: How are you and your family holding up right now?

Jessica: We are so fortunate. We live out in the woods of Vermont, so I can get outside and be outside. I have friends that are doing this in apartments, and I don't really know how they're struggling through that, but honestly, I have my two kids at home. Everyone's home safely. One we had to get back from overseas, which was stressful, but everyone's home, everyone's healthy. My husband does a combination of working from home on medical ethics and then working at the hospital with patients.

It's a mixed blessing, having someone who gets the information first, but that can be a source of stress, but it's also reassuring to have the big picture and have someone to ask.

Emily: Please thank him for us for everything he's doing right now.

Jessica: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

Emily: Your book, The Gift of Failure, gives parents, really a blueprint for how to stop overparenting, and start letting their children really experience failure to help them start to learn from disappointments and mistakes. Right now, during this incredibly trying time, it's filled with failure. I find myself failing every single day. How can parents apply some of the lessons from your book and put it into practice right now?

Jessica: From an educational perspective, for the people who are able to help their kids learn from actual experiences that are relevant and important to the family life, it has been a real opportunity. It's a real opportunity for kids to learn about math, from measuring ingredients to help with dinner. It's a way to help kids get more invested in helping keep the family going. The good news is that there's research that I talk about in Gift of Failure. That historically, when you look at kids who survive things, hardship, like the Great Depression for example, is one of the studies.

Kids who are able to really participate in helping keep the family going, whether that was from a financial perspective, like they were able to go out and make a few pennies picking up scrap or that they were able to really pitch in around the house and help the family keep going forward. Those kids actually suffered less mental health fall out from this time of difficulty than kids who were not able to pitch in and help, or kids who didn't pitch in and help, or were not given the opportunity to pitch in and help. From one perspective, it can be really great for kids.

One of the ways we shortcut this thing called learned helplessness is by granting people more control. The antidote to feeling helpless is to have more control of the situation. If you think about how much control kids tend to have, they need more than they get. Let's just put it that way. If you want your kid to really build resilience during this time, the answer is not to do for them, but to give them the opportunity to learn and do for themselves. That's going to help not only in the short term, with making things feel more manageable, but it's going to help them from a mental health perspective and a resilience perspective over the long run.

Emily: That's really helpful. You mentioned making meals. What are other examples that we could get our kids involved in to make them feel that sense of contributing to the greater good?

Jessica: In Gift of Failure there is really specific and quite exhaustive. It was actually really fun coming up with them. Developmentally appropriate for every age and stage, that kind of thing. Tasks that kids really can do, not just from like a dexterity perspective, but from a problem solving mental perspective. What I always advise parents and teachers, by the way, to do, and there's research and education that shows this is a really valuable thing to do, is to picture where you think your kid's ability level ends, and just stick your toe over it. Expect just a tiny bit more.

There's really classic education studies that show that when teachers are led to believe that their students are more capable than they are, that the kids will rise to that level. That's true of parenting too. It's true whether we're talking about a kid of average intelligence, a kid who maybe has special needs, or a kid that has already been labeled as "gifted". All kids can really benefit from someone having faith in them that they're a tiny bit more competent than even they thought they were. Say to them, "Sweetie, I think you can probably do this for yourself. Why don't you give it a shot? If you get stuck, let me know."

If they do get stuck, come back and say, "What have you tried? What haven't you tried? Have you thought about this?" Don't just give them the answer. That's called directive parenting. It's less useful to a kid than someone who supports a kid's autonomy to figure things out for themselves.

Emily: As parents, I think we always try and want to protect our kids from any sort of hurt or failure.

Jessica: Of course.

Emily: Can you talk about, even during normal times, why this is actually doing them a disservice?

Jessica: Yes. Gosh, I hate seeing my students and my kids frustrated. I just want to fix it for them. Whether it's in the classroom and a kid is just saying like, "Oh, I'm so dumb. I can't do this myself." Or my kid pretends they can't do it, or says, "This is too hard, I can't do it." I just, "I can do it." [chuckles] It would be so much faster, and I could just get around all of the frustration. The problem is that I have to pull back and say to myself, and this is a constant struggle for me too, "Do I want this to get done the way I want it done right now? Do I want to diffuse this frustration right now, or do I want to have the kind of kid who can do it himself next time?"

The other thing that you need to think about is there's this wonderful body of work by a researcher named Wendy Grolnick that shows that kids who don't have the ability to feel frustrated because they've been really directed, they've been told what to do and how to do it, have less of a comfort with what it feels like to be a little bit frustrated. Those kids are going to be a lot less able to do challenging tasks on their own when there is no adult there to lead them.

From a teaching perspective, I would always rather have a kid who can get a little frustrated and stick with that frustration long enough to see the task through. Not just because it makes my life easier, but because the kid learns more.

Emily: I am definitely guilty of swooping in and trying to do it so that it's done the way I want it to be done. I need to be better about-

Jessica: Keep this in mind, the most powerful teaching tool I have as an educator is this thing called, one of the most anyway, is this thing called desirable difficulties. Desirable difficulties are tasks that are a little bit more difficult to parse. When I ask kids to figure something out for themselves, instead of me handing them the answer, if something is, for example, in a different language and they have to translate it, those tasks that are a little bit more difficult, those tasks actually go right past short term memory and get encoded into long term memory, generally speaking.

Kids who have to struggle a little bit with their frustration and work it out for themselves, are not only learning more deeply in the short term, that learning is much more durable over the long term. When you see your kid struggling with something, just remember, number one, you're going to have a kid who's going to know how to do it himself next time, and number two, the learning that's happening in that moment is much more valuable than if you were to hand them the answer.

If you can step back for a second and just say, "Oh my gosh, I hate the way this feels." Just remember, from an educational and from a mental health perspective, you're helping your kid feel like they have this thing called self-efficacy. They have the ability to do it themselves, and that is incredibly valuable.

Emily: Is this true at any age?

Jessica: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Something happens. There's that when kids are first learning how to walk, and they fall over, we don't say, "Oh, oh, well, forget it. You're never going to be able to do that. That's just too hard. I don't want you to have to do that. I don't want to see you frustrated." We say, "Get up, try again." That's how that works. Then suddenly, kids go off to pre-school and we screw it up because not only because all of a sudden there's all this stress over achievement and status and is my kid the smartest and all that stuff.

We turn it into this whole other thing other than what it is, which is learning from experience and learning through failures and learning through making mistakes. School, and our perception of what school is supposed to be for, mucks up that natural way kids tend to learn when they're really young.

Emily: Right now, there's so much fear and anxiety and stress about what's going on in the world. Kids certainly pick up on it from their parents in a variety of different ways. How can we protect them from some of this, so they aren't overly anxious about it as well?

Jessica: Number one, turn off the news. I cannot stress that enough. A lot of people are saying, man, I took a day off from the news and social media, and I feel so much better. It would be really great if that constant droning of the doom and the gloom could just go away for a little bit. The other big thing is just preserve some time in the evening, if it's at all possible. Some touchstone for the day. For us, it's dinnertime. Where, and I'm not saying, you have to be all sitting at the table with the table set and silverware and all that stuff.

For us, it's just sometimes it's sitting at the table and watching a rerun of Arrested Development and just talking to each other. A lot of people are going to have kids at home when they normally wouldn't be at home. I have a college kid at home right now. For them, this isn't normal. Luckily, my kid has another year of college left, so he may get to graduate with his class. A lot of kids aren't getting that right now. So, if we can establish something in our home, a safe haven in our home, then all of the rest of it, that's not normal. Hopefully, we can give them some ease with that.

Emily: Every school is different in how they're approaching this situation. There seems to be no consistency in how-- whether it's Zoom calls or pre-recorded videos or nothing at all. How can we lean on teachers right now, and what have you seen work well, so that all of us parents who haven't been trained as teachers can have a little bit of relief from this added role that's been placed upon us?

Jessica: I'm seeing both sides of things right now because teachers are feeling incredibly stressed, incredibly put upon. Remote learning, online learning, whatever it is you want to call it right now, and there seems to be-- there's even debate about that, are feeling like-- people who do that really well are trained in how to do that really well. This emergency, do it right now and do it with no training, there is a lot of mistakes being made. Teachers are really doing their best. I've tried to stay away from criticizing parents or criticizing teachers because everyone's, for the most part, just doing their best. No one goes into education wanting to do the wrong thing for kids.

Everyone, really, is trying to do the right thing for kids. Are they making mistakes? Absolutely. I'm seeing parents on Twitter talk about the fact that their kid has timed math facts tests, and that's just stupid. The research shows that that's the fastest way to build math anxiety. When it comes to things like these stressful timed math facts, by the way, go to youcubed, Y-O-U-C-U-B-E-D.org, and you can find the research on why timed math facts tests perpetuate math anxiety. Put your foot down about certain things and say-- or don't even do it publicly.

Say, "You know what, sweetie? We're doing our very best right now. This one element of what your teacher is asking us to do is just not something we can do right now, but we'll do our best on all other fronts." I think this is an opportunity to, yes, do what the teachers are asking you to do, for the most part, but also try to make the learning you're doing online as relevant as possible to real life, because that's where real learning happens. Whether that's, like I said, learning math through cooking or seam allowances or learning what a cubic yard of compost looks like when it's dumped on the ground.

How can I know if they didn't short me compost? How do we measure this to find out if this really is a cubic yard of compost? That kind of thing. That's the real learning that's going to stick through this. Not the memorizing dates and facts.

Emily: Last question for you.

Jessica: Sure.

Emily: I know that this is a big one, but what's your advice on the most important thing we can be doing right now as parents?

Jessica: Number one, I try really hard to focus on the process and less on the end product. Right now, fortunately, a lot of school districts are easing up on grades, not giving grades, doing pass fail. I know I live in a very rural area, so the school that my kids went to decided to freeze grades where they were before we went into this, so that kids who don't have access to WiFi, for example, can't go backwards, their grades can't fall. Viewing that process of learning above the end product of grades, now is an incredible opportunity to do that because now, more than ever, grades really don't matter. Think more long term.

This parenting thing, this epidemic thing, it is going to be a long term endeavor. We are nowhere near over this thing. We could have another bump, things could close down again. I try really hard to think long term about what's going to be important for my kid in a year, in five years, in 10 years, what do I want them to remember about this? From my perspective, what I want my kids to remember about this time is that we had some really good family time. My younger son and I are going out foraging. It's ramp season in Vermont, so we found a couple of ramp patches and we're going to go out foraging.

Now that everyone's not over scheduled all the time, we don't have to run to soccer and cello and all the other things. This is a really great opportunity to let your kids get enough sleep, and to let them actually flex that self-directed executive function muscle, which is let them come up with their own projects, let them figure out the steps toward accomplishing those projects, and help them formulate plans for how they're going to do some big projects of their own.

Maybe take a course online, maybe build a tree-house, maybe do something that you might not have time to do otherwise. Remember above all that play is really important even for big kids. Let them do some learning through play right now when all the schoolwork is done.

Emily: That's really great advice, Jess. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Jessica: Oh, I'm so thrilled to be a part of this.

Emily: I wish you and your family nothing but health and wellness right now.

Jessica: Thank you so much. You too.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.

Emily: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care at Work by Care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them. It's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.