Letting Go: the Gift of Failure

I recently read a book called The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey, an attorney who has worked with juvenile offenders in the legal field and is presently teaching middle and high school students. Her premise is that out of our love for our children, we do too much for them. We want to shield them from discomfort, frustration, and anxiety. This feels like the loving thing to do. But …(and you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) … in doing this, we limit their resilience and ability to work through the hard stuff, which is where real learning and competence originate. It is also where our children learn the lessons of life: that amidst that bowl of cherries there are some inevitable pits.

One of Lahey’s premises concerns extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Extrinsic motivation comes from outside ourselves; it is external. Examples are food, money, prestige, and awards. Intrinsic motivation comes from within ourselves and includes our pride, our sense of accomplishment and our satisfaction. According to Lahey, research shows that extrinsic motivation alone decreases the motivation to learn; when the money, food, and awards stop, so does the learning. How do we help our children develop intrinsic motivation so that they can be lifelong learners, eager and enthusiastic about what interests them, willing to pay attention, and do the work necessary for a well-rounded education?

Developing Intrinsic Motivation

She lists three attributes we need to help our children develop this intrinsic motivation: autonomy, competence, and connection. Our children gain autonomy and competence by working out their challenges with us by their side but not doing the work for them or telling them how to do it.

Many times in my work as a school counselor, children and parents told me how frustrating it was to do homework together. I tried to help the parents see that they had a hard enough job being parents, they were not to be the teacher too. If homework was too hard for their child to do unaided, then a teacher conference was needed to work out the issues. This does not mean we cannot be close by for pep talks and to be a sounding board for them, but we should not be doing their work for them. When we do the work, it tells them that they are not capable of doing it by themselves; it is not the message to encourage autonomy and competence.

Lahey says that children’s competence comes from working through what is hard until they get it and also from being able to deal with frustration and struggles. Think how you felt when you were able to accomplish something hard after a lot of practice and hard work. That same sense of accomplishment and “can do” attitude goes a long way to making our children feel empowered and competent.

Connecting Through Learning

Lahey’s third attribute for successful learning is connection. Children need their learning to connect to the world, and they need to feel connected to us. She feels that the worst thing we can do as parents is to withdraw our love (or appear to, in their perception) because of a bad grade or performance. Our love needs to be unconditional so that they know deep down that “they can be who they are, not who we want them to be.” (Lahey)

Even though Lahey’s target audience is parents of pre-teens and teens, I advocate that we need to start this attitude of “the gift of failure” or at least the gift of hard work when our children are little. Tying shoes, learning to ride a bike, making a bed, doing chores, helping a sibling, all are tasks that may be hard and frustrating at first but with practice and the right attitude can be mastered. Watch your child’s face when he or she achieves a goal after hard work, and you will know immediately what intrinsic motivation is all about. You can truly rejoice with your child that they “did it” and know that you are doing what we parents must do, working yourself out of a job!


Source: The Gift of Failure, by Jessica Lahey, 2015, published by Harper Collins.

Betts Hunter Gatgewood

Betts Hunter Gatewood is a National Board Certi ed school counselor with 28 years’ experience in elementary and middle school counseling. She holds an EdS degree from USC and has authored or co-authored four books on school counseling strategies and activities. She and her husband are the proud parents of three adult children and have four granddaughters and a grandson.