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Why we should let our children fail

Failure is typically viewed as harmful and negative. Most parents, in a bid to protect their children from mistakes are instead depriving them of the real life lessons failing provides.

Each family of Central Catholic incoming 7th graders were gifted an amazing book as summer commenced, titled “Gift of Failure”. As an effort to help parents navigate the difficulties surrounding letting their child struggle to encourage growth as they navigate junior high and high school. 

We took some time to interview Dr. Melanie Davis, Central Catholic’s director of Student Services as to why she felt called to not only provide this book to families, but also why she hosts a six week book study group for parents, which begins on Sunday, September 12 and runs for six weeks, to delve deeper into the lessons to be learned. It’s an exciting opportunity to work  with fellow parents and our devoted Student Services team to help prepare our children for the future. 

The “Gift of Failure,” a New York Times Bestseller, was published in 2015. When and how did it first come to your attention? 

I heard the author, Jessica Lahey, speak at a conference in the summer of 2016.  Her keynote addressed the book and the premise of parents letting go in order for their children to succeed. I was inspired and purchased the book at the conference.  

What were your personal takeaways from your first reading of the book? 

My biggest takeaways after first reading the book were the importance of family communication and the cost of not allowing our children to struggle when they are in junior high and high school.  

What are some fresh insights you may have had upon each year’s review of the material? 

I feel like I walk away with new insights every fall after reviewing the book with different groups of parents. The biggest takeaways that continue to guide my day-to-day work with kids and engagement with parents include the following: 

  • Children who possess competence through experience will be safer in the world because they will not launch themselves into risks they are unprepared to handle.
  • Protecting kids from the frustration, anxiety, and sadness they experience from failure in the short term keeps our children from becoming resilient and from experiencing the growth mindset they deserve. We need to praise students for their resilience and the efforts they make to recover from mistakes. 
  • If we keep telling kids how smart they are because they get all As, that becomes their goal, no matter what the cost.  They will not take risks for fear of failure (not receiving the A).  
  • We, as parents, come to the rescue for our children because it makes us feel better.  In order to raise competent, capable adults, we have to love them enough to put their learning before our own happiness or peace of mind.

When and why did you create the book study group for parents? 

After reading the book, I was very motivated to share the message with the parents at Central Catholic. Over the course of my career, I have witnessed far too many parents rescuing their children from difficult situations, whether it be a teacher they do not like, a class they think is too difficult, or a grade they feel is not fair.  These are such great learning opportunities for students, but the opportunities are completely closed when parents leap in and solve problems for their children. I began the book study in the fall of 2016 as a way to begin sharing the importance of failure. 

What was your response to the first such study group? How has that response changed in ensuing years (i.e., participation increased/decreased/stayed about the same … .)?  

Although attendance has never exceeded more than fifteen participants each year, I am always left with the feeling that we need to make this book mandatory for every incoming 7th grade parent. Participants learn from the book, learn from one another, and, most importantly, feel like they are not alone on the journey of raising their child/children. This year was the lowest attendance of six participants.

What do you hope parents will take away from the study group, and how does this synch-up with feedback that you’ve gotten from past participants? 

My hope for parents is that they communicate more with their children, parent for autonomy and competence, and trust their children to make and learn from their mistakes. Our ultimate goal is to develop lifelong learners at Central Catholic. 

If we work together, this goal is achievable. I continue to receive feedback from parents who have gone through the book study in prior years. They like to share how their parenting may have changed or something that was a success for their child. I absolutely love and appreciate hearing these reports. They validate the importance of the content in the book and inspires me to continue sharing the message. 

Learn more about author Jessica Lahey, the “Gift of Failure” or watch her presentation on YouTube.