The Gift of Failure

by Jessica Lahey

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: May 15, 2024
The Gift of Failure
The Gift of Failure

Discover the transformative power of embracing failure and fostering intrinsic motivation in your child's development. This book summary offers practical strategies to build resilience and prepare for real-world challenges.

What are the big ideas?

Embracing Failure as a Learning Tool

The book emphasizes the necessity of failure in developing essential life skills such as resilience, problem-solving, and self-reliance. It argues that by shielding children from failure, parents inadvertently prevent them from learning how to cope with and overcome challenges.

Teaching children to tie their shoes and allowing them to struggle through the process.

Promoting Intrinsic Motivation Through Autonomy

The book advocates for fostering children's intrinsic motivation by granting them autonomy over their learning and decision-making. This approach encourages children to engage in activities for their own sake rather than for external rewards.

Allowing children to set their own goals and pursue activities that genuinely interest them.

Reframing Household Duties as Family Contributions

The book suggests changing the narrative around household chores by referring to them as 'family contributions' to instill a sense of responsibility and purpose in children. This approach encourages children to contribute to the household in meaningful ways.

Assigning age-appropriate tasks like laundry and meal planning to children, and emphasizing the importance of their contribution to family life.

Modeling Growth Mindset for Lifelong Learning

The book highlights the importance of parents modeling a growth mindset by tackling new challenges and learning from failures. This behavior sets a powerful example for children, encouraging them to view challenges as opportunities for growth.

Parents taking on new hobbies or tasks and discussing their learning experiences with their children.

Strategic Support in Education Through Parent-Teacher Partnerships

The book underscores the value of cooperative relationships between parents and teachers in fostering an educational environment where students can learn from their mistakes. Such partnerships enhance student learning by combining support with accountability.

Parents working with teachers to set realistic expectations for students and encouraging direct communication between students and teachers.

Preparing Adolescents for Real-World Challenges

The book advises parents to gradually relinquish control as their children enter adolescence, encouraging them to make decisions, face natural consequences, and develop self-advocacy skills. This prepares them for independence and real-world challenges in adulthood.

Allowing teenagers to choose their own electives in school and deal with the outcomes of their decisions.

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Embracing Failure as a Learning Tool

Failure is a critical learning tool for children. When parents protect their kids from failure, they rob them of the opportunity to develop essential life skills like resilience, problem-solving, and self-reliance.

Instead, parents should embrace failure as a natural part of the learning process. Allow your child to struggle through challenges, like tying their shoes. This teaches them how to cope with and overcome obstacles on their own. When kids experience failure in a safe, supportive environment, they learn to view it as an opportunity to grow, not a devastating setback.

By shielding children from failure, parents inadvertently create dependent, insecure kids who struggle to handle challenges independently. In contrast, kids whose parents let them fail and learn from their mistakes develop into resilient, self-reliant problem-solvers. Failure may be uncomfortable in the moment, but it's essential for building the skills children need to thrive.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight of embracing failure as a learning tool:

  • The story of Olivia, who suffered injuries but was able to return to high school, graduate, and go to college, despite losing much of her knowledge base. The author notes that when Olivia's mother Elena began supporting her efforts rather than just her intelligence, it "increased the likelihood that Olivia would survive the many failures she encountered as she worked to regain a sense of normalcy."

  • The example of the 8th grade student who complained about her mother's lunch choices. The teacher prompted the student to come up with solutions, leading her to realize she could pack her own lunch - a valuable lesson in taking responsibility.

  • The story of John, who initially struggled with grades but was able to turn things around when his mother Maggie stopped nagging and interfering, allowing him to "step up" and learn how to study and do things for himself. John was later nominated for a "Turnaround Student" award.

  • The concept of "contingent self-worth" - the idea that people who equate failures with being a "failure" are more likely to avoid trying new things to avoid failure. The author emphasizes the importance of teaching children to "face failure and accept it as valuable feedback."

  • The analogy of a child playing Minecraft, who "gleefully overcoming[s] repeated obstacles" despite becoming "anxious, upset, and frustrated" over a challenging homework assignment. This illustrates how children can learn to embrace failure in activities they are intrinsically motivated to pursue.

The key is allowing children the space to fail, make mistakes, and learn from them, rather than shielding them from failure. This develops essential skills like resilience, problem-solving, and self-reliance that are crucial for long-term success.

Promoting Intrinsic Motivation Through Autonomy

The key insight is that intrinsic motivation - the desire to engage in an activity for its own sake - is critical for children's learning and development. This is fostered by granting them autonomy - the freedom to make their own choices and decisions.

When children have autonomy, they are more likely to pursue activities that genuinely interest them, rather than doing things solely for external rewards like grades or praise. This allows them to develop a love of learning and a growth mindset, where they see challenges as opportunities to improve rather than threats to their self-worth.

In contrast, controlling parenting that relies on rewards and punishments undermines intrinsic motivation. Children become focused on pleasing their parents or teachers rather than exploring their own interests. This can lead to a fear of failure and a reluctance to take intellectual risks.

The goal should be to establish clear expectations, while giving children the freedom to figure out how to meet those expectations in their own way. This fosters their sense of competence and self-reliance, which are key components of intrinsic motivation. With autonomy-supportive parenting, children can develop into resilient, driven, and intrinsically motivated individuals.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight of promoting intrinsic motivation through autonomy:

  • The story of Harlow's experiment with monkeys shows that when given a latch to play with, the monkeys were intrinsically motivated to open it, without any external rewards. However, when Harlow offered raisins as a reward, the monkeys' performance actually decreased, demonstrating how extrinsic rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation.

  • The example of the teacher's student who was labeled a "bad speller" by her parents illustrates how focusing on grades and performance can hinder a child's intrinsic motivation. When the teacher encouraged the student's effort rather than just her grades, the student's performance improved dramatically.

  • The context discusses how autonomy-supportive parenting, which allows children to make their own choices and learn from mistakes, fosters intrinsic motivation. In contrast, controlling parenting that relies on rewards and punishments undermines intrinsic motivation and leads to dependent, unmotivated children.

  • The passage emphasizes the importance of allowing children to master skills through their own self-directed efforts, as this creates a "positive feedback loop" that sustains their intrinsic motivation. The example of the child who lights up with pride after mastering a challenging concept on their own demonstrates this principle.

  • The context highlights how growth mindset, the belief that abilities can be developed through effort, supports intrinsic motivation, whereas a fixed mindset that sees abilities as innate and unchangeable undermines it. Overparenting communicates a fixed mindset to children.

In summary, the key examples illustrate how granting children autonomy, allowing them to learn from mistakes, and fostering a growth mindset are effective ways to promote their intrinsic motivation and love of learning.

Reframing Household Duties as Family Contributions

Reframe household duties as family contributions. This simple shift in language can instill a profound sense of responsibility and purpose in children. Instead of viewing chores as burdensome tasks, children will see their role as an integral part of the household.

Assign age-appropriate tasks to children, such as laundry, meal planning, and outdoor work. Emphasize how their contributions make a real difference in the family's daily life. This teaches children valuable skills while fostering a spirit of cooperation and shared purpose.

Avoid using rewards and bribes to motivate children. Instead, praise their effort and problem-solving abilities. The true reward is the sense of competence and pride that comes from being a capable, contributing member of the family.

Hold children genuinely accountable for their responsibilities. Allow them to experience the natural consequences of their actions, rather than swooping in to fix their mistakes. This builds resilience and a growth mindset, preparing them for success in adulthood.

The goal is to cultivate an environment where children view household duties not as chores, but as meaningful family contributions. This mindset shift empowers children, strengthens family bonds, and sets them up for lifelong competence and self-reliance.

Here are key examples from the context that support the insight of reframing household duties as family contributions:

  • The book suggests replacing the term "chores" with "family contributions" to send the message that each person's help is significant and makes a difference for the whole family.

  • The author cites parenting coach Amy McCready, who says "Calling them 'family contributions' doesn't make kids enjoy them any more, but it sends an important message about significance, that when you help out, you make a big difference for this family."

  • The book encourages parents to set clear expectations for children's contributions, such as having them responsible for tasks like "Household repairs, such as painting, replacing lightbulbs, and simple car maintenance" or "Planning and preparing more complicated meals."

  • Adolescent psychologist Jennifer Hartstein notes that when household responsibilities are seen as a "basic and foundational part of family life, they provide positive and effective opportunities for teens to gain the competence they are going to need as they move into adulthood."

  • The book suggests avoiding rewards and instead praising children for the "effort, determination, and perseverance" they show in completing their family contributions, to shift the focus to internal motivation rather than external incentives.

The key is reframing these tasks as meaningful "family contributions" that instill a sense of purpose and competence in children, rather than viewing them as burdensome "chores." This approach aims to develop children's problem-solving skills and prepare them for adult responsibilities.

Modeling Growth Mindset for Lifelong Learning

Cultivate a Growth Mindset in Your Children

As a parent, modeling a growth mindset is crucial for instilling a love of lifelong learning in your children. A growth mindset is the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work, rather than being fixed or innate. When you take on new challenges and learn from your failures, you demonstrate to your children that growth and improvement are possible with effort.

For example, consider picking up a new hobby or skill as an adult. Openly share your learning journey with your children - the initial struggles, the small victories, and the satisfaction of mastering something new. This shows them that even parents continue to grow and evolve, and that setbacks are a natural part of the learning process.

Celebrating your own progress and perseverance, rather than focusing solely on the end result, reinforces the idea that effort and resilience are what truly matter. This mindset shift encourages your children to approach their own challenges with a sense of curiosity and determination, rather than fear of failure. By modeling a growth mindset, you empower your kids to embrace learning as a lifelong pursuit, not just a means to an end.

Here are examples from the context that support the key insight of modeling a growth mindset for lifelong learning:

  • The context states that "the hallmark of successful individuals is that they love learning, they seek challenges, they value effort, and they persist in the face of obstacles." This exemplifies a growth mindset.

  • The context contrasts a fixed mindset, where people believe intelligence and abilities are innate and unchangeable, with a growth mindset, where people believe these qualities can be developed through effort and persistence.

  • It provides the example of a child with a fixed mindset being "far less likely to persevere when school gets challenging because they don't believe they can stretch beyond their perceived limitations." In contrast, a child with a growth mindset "will push on even when they fail to understand something the first time around because they know it's a matter of exerting more effort until they succeed."

  • The context emphasizes that "overparenting undermines so much of what contributes to a growth mindset and therefore inhibits intrinsic motivation." When parents "save them from risk and failure, we communicate to our kids that we don't have faith in their ability to grow, improve, and surmount challenges, and we encourage a fixed mindset."

  • It provides the example of a teacher witnessing a "messy display of generative learning" where students "tried, and failed, and tried again" with their robotics project. Despite the teacher's initial anxiety, the students were ultimately recognized for "the manner in which they embodied the FIRST Lego League core values" of valuing the learning process over the outcome.

  • The context encourages parents to "praise your child for the effort he put into his assignments, particularly when he encountered those frustrating difficulties that pushed him to the limits of what he thought he could do" and to "reiterate the concept that the harder we work, and the more we stretch our brains, the smarter we become."

Strategic Support in Education Through Parent-Teacher Partnerships

Cooperative parent-teacher partnerships are essential for supporting student learning and growth. These partnerships empower students to take ownership of their education and learn from their mistakes.

At the core of these partnerships is mutual trust and respect. Parents must trust that teachers have students' best interests in mind, while teachers must trust that parents want to be active, engaged partners. This foundation allows for open communication and a shared commitment to the student's success.

Within this framework, parents and teachers can work together to set realistic expectations for students. They can encourage students to take risks and embrace failure as a natural part of the learning process. When students inevitably face challenges, parents and teachers can collaborate to provide the right balance of support and accountability, empowering students to develop resilience and self-advocacy skills.

By aligning their efforts, parents and teachers can create an educational environment that nurtures students' autonomy and competence. This prepares students not just for academic success, but for the real-world challenges they will face beyond the classroom.

Here are key examples from the context that support the insight about strategic parent-teacher partnerships in education:

  • The author describes how she helped her young son overcome his fear of tying his shoelaces by patiently working with him, rather than continuing to tie them for him. This allowed him to develop the confidence and skills to succeed on his own.

  • The passage highlights the importance of trust and open communication between parents and teachers. It encourages parents to "show up at school with an attitude of optimism and trust" and to "invite teacher feedback" on their child's progress.

  • It emphasizes the need for parents to allow their children to experience failure and learn from it, rather than shielding them from challenges. As one teacher explains, "Mistakes are opportunities to grow. Failures or unsuccessful attempts are the same, and students need to live through those experiences to develop a toolbox of coping mechanisms."

  • The passage discusses how ninth grade can be a challenging transition for students, but that teachers expect and want to help students through this period of adjustment. Parents are encouraged to respond with "calm reassurance and support, rather than panic" when their child struggles initially.

  • It describes how tenth grade provides more academic autonomy for students, and that parents should respect their child's choices in course selection rather than forcing them into classes beyond their readiness.

  • The passage cites research showing that autonomy-supportive parenting, where parents guide rather than control their children, leads to more independent and motivated students compared to controlling parenting styles.

Preparing Adolescents for Real-World Challenges

The key insight is that parents must gradually relinquish control as their children enter adolescence. This means encouraging teenagers to make their own decisions and face the natural consequences, rather than shielding them. This prepares adolescents for the real-world challenges they will encounter as independent adults.

For example, parents should allow teenagers to choose their own electives in school and deal with the outcomes of those decisions, rather than micromanaging their course selections. This fosters the self-advocacy skills teenagers will need to navigate adulthood successfully.

By gradually giving adolescents more autonomy and responsibility, parents can help them develop resilience and a growth mindset. Teens who are allowed to fail and learn from their mistakes become better equipped to handle the demands of the real world. This is a far better approach than constantly protecting teenagers from any possible setback or challenge.

The goal is to gradually transition teenagers from dependence to independence, so they are ready to thrive as self-sufficient adults. This requires patience and trust from parents, as they relinquish control and empower their adolescent children to make their own choices. It's a challenging but essential process for preparing teens for the realities they will face beyond the family home.

Here are specific examples from the context that support the key insight of preparing adolescents for real-world challenges:

  • The story of the student who plagiarized a science paper - The counselor argued that it's better for the student to learn the consequences of plagiarism in high school rather than later in the professional world, where it could "mean the end of his career."

  • The anecdote about the student who impulsively threw a pencil at the teacher's head - The teacher worked with the student to help him recognize the precursor behaviors and signals that led to his impulsive actions, so he could learn self-control.

  • The example of the 5-year-old who thought he could operate dangerous power tools - The author contrasts this with the 12-year-old who became a competent carpenter after his father taught him how to use the tools safely. This shows the importance of developing real competence through experience, rather than just boosting confidence.

  • The story of John, who struggled academically until his mother stopped rescuing him and let him face the consequences - This allowed John to "step up" and take responsibility for his own learning, leading to him being nominated for a "Turnaround Student" award.

The key is that by gradually relinquishing control and allowing teenagers to make decisions and face natural consequences, parents can help develop their self-advocacy skills and resilience - crucial abilities for navigating the real world as independent adults.


Let's take a look at some key quotes from "The Gift of Failure" that resonated with readers.

If parents back off the pressure and anxiety over grades and achievement and focus on the bigger picture—a love of learning and independent inquiry—grades will improve and test scores will go up.

When parents shift their focus from grades and achievements to fostering a genuine love of learning, they create an environment that promotes academic success. By doing so, they allow their children to develop a curiosity-driven approach to education, which in turn leads to improved performance and higher test scores. This approach also helps children develop essential skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and independent inquiry.

In order to help children make the most of their education, parents must begin to relinquish control and focus on three goals: embracing opportunities to fail, finding ways to learn from that failure, and creating positive home-school relationships.

To maximize their children's educational potential, parents should gradually let go of control and focus on fostering a growth mindset. This involves allowing kids to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them, rather than shielding them from failure. By doing so, parents can help their children develop essential life skills, such as resilience and self-reliance.

Out of love and desire to protect our children's self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of the way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness. Unfortunately, in doing so we have deprived our children of the most important lessons of childhood. The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoved out of our children's way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative and resilient citizens of this world.

By overprotecting our children, we unintentionally deprive them of valuable life lessons. Shielding them from obstacles and failures may spare their self-esteem, but it also hinders their development of essential skills like resourcefulness, persistence, and resilience. By removing challenges, we create a smooth path that ultimately leads to unpreparedness for the real world.

Comprehension Questions

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How well do you understand the key insights in "The Gift of Failure"? Find out by answering the questions below. Try to answer the question yourself before revealing the answer! Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. Why should parents allow their children to experience and learn from failure?
2. What are the negative consequences of protecting children from all failures?
3. How does experiencing failure in a safe and supportive environment benefit a child?
4. What skills are nurtured in children who are allowed to fail and learn from their mistakes?
5. What impact does granting autonomy have on children's motivation in learning environments?
6. How does a controlling parenting approach affect a child's motivation to learn?
7. What are the benefits of an autonomy-supportive parenting style on children’s development?
8. How do external rewards influence a child's intrinsic motivation?
9. What is the significance of fostering a growth mindset in promoting intrinsic motivation?
10. What is the benefit of referring to household tasks as family contributions instead of chores?
11. Why should rewards and bribes be avoided when motivating children to complete household tasks?
12. How can age-appropriate tasks benefit children in a family setting?
13. What is the importance of holding children genuinely accountable for their responsibilities?
14. What is the definition of a growth mindset?
15. In what way can a parent effectively model a growth mindset to their children?
16. Why is it important for children with a growth mindset to face challenges?
17. How does overparenting affect a child's mindset?
18. What difference does it make to praise a child for their effort instead of their innate ability?
19. Why is mutual trust and respect important in parent-teacher partnerships?
20. How can parents and teachers use failures as learning opportunities for students?
21. What role do realistic expectations play in supporting a student’s educational journey?
22. How does fostering autonomy in students contribute to their success?
23. Why should parents encourage teenagers to make their own decisions during adolescence?
24. What benefits do teenagers gain from facing the consequences of their decisions?
25. How does relinquishing control over teenagers’ choices prepare them for adulthood?
26. What skills do adolescents develop when they are allowed to fail?
27. What is the importance of developing real competence rather than just boosting confidence in adolescents?

Action Questions

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"Knowledge without application is useless," Bruce Lee said. Answer the questions below to practice applying the key insights from "The Gift of Failure". Mark the questions as done once you've answered them.

1. How can you create opportunities for your child to learn from failures in everyday situations?
2. How can you provide children with more opportunities to make their own decisions and thereby enhance their intrinsic motivation to learn and grow?
3. How can you involve your children in planning and executing household tasks to emphasize their role as important contributors to the family?
4. What new skill or hobby could you start learning with your child to illustrate the value of perseverance and improvement through effort?
5. How can you enhance trust and communication between parents and teachers to further support your child’s educational journey?
6. How can parents assess their teenager’s readiness to make more independent decisions, and what steps can they take to gradually increase this independence?

Chapter Notes

Introduction: How I Learned to Let Go

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Overprotective Parenting Undermines Children's Competence and Independence: The author realized that her overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting style had undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of her own children and her students. By shielding children from setbacks, mistakes, and failures, parents deprive them of the experiences that teach resilience, problem-solving, and self-reliance.

  • Parental Fear and Anxiety Fuels Overparenting: The author discusses how parental fear of potential harms (e.g., predators, germs, bullies) and anxiety about their children's success have led to a culture of "overparenting" where parents try to eliminate all obstacles and challenges from their children's lives. This is driven by a desire to protect children's self-esteem and provide tangible evidence of parenting success.

  • Competitive Parenting and the "Pressured Parents Phenomenon": The author describes the phenomenon of parents engaging in competitive comparisons of their children's achievements (e.g., academic honors, athletic accomplishments) as a way to validate their own parenting. This creates a cycle of anxiety and pressure that is passed on to children.

  • Failure is a Necessary and Valuable Experience for Child Development: The author argues that failure, setbacks, and mistakes are critical experiences that teach children important skills like resilience, problem-solving, and grit. By shielding children from these experiences, parents deprive them of opportunities for growth and learning.

  • Relinquishing Control and Allowing Children to Fail: The author resolves to step back and allow her own children to face challenges and failures, rather than rescuing them. She uses the example of teaching her son to tie his shoes as a symbolic first step in this process.

  • The Importance of Parent-Teacher Partnerships: The author discusses the tension between parents who want to protect their children's self-esteem and teachers who want to challenge students. She emphasizes the need for parents and teachers to work together to create an environment where children can safely experience and learn from failure.

1 How Failure Became a Dirty Word: A Brief History of American Parenting

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Parenting in Colonial America: Parenting in Colonial America was simpler and more focused on reason and survival rather than emotion and child happiness. Children were expected to contribute to the family's survival and were disciplined harshly, with little pity for their mistakes or failures.

  • The Rise of the Parenting Expert: In the early 20th century, parenting became a field of study, and parents were encouraged to rely on experts and professionals rather than their own instincts. This led to an increased focus on children's emotional and psychological needs, and the belief that improper parenting could lead to grave psychological damage.

  • The Influence of Dr. Spock: Dr. Benjamin Spock's "Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" marked a shift in parenting advice, encouraging parents to trust their own instincts rather than relying solely on experts. This led to a more permissive style of parenting, which was later criticized for contributing to the rebellious behavior of the 1960s.

  • The Self-Esteem Movement: The self-esteem movement of the 1970s emphasized individual happiness and self-love, leading to a generation of narcissistic children who were unwilling to take risks or cope with consequences. This approach to parenting prioritized short-term happiness over long-term development of skills, values, and virtues.

  • The Need for Parenting for Autonomy: The author argues that the current parenting landscape is confusing and that the self-esteem movement has failed. She proposes a new approach, "parenting for autonomy," which focuses on developing independence, resilience, and a sense of self based on real competence rather than misguided confidence.

2 Why Parenting for Dependence Doesn’t Work: The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

  • Intrinsic Motivation is the Holy Grail of Parenting: Intrinsic motivation, or the desire to engage in an activity for its own sake, is more effective for long-term learning and development than extrinsic motivation (rewards and punishments). Extrinsic rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation by making the activity feel like a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

  • Autonomy is Crucial for Intrinsic Motivation: Allowing children autonomy and control over their own learning and decision-making, within reasonable limits, fosters intrinsic motivation. Overly controlling parenting and teaching practices that limit autonomy can undermine intrinsic motivation.

  • Competence Builds Confidence: Competence, or the ability to successfully complete tasks and challenges, is a key component of intrinsic motivation. Allowing children to experience mastery and success through their own efforts, rather than relying on praise and rewards, builds genuine confidence and competence.

  • Connectedness Strengthens Intrinsic Motivation: Feeling connected to and supported by parents, teachers, and the broader world is important for intrinsic motivation. Overparenting that undermines autonomy can paradoxically undermine this sense of connectedness.

  • Failure and Struggle are Necessary for Learning: Avoiding failure and struggle can prevent children from developing the resilience, problem-solving skills, and growth mindset necessary for intrinsic motivation and long-term learning. "Desirable difficulties" that require effort and perseverance lead to more durable learning.

  • Rewards and Praise can Undermine Intrinsic Motivation: Extrinsic rewards like money, grades, and praise, when used excessively, can shift a child's focus from the inherent enjoyment and satisfaction of learning to the external reward. This can diminish intrinsic motivation over time.

  • Goal-Setting Supports Autonomy: Allowing children to set their own goals, within reasonable limits, can foster a sense of autonomy and competence. Self-imposed goals provide a safe space for children to take risks, fail, and try again without the threat of external consequences.

  • Modeling is Powerful: Parents and teachers modeling a growth mindset, willingness to fail, and adaptability in the face of challenges can powerfully shape children's attitudes and behaviors around learning and intrinsic motivation.

3 Less Really Is More: Parenting for Autonomy and Competence

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Autonomy-Supportive Parenting vs. Controlling Parenting: Autonomy-supportive parenting involves guiding children, setting clear expectations, and allowing them to make mistakes and learn from them. In contrast, controlling parenting involves excessive direction, taking over tasks, and using extrinsic rewards or punishments.

  • Benefits of Autonomy-Supportive Parenting: Children raised with an autonomy-supportive approach are more independent, competent, and intrinsically motivated. They are better able to complete tasks on their own and persist through frustration, compared to children raised with a controlling parenting style.

  • Establishing Habits and Routines: Helping children develop new habits and routines is crucial for building autonomy. This involves identifying cues, establishing routines, and providing appropriate rewards to reinforce the new behaviors.

  • Dealing with Mistakes: Autonomy-supportive parents acknowledge children's feelings of frustration, allow for mistakes, and help children understand the consequences of their actions. They see mistakes as learning opportunities rather than failures.

  • Feedback and Guidance: Autonomy-supportive parents provide feedback that guides children towards solutions, rather than giving unsolicited advice or taking over tasks. They value the process of problem-solving as much as the final outcome.

  • Maintaining Boundaries and Structure: Autonomy-supportive parenting does not mean being permissive. Children still need clear rules, behavioral guidelines, and consequences when expectations are not met. This structure helps children feel safe and secure.

  • Overcoming the Urge to Rescue: It can be difficult for parents to resist the temptation to "rescue" their children from the consequences of their mistakes. However, allowing children to experience the natural consequences of their actions is crucial for developing autonomy and competence.

  • Patience and Persistence: Transitioning from a controlling to an autonomy-supportive parenting style requires time, patience, and persistence. There may be initial setbacks and pushback from children, but the long-term benefits make the effort worthwhile.

4 Encouragement from the Sidelines: The Real Connection Between Praise and Self-Esteem

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Praise for Effort vs. Inherent Qualities: Praising children for their effort and hard work (e.g. "Great job on that test! What did you do this time in your preparation that worked so well?") is more effective than praising them for their inherent qualities or talents (e.g. "Great job on that test! You are so smart!"). Praise for effort encourages a growth mindset, where children believe their abilities can be improved through hard work, whereas praise for inherent qualities encourages a fixed mindset, where children believe their abilities are set in stone.

  • Modeling a Growth Mindset: Parents should model a growth mindset in their own lives by taking on new challenges, even if it means risking failure. When children see their parents continuing to stretch themselves and learn from their mistakes, they are more likely to adopt a similar mindset.

  • Avoiding Reinforcement of Maladaptive Reactions to Failure: Parents should avoid reinforcing unhealthy reactions to failure, such as denial. Instead, they should help children see the realities of their shortcomings and failures, and teach them to react accordingly. Honest feedback, rather than false praise, helps build children's trust and self-efficacy.

  • Providing Emotional Support, Not Rescue: While parents should provide emotional support to their children when they fail, they should not try to rescue them from the consequences of their mistakes. This allows children to regain a sense of control and learn how to problem-solve and devise strategies for future success.

  • Allowing Children to Feel Disappointment: Parents should allow their children to feel disappointment and other negative emotions when they fail, rather than trying to immediately resolve the situation. This teaches children that they have the inner strength to move on from failure.

  • The Importance of Credibility: Providing children with honest, accurate feedback, even if it is negative, is crucial for maintaining parental credibility and trust. Lavishing children with empty praise can undermine their trust in their parents' judgment and opinions.

5 Household Duties: Laundry as an Opportunity for Competence

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Allowing Children to Fail is Important for their Development: Protecting children from failure and not allowing them to experience small disasters and learn how to cope with them denies them the opportunity to develop competence and a sense of purpose. Failure and the ability to problem-solve through challenges are important for children to develop into capable, responsible adults.

  • Reframe "Chores" as "Family Contributions": The language we use to describe household duties is important. Referring to them as "chores" sends the message that they are burdensome tasks, whereas "family contributions" emphasizes the significance and importance of each person's role in the household.

  • Set Clear Expectations and Hold Children Accountable: Parents should set clear, age-appropriate expectations for children's household responsibilities and hold them accountable when those expectations are not met, without swooping in to fix things. This teaches children competence and responsibility.

  • Start Household Duties at a Young Age: Even toddlers and preschoolers can begin to take on simple household tasks like putting away toys, feeding pets, and clearing their own dishes. Establishing these habits early helps children develop a sense of purpose and contribution.

  • Establish Household Routines and Habits: As children get older, turning household duties into regular, habitual routines helps cement them as part of the child's daily life. Rewards can be used judiciously to jumpstart motivation, but the ultimate reward should be the sense of accomplishment.

  • Increase Responsibility with Age: The types of household tasks children can handle increases as they get older, from simple chores like laundry and cleaning to more complex tasks like home repairs and meal planning. Allowing children to take on greater responsibility prepares them for independence.

  • Household Duties Develop Competence and Purpose: Participating in the running of the household gives children a sense of purpose, competence, and self-esteem that will serve them well as they transition into adulthood. This is more important than having a perfectly tidy home.

6 Friends: Accomplices to Failure and the Formation of Identity

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Importance of Uninterrupted Free Play: Free play and the social interactions it fosters are crucial for children's social, emotional, and academic development. Allowing children to work out their own social conflicts and dynamics without adult interference is essential for them to develop important skills like empathy, communication, and conflict resolution.

  • Sibling Relationships as Learning Opportunities: Siblings are children's first friends, enemies, and teachers. Allowing siblings to work out their own issues, while providing guidelines for "fighting fair," enables them to develop important relationship skills.

  • Navigating Evolving Friendships: As children grow older, their friendships shift from proximity-based to interest-based. Parents should resist the urge to intervene in their child's friendships, even if they seem problematic, as these relationships are opportunities for the child to learn about themselves and others.

  • Empowering Adolescents: During the tumultuous adolescent years, parents should strive to be a guide and a safe place for problem-solving, rather than the problem-solver. Allowing teenagers to navigate their social lives with autonomy, while providing a supportive environment, helps them develop crucial life skills.

  • Balancing Safety and Autonomy: While parents should be vigilant for signs of truly dangerous or harmful behaviors, they should avoid overreacting to normal social and emotional ups and downs. Snooping or intervening should be a last resort, used only when there is clear evidence of serious issues.

  • Modeling Healthy Relationships: Parents should model positive, mutually beneficial friendships and relationships, as their example will teach children more about healthy relationships than their words ever could.

7 Sports: Losing as an Essential Childhood Experience

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Childhood Sports Have Become Overly Competitive: The chapter describes how youth sports have become increasingly specialized and competitive, with children as young as 9 or 10 already committing to a single sport and being recruited by high schools and colleges. This has led to a loss of the fun and play aspect of sports for many children.

  • Losing and Failure are Essential Childhood Experiences: The chapter argues that experiencing failure and loss in a low-stakes environment like sports is important for children's development and building resilience. Sports should be a "safe place to fail" where children can learn sportsmanship and emotional regulation.

  • Parental Pressure and Sideline Behavior Can Undermine the Benefits of Sports: When parents yell at coaches, referees, and their own children from the sidelines, it creates a stressful environment that takes away from the positive aspects of sports participation. This "Pressured Parents Phenomenon" can alienate children from their parents.

  • Rewards and Trophies Can Diminish Intrinsic Motivation: The chapter cites research showing that rewards like trophies for simply participating can actually reduce children's enjoyment and motivation in sports, similar to how rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation in academic contexts.

  • The Ideal Sports Parent is Supportive, Not Overbearing: The chapter outlines guidelines for being a successful "sideline parent", including: being the parent, not the coach; never bad-mouthing the coach; not living vicariously through your child; and cultivating a "growth mindset" that embraces failure as a learning opportunity.

  • Knowing When to Quit is as Important as Persevering: The chapter argues that there is a difference between quitting out of frustration versus making the difficult decision to stop pursuing a sport that is no longer a good fit. Parents should support their children in this process rather than forcing them to continue.

8 Middle School: Prime Time for Failure

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Failure is a Fact of Life in Middle School: Middle school is a setup where students are asked to succeed at tasks their adolescent brains are not yet capable of mastering. Failure is inevitable, and teachers and parents should embrace it as a learning opportunity.

  • Executive Function Deficits are the Root Cause of Middle School Disasters: The collection of skills that allow us to manage our time, resources, and attention (executive function) are still developing in middle school students, leading to issues like late assignments, forgotten homework, and lost textbooks.

  • Teach Self-Control and Awareness: Techniques like using agreed-upon signals, the "Pencil Game", and "FER" (Flag, Eye contact, Rehearse) can help students recognize and redirect impulsive behaviors.

  • Develop Mental Flexibility: Transitions between home, school, and activities are challenging for middle schoolers. Predictable routines, schedules, and modeling calm responses can help students learn to shift mental gears.

  • Address Working Memory Deficits: Middle schoolers struggle to retain oral instructions. Strategies like written checklists, mnemonics, and teaching critical listening skills can compensate for poor working memory.

  • Improve Self-Awareness and Monitoring: Adolescents have trouble evaluating their own work against expectations. Providing clear, detailed instructions and guidance on self-assessment can develop these skills.

  • Teach Initiation and Time Management: Struggling to start and plan tasks is common. Tools like calendars, timers, and modeling time management can help students overcome inertia and develop independence.

  • Develop Organizational Habits: Weekly locker cleanouts, binder organization, and filing systems teach middle schoolers essential organizational skills for school and life.

  • Allow Failure and its Consequences: Rescuing students from the natural consequences of their mistakes deprives them of the learning opportunities inherent in failure. Patience and a willingness to let them fail are key.

9 High School and Beyond: Toward Real Independence

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Overprotective Parenting Hinders Independence: Parents who do everything for their children, never allowing them to fail, are robbing their children of the opportunity to develop the self-confidence, resilience, and problem-solving skills necessary for success in adulthood.

  • High School is the Last Chance for Fostering Autonomy: High school, particularly the later years, is a critical time for parents to step back and allow their children to make their own choices, experience the consequences of their actions, and learn to advocate for themselves.

  • Freshman Year: Embrace the Anxiety and Offer Support: Ninth grade is a time of heightened anxiety for many students, but teachers understand this and are there to help. Encourage your child to take advantage of the support systems available and learn from their mistakes.

  • Sophomore Year: Embrace Electives and Choice: Tenth grade introduces electives, giving students their first real opportunity to exercise autonomy over their academic pursuits. Parents should let their children choose their own courses and activities.

  • Junior Year: Resist the Temptation to Overschedule: While junior year is important for college admissions, parents should avoid the urge to pack their child's schedule with extracurricular activities solely for the purpose of building a resume. Instead, encourage your child to pursue genuine passions and interests.

  • Senior Year: Prepare for Independence: Twelfth grade is a time of increasing independence as students prepare to leave for college or the workforce. Parents should step back and allow their children to make important decisions, such as choosing a college, while providing support and guidance.

  • College: Let Them Fail and Learn: Once your child is in college, resist the temptation to intervene in their affairs. Allow them to solve their own problems, communicate with professors, and manage their own schedules and responsibilities. This is essential for their development into independent, competent adults.

10 Parent-Teacher Partnerships: How Our Fear of Failure Undermines Education

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Positive Parent-Teacher Partnerships are Vital for Student Success: Decades of research shows that positive family-school relationships are crucial for student achievement. Teachers who encourage parental involvement are rated more favorably, and students learn more when families are engaged in their education.

  • Avoid Undermining Teacher Authority: When parents intervene to defend their child's mistakes or failures, they can undermine the student's opportunity to learn from those experiences. Students need the space to make mistakes and face the consequences in order to develop important coping skills.

  • Approach Teachers with Optimism and Trust: If parents approach teachers with an attitude of trust and optimism, their child will be more likely to have a positive relationship with the teacher. Distrust, disrespect, or passive-aggressive communication from parents can damage the teacher-student relationship.

  • Model Enthusiasm for Learning: Parents should model enthusiasm for learning and intellectual curiosity. This helps instill the same attitudes in their children and shows them that education is valuable.

  • Encourage Student Self-Advocacy: From a young age, children should be encouraged to communicate directly with teachers about issues or concerns. This helps them develop important self-advocacy skills that will serve them well throughout their education and beyond.

  • Recognize that Truth is Subjective: Parents should keep an open mind when a teacher reports an issue with their child's behavior or performance. The child's behavior at home may differ from how they act at school due to various factors.

  • Address Concerns Directly with the Teacher: If parents have concerns about a teacher's actions, they should first discuss it directly with the teacher before going over their head to the principal. This allows for open communication and the opportunity to resolve the issue.

  • Allow Students to Experience Failure: Parents should protect their child's right to fail and learn from their mistakes. Shielding children from failure and hardship deprives them of opportunities to develop resilience and problem-solving skills.

  • Support the Student-Teacher Partnership: Even when the relationship between a student and teacher is challenging, parents should support that partnership. These difficult relationships can teach students valuable lessons about dealing with difficult people, which is an important life skill.

11 Homework: How to Help Without Taking Over

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Homework is the child's responsibility, not the parent's: Parents should support, encourage, and redirect their children during homework, but should not take over or provide the answers.

  • Challenging homework is more valuable than easy homework: Struggling through difficult homework helps children develop important skills like diligence, perseverance, and grit.

  • Check for underlying issues: Before complaining about excessive homework, parents should check for vision/hearing problems, lack of sleep, or mismatch between difficulty and child's abilities.

  • Use the Timer Cure: Set a timer for a reduced amount of time on a subject that is taking too long, forcing the child to work efficiently.

  • Teach organizational and strategic skills: Help children fuel up, eliminate distractions, understand expectations, prioritize tasks, and evaluate their work.

  • Let children choose when and where to do homework: Giving them autonomy can help avoid nightly battles.

  • Praise effort over perfection: Focus on the child's persistence and growth, not just the right answers.

  • Homework becomes more academically relevant in middle/high school: Parents should step back and let children take full responsibility for their generative learning assignments.

  • Failure can be valuable: Mistakes and setbacks during challenging homework can lead to important learning experiences.

  • Let children experience the pride of competence: Don't deprive them of the feeling of accomplishment from completing homework on their own.

12 Grades: The Real Value of a Low Score

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Grades are extrinsic rewards that undermine intrinsic motivation and long-term learning: Grades are a measure of academic performance, not a measure of a student's worth or ability. They incentivize compliance and short-term performance over genuine learning and mastery.

  • Emphasize goals over grades: Encourage students to set their own learning goals, which promotes a sense of ownership and competence. Praise effort and perseverance rather than just high grades.

  • Seek feedback rather than just scores: Narrative feedback from teachers that identifies strengths and areas for improvement is more helpful for learning than just a letter grade.

  • Give students autonomy in their education: Allow students to make choices about their course selection and educational path. This fosters intrinsic motivation and a sense of control over their learning.

  • Reframe failure as an opportunity: Help students see failures and low grades as chances to learn and improve, rather than as personal shortcomings. Teach them to adapt and evolve in response to setbacks.

  • Limit use of grading software portals: Constant monitoring of grades can promote dependence and undermine student autonomy. Consider giving students the responsibility to communicate their own academic progress.

  • Focus on the learning process, not just the outcomes: Shift the family's attention away from grades as the sole measure of success, and instead celebrate effort, growth, and the joy of learning.

Conclusion: What I’ve Learned from Letting Go

Here are the key takeaways from the chapter:

  • Parables and Stories of Failure-Turned-Success: The author loves parables and stories that show how failures and mistakes can ultimately lead to success, such as the story of Edison's 10,000 failed lightbulb attempts. These stories are meant to reassure us that our own mistakes and failures can be worthwhile in the end.

  • Predictability of Fictional Stories vs. Unpredictability of Real Life: While fictional stories often have predictable happy endings, the unpredictability of our own lives and the lives of our children is much more frustrating and unbearable. As parents, we cannot simply "skip to the end" of our children's stories to reassure ourselves that everything will turn out okay.

  • Letting Go and Trusting Our Children: As parents, we cannot control or edit our children's stories to perfection. Instead, we must be patient, let go, and trust that our children are writing their own stories in their own voices, with their own plot points. Their flaws and imperfections must be allowed to remain as an essential part of their narrative.

  • Great Books and Flawed Masterpieces: The author cites the quote "Great books are not flawless books" to suggest that in order for our children to become "masterpieces," their flaws must be allowed to remain and serve as an essential part of their story.


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