LAKE FOREST — Here’s something parents don’t hear very often: The goal of childrearing is to make their job unnecessary.
Jessica Lahey, a teacher and writer for both the New York Times and The Atlantic, explained her three-pronged approach to helping children learn by failing to more than 150 people on October 27 at Lake Forest Country Day School.
Lahey, the author of The Gift of Failure, said convincing children they are brilliant and can do no wrong and propping them up every time they stumble will not help them mature into self-sufficient adults.
“As parents our job is to put ourselves out of a job,” said Lahey. “We have to let them make their own checklist.”
Listing autonomy, competence and connection as three ingredients necessary to let children learn from their mistakes and become self sufficient, Lahey used her son, 18, as an example of how letting a child absorb the consequences of failure will lead to success.
Realizing her son, then 9, left his homework in the house, Lahey said she was conflicted whether to bring it to school or let him bear the consequences of telling his teacher he did not have it. She had a conversation with herself.
“As a family we have each other’s backs,” said Lahey. “If my husband left his phone charger at home I would bring it to him — but I’m not raising my husband.”
When her son returned from his day at school she said he told her forgetting his homework cost him recess while he remained inside to do it. He said his parents had to come to school to help him develop a homework plan.
Her son decided to create checklist to make sure he had everything each day, which he then used for two and a half years.
Letting her son bear the consequences of forgetting his homework helped make him self sufficient, according to Lahey. One of the parents listening to the talk, Francine Byers of Glencoe who has a preschooler, a first grader and a fourth grade student at Lake Forest Country Day, said she liked what she heard but felt conflicted.
“I confess I did bring my son’s homework in today,” said Byers. “It was sitting in my car when I got here (for the talk). It’s helpful for us to be there but we have to let them stumble.”
Developing a child’s autonomy, competence and connection are key to helping a youngster arrive at self-sufficiency. Lahey said sitting with a child while they do their homework explaining everything is the wrong approach. She said a parent can be nearby but must let youngsters do their own problem solving.
“Find something else to do while they do their homework,” said Lahey. “When they say ‘I don’t get it’ say just a minute. It may take a while but they’re going to figure it out.”
Competency also comes from learning how to deal with things, according to Lahey. Telling a child they are very smart and handing them all the answers will catch up to them when they get an answer wrong in college.
“Negative feedback so freaks them out they go all fetal,” said Lahey.
Connection involves children connecting to the larger world around them.
Kate Mursau of Lake Forest, a Lake Forest Country Day alumna who has a child in fourth grade and another one in kindergarten at the school, said she buys into Lahey’s ideas. Mursav is also a clinical psychologist.
“This works for children of all ages,” said Mursau. “This is what they need to be in the world.”
Bob Whalen, the head of school at Lake Forest Country Day, said the school implements many of Lahey’s ideas in its learning model, such as its innovation lab where children brainstorm ideas. If something does not work, they learn why and fix it.
“This is a growth mindset,” said Whalen. “We want them to be the best math student they can be. In sixth grade we use fantasy football (as a model). Some students see it as sports and others see it as math.”