Ep 67: The Hidden Secrets of Teenage Success

Episode Summary

Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure and storied educator, shares the secrets of what makes teens successful in academics, at home, and in the world. If your teen does fail, Lahey knows where to look to find the silver lining.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Are you are paralyzed by the thought of your teen failing? What if they never pass French or Algebra 2 or bomb their piano concert?

As parents, it’s hard to watch your kids mess up, especially when if they had just listened to your suggestions in the first place they wouldn’t be stuck in a hole they only seem to be digging deeper.

But rather than throwing down a rope to help them climb out of that hole, maybe there’s a better way to help them out.

In our interview this week with Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, we talk about just that. A storied middle school and high school educator for more than 20 years (and mom to her own teens), Jessica has seen it all: from student outbursts in class to pens thrown at her head to lockers that are so full you’d need a crowbar to wedge out the mess of binders, papers and textbooks.

In addition to her decades in education, Jessica has spent years researching the most effective techniques to use with teens, or as she sometimes refers to them “people in progress.” Her tactics to help teens learn from failures are all based on the science and psychology of teens’ developing brains. Executive functioning, like organization and emotional regulation are still developing in teens, which is why parents (and teachers and coaches) all have a part to play in raising future adults.

In addition to learning how to help your teen learn and move on from failures, you will discover:

  • The fine line between “social jostling” and bullying
  • How to correct your teen’s mistakes to avoid repetitive errors
  • Why and how middle school is a “set up” for teens to fail
  • The importance of identifying your teens signals
  • How to institute a routine “clean out” to promote organization in your teen

Jessica’s book is everywhere—I even found a copy in bookstore in Argentina!—and I’m so excited to be sharing her expertise with our listeners!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. When you identify a “signal” of your teen’s, bring it up with:

“You know how last time when you hauled off and hit your sister across the head and you said you didn’t even know why you did it? Well this time I noticed that you were really fidgeting a lot and maybe that can be a way for you to notice that you might just be about to haul-off and hit your sister and maybe that would be time for you to instead sort of have a little talk with me or someone else why you might be feeling that way.”

-Jessica Lahey

2. Instead of repacking the dishwasher after your teen does it, bring them back and say:

(Members Only)

Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Identify Your Teen’s Signals:

A big part of becoming a functioning adult is learning emotional regulation. As Jessica Lahey notes in our interview (and as any teacher or adolescent expert will tell you!) teens are in the stage of brain development where they are just learning to manage their emotions. Part of our role as parents is to help teens learn strategies for regulating their often intense emotions!
Jessica suggests one way to do this is to make your teen more conscious of their “signals,” or the things they do or say before reacting in a “knee-jerk” way. In our interview Jessica gives the example of a brother whacking his little sister in annoyance. Perhaps the parent notices that brother gets extra fidgety right before this happens. Next time mom or dad notices a behavior preceding another, they can bring it up to the teen to begin to make him conscious of a subconscious “signal.”
Think of three times recently when your teen has performed a behavior you disapprove of, paying particular attention to any physical displays such as slamming doors, breaking or throwing things, spitting, screaming, slapping, punching, shutting down, sequestering themself in their room, etc.. What actions did your teen take immediately before those unwanted behaviors? There might be a different “signal” for screaming and a separate signal for throwing their phone across the room. It can be something verbal or nonverbal such as the fidgeting teen in our example. Do your best to keep paying attention and identifying your teens “signals” over the next week or two. Once you have one or two figured out, bring it to your teen’s attention the next time you start to see the behavior unfold. It will be important to explain that you’ve noticed that every time they do X it means they’re just about to do Y.

2. New Year, New Teen:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: This book, I feel like I see all over the place. I’m currently in a stage where I’m doing a lot of traveling. I’ve been living one month in a different country each month and traveling around and so-

Jessica: Oh my gosh.

Andy: … yeah, it’s been really cool, but I feel like I’ve been seeing your book all over the place and specifically-

Jessica: Oh, that’s cool.

Andy: … I was in South America earlier this year and sometimes, I just go into bookstores in different countries and see what parenting books I can find and what I recognize. Your book was one of the few.

Jessica: Did you tweeted me about this?

Andy: I must’ve done so. I think I sent a picture of you or something.

Jessica: I think you did, yeah.

Andy: Yeah. Okay, yeah, because I was super excited. I found it in this like bookstore in Argentina and so anyway, so your book is everywhere. It’s all over the world and it’s a really big deal, but how did it start?

Jessica: Well, I’ve been a teacher and a parent for the same amount of time. I started teaching when I was pregnant with my older son who’s now in college, and I’ve taught every grade from six to 12, and really it came out of what I was seeing in my classroom the concerns I had about my students being really reluctant to make mistakes, reluctant to “look stupid” to venture I guess at something they weren’t sure they knew right off the bat. Writing rough drafts was hard for them be because they were afraid… They don’t like to look anything other than perfect. My student’s teacher tend to do that.

Jessica: When I say my kids, sometimes I mean my students, but my students were getting increasingly anxious levels of this perfectionism that was tipping over into an obsessive compulsive personality disorder was starting to happen. I was really worried and to be really, really Frank, I was getting angry at the parents of my students, which is a really bad place to be because all the research is clear on this that when homeschool relationships are strong, kids learn better and total humiliation. I realized I was doing the exact same thing that they were doing with my own kids. I had to have one of those moments where I said, “It’s really easy for me to blame the parents of my students for “wrecking” my students or making it so that they were less able to learn, and yet I’m doing the same thing to my own kids.”

Jessica: That’s my favorite place to be from a writing perspective, something that’s really important to me be because it’s about my kids and the way my family works, and yet at the same time is about the research and becoming a better teacher. It was so much fun. I did two years pulling together all the research on motivation and how kids learn and how so-called helicopter parenting or highly directive parenting affects that. It’s been a really fun ride.

Andy: One thing that you point out in here early on that I thought was a really good was you talked about where this comes from, or you call it how failure became a dirty word. You’ve talked about how actually a lot of times as a parent, those opportunities where you can save the day for your kid are when you really feel good about yourself or when you’re able to see something coming.

Jessica: Yeah. Seeing your kid frustrated is so horrifying. You don’t want your kid to feel bad about themselves. You want your kid’s self-esteem to be so strong and so unbreakable. You want them to feel like they’re triumphant all the time, and yet what we do is we interrupt that very process by taking a task away from them before they get a chance to feel triumphant about it, and we tend to underestimate what our kids might be able to do if we just gave them a chance to stick with it for a little longer. The problem with that is the more we take over for our kids and do things for them, not only do we convey the message to them, that we don’t think they can do it themselves.

Jessica: We also create this state of what’s called learned helplessness, where kids feel increasingly paralyzed and increasingly helpless, and we’re feeding that cycle. The worst part of it from a teaching perspective is when we make it so that our kids don’t have much comfort with frustration, when they can’t deal with their own frustration, when they can’t push through and cope with those feelings, they end up being less able to learn in school and in life because the teaching tools that I use in my classroom that are most effective happened to be tools that require kids to wrestle with frustration a little bit and stick with difficult tasks until they complete them.

Jessica: We’re trying our best to make our kids feel comfortable and capable, and yet at the same time, we’re actually doing the exact opposite, which was an eye opener for me as a parent.

Andy: Yeah, right. Part of the problem is the top down nature of a lot of goal setting that happens in families, where the goals are really just directed by the parents. It’s just the things that the parent thinks will be best for the kid, but without necessarily including the kid in the process of setting the goals.

Jessica: That’s what’s so crazy. We’ve got the kid right there in front of us, and yet one of the last things we think to do is to ask them how they envision the solution to the problem.

Andy: Yeah, because they just don’t really have that much experience yet. They don’t know really what’s best for them.

Jessica: Yeah. We may have more experience with the details of like how I was using this example in an earlier, when I was talking to someone yesterday about, for example, how to walk into an airport and get from point A to point B and board your flight. Yeah, we have more experience with that, but at the same time with things like, I don’t know, like doing your homework and kids doing their homework, we tend to as parents have a vision for how that’s going to happen in this carefully, curated, communal space we’ve created in our house because that’s how we always envisioned it would look like in our home. When we say to kids, “You know sweetie, how and where and at what time and, under what conditions would be your perfect homework day?”

Jessica: They obviously not doing homework can’t be the answer, but, how and where would you do it. What was really interesting is when I finally thought to ask my kids, they had two very different answers to that. One wanted to do it the minute he got home from school, so he could get it out of the way and do fun stuff that he wanted to do after, and the other had to do the fun stuff and get his heebie-jeebies out first before he could actually focus on the homework.

Jessica: The fact that I never thought to ask them, and it was my rule that you do homework, the minute you get in the door so that you can get it done didn’t take any of their preferences into account and gave them no sense of autonomy over their homework, which in the end lowered the chances that they were going to be personally invested in getting the homework done. Just thinking to ask is a really great first step.

Andy: I feel like it’s so easy to jump from, “Hey, I’ve tried everything and trust me, this is what works best to so this is what you should do,” and instead of like just encouraging them to have their own process of trial and error and discovering what works best from them. It’s just so hard be because you’ve already gone through it, and you’ve already figured out this is totally the way to do it.

Jessica: There are certain things that we know we can’t do that. With my students, when I see them get broken hearts, like if they get dumped by the person they’ve been dating and you know that they just have to go through that. I think a lot about the relationships that made me be the person I am, some of them were not terribly pretty. Some of them were actually a little bit unhealthy, but that was something I had to deal with, and I had to become stronger and had to figure out what I wanted and what I didn’t want in a relationship, and that was not a process someone else could do for me. When I’m ready to step in on something that I’m like, “Oh, well, like, I’ve been through this. I know how this should work.

Jessica: I should just do this for you because I’ve got all the wisdom,” I try to think of it more about in the terms of the way I would think about a romantic relationship for them. I can’t give them the experiences they need in order to know things about themselves. Yes, it would be easier for me to step in and explain how to not get your heartbroken, but that’s what shapes our feelings of ourselves and our feelings of competence in the world, is knowing how we’ve dealt with those difficult emotions. Yeah, it would be much easier if I just told my kid moment to moment how to get through an airport, but then when something goes wrong or something is a little different, they’re going to have no faith in themselves to figure out those complicated things on their own.

Jessica: Wanting to do for them is great and wanting to do help them not feel frustrated is great, unless you’re creating helpless kids who don’t feel like they have any faith in their ability to figure stuff out for themselves.

Andy: Part of that is of course, you have to not save them from things. As you write it in the book, you have to not bring the paper when they finish their homework. They do it all perfectly, but they accidentally leave it on the kitchen table in the morning and go to school. You have to let them figure that out on their own, rather than bringing it to school, but you point out a funny situation in the book where you had that happen, but you actually were going to be heading to the school later that day anyway, so it would be no problem at all for you to just bring the homework and drop it off.

Andy: You had to make the difficult choice of do I bring it for my kid or do I not, and you got into like a Facebook debate about it with some people. How do you answer the question, which is if it was your husband or if it was your friend and they made a mistake, you would help them out and you would go out of your way to bring them the thing that they left, but so why is it that for your kid that you make the choice not to do that?

Jessica: Well, I think this is really important to point out that it’s not that I would never ever take anything to school for my kid that I’ve had parents say, “Look-

Andy: Sure.

Jessica: … my kid, she’s a great kid and she never forgets anything and she’s really, really organized, and this one time she forgot this thing, why can’t I take it to her?” I never said that. I said that what we should try to do is to give kids opportunities to learn from their mistakes. In the example that I was talking about in the book, my younger son, who is at that time he was like nine or 10, and now he’s 16 and doing great. At that time, his executive function skills were really weak, and those are lots of different skills, but the one that he was having a lot of trouble with was remembering to take that piece of homework, finish it, put it in his backpack, and then take it out of his backpack once he got to school and hand it to his teacher.

Jessica: We were working really specifically on that skill and of course, he left the homework at home on the desk. The Facebook discussion that you’re mentioning was actually the most interesting part of that was with this woman named Lisa Heffernan, who actually runs a wonderful website called Grown and Flown, and it’s about older kids and supporting them as they’re going out into the world. Lisa said exactly that. She said…

Andy: We actually just had Lisa on the podcast last week.

Jessica: She’s-

Andy: She was fantastic.

Jessica: … fantastic. Yes, that’s who that message was from and she said, “No, no, no, Jess. I mean, I totally respect you. I respect your work but as a family, we were supposed to have each other’s backs. That’s our job is that, when the rest of the world is falling apart, we’re one source of love and support and respect, and blah, blah, blah.” I thought about that a lot and I realized… She said so for example, if your husband left his laptop charger or whatever at home, that you would take it to him at his office, especially if you’re going to be out anyway and I absolutely would have done it a million times-

Andy: Right, right.

Jessica: … but at the same time, the answer to that question is, is that I’m married to a 52-year-old person who never forget stuff and I’m not raising him. I’m raising kids who are working through building their executive function skills. I am my kids training wheels until they can balance, and move off and go off into the world on their own, and part of that means that I have to give them these opportunities to feel the repercussions of their actions. My husband is resourceful enough to be able to ask someone else to borrow, or to just make due and figure out a way until tomorrow, but my kid, what I want for my kid is I don’t care so much that he forgot that homework today.

Jessica: What I care about is that he puts the routines, the strategies in place, so that next time he will remember that homework. I want him to be the kind of person who can have a positive adaptive response to his mistakes and make himself better for next time, figure out what wasn’t working, try to come up with strategy. What ended up happening that day actually when he was nine and he was in fourth grade with a fantastic teacher named [Mr. Dano 00:13:17], Mr. Dano kept him in from recess that day, which is by the way not something I approve of. I think the kids who need recess most are the ones who get kept in most often.

Andy: Gosh, that’s true.

Jessica: He cannot keep kids in from recess as a disciplinary measure, but he did and whatever, it worked. Kept him in from recess, didn’t let him go back out. Even after he finished the homework, he said to Finn. He said, “You know, this has been going on for long enough, and what I’d like for you to do is to sit here and come up with a strategy, so that tomorrow you won’t forget your homework. What can you come up with as a strategy?” It was this amazing moment be because my kid came home that day and I said, “You know, how did things go?” He’s like, “Yeah, it went fine.

Jessica: It was great day, whatever,” and I said, yeah, but what about the homework and he said, “Oh, Mr. Dano kept me in and that stank and I hated that, but he told me I had to come up with a strategy so I did. I came up with a checklist. I’m going to make myself a checklist, and I think I’ll put it on the refrigerator and on that will be homework.” I promise you from that day until just about last year, this has been the first academic year that he has not put a checklist on the refrigerator and I keep them. I have all the copies of them. He puts them on index cards. Every year, he puts a new checklist on the refrigerator and that’s been the strategy that he came up with that day.

Jessica: He believes on his own, even though I had been suggesting it to him for ages. Yeah. What was important to him is that it was his strategy that he came up-

Andy: He [inaudible 00:14:56] it.

Jessica: … with that day, and then that was the thing that he had buy in on. It’s been six years, seven years that he’s been using those checklists and they continue to work for him because as far as he’s concerned, it’s the strategy that he came up with himself. That was a huge pivotal moment not taking that homework that day led to one of those times when he had to talk to an adult about how to do better, and it changed a lot of things for my kid.

Andy: Isn’t it true that you just don’t make a change until something happens that makes you say, “Ah, man, I really need to get better at that, or I really need to change that”? It’s like for you to like really make a big change in your life, and re-examine the way that you’re living or your habits, you do need to have a failure. You need to have a something that makes you feel that and that makes you really re-examine how you want to be.

Jessica: Well, the nice thing about having those moments is that for kids especially, they don’t necessarily have to be there moments all the time. One of the things that we do a lot in our families, we talk through at dinnertime how we’ve… We talk a lot about our goals. We try to set goals, short term and longterm goals for ourselves every once in a while, and just check in with each other on those goals. When I have something go wrong at work and believe me, there have been plenty of things I tell… Because I tend to talk a lot about failure, I tend to get a lot of questions about my own failures, and I’m perfectly happy to talk about those because they’re really important learning moments for me.

Jessica: More than that, they’ve been really incredible learning opportunities for my kids because I talk about the struggles I’m having at work with them. When we have a triumph in our family, when something finally goes really well, my kids don’t think, “Oh, that was super easy. You just send off a pitch to a national newspaper and you get to write a column for that newspaper for three years.” That’s not how my career as a journalist worked. They got to see all the rejections, and they got to see all the mistakes I made so that when the good stuff finally happened, they knew it was the product of a lot of hard work and resilience and all that stuff rather than… We can talk until we’re blue in the face about how our kids should do stuff, but if we’re not modeling that for them, we’re just the parents and the peanuts and Charlie Brown.

Jessica: We’re just a wah-wah-wah-wah-wah, until they actually can see that we’re putting our money where our mouth is and we’re actually walking the walk to mix metaphors, that we are actually following our own best advice and show them that. I don’t know why we seem to think that we to keep it a secret from our kids that we’re not perfect because absolutely-

Andy: Yeah, right. We need to maintain this facade…

Jessica: … they totally know.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Jessica: They absolutely know. Yeah.

Andy: In your chapter on household duties, there’s something I love. It’s on page 84. You say, “Oh, and one last thing, if you go behind your child’s back and redo the chore, he’s just finished to his satisfaction. Even if it’s after he left the room, he’ll notice. You will be telling him through your actions, not only that he’s incompetent, but that you will finish the job if he’s careless. This is one lesson that you don’t want him to learn both for his sake and for yours.” I thought that was just like such an important point and it…

Jessica: This is such great advice. I should really take it, but I reloaded the dishwasher after. Yesterday my son, six years after this book was published, yesterday, five and a half, whatever, my son loaded all the glasses, all the short things on the bottom half of the dishwasher and a bunch of tall things on the top half, and it all higgledy-piggledy, no rhyme or reason to it. He was standing right there and I said, “You know, this is the opposite of how it’s supposed to be done,” and he’s like, “Eh, it doesn’t matter.” Then he watched me redo it, so I absolutely 100% have to remind myself all the time.

Jessica: Do I want my kid to be the kind of kid that can do it that… What I really need to keep my eye on is I want my kid to be the kind of kid that can do it right next time, not necessarily that he did it perfectly this time, and I completely undermined that just the other day. This is like a constant work in progress for us. It’s not like you learn as a parent how to do something and then you just nail it from there on out. It’s such a process.

Andy: Right. Then, okay, what would be the proper response in that situation? You would just let the higgledy-piggledy dishes get shoved into the dishwasher and make some a mess or who knows what would happen?

Jessica: No, I mean, honestly the way I should have dealt with it is the way I often deal with things is instead of now just telling that kid, the younger kid in particular, although we have lapses all the time with everyone, is often what I’ll do is ask the kid to come back and say, “Could you just look at the dishwasher and is there anything that you notice that’s a missed?” Or I could say, “Let me explain to you why this makes no sense and could you please redo it?” Just not from a place of trying to shame him or make him feel stupid, but that if he does it wrong, then I’m just left with having to do the work anyway, and that’s not what we do to each other as a family.

Jessica: I would never do something for him, but do it in a really half-assed way, so that he has to come back and redo it. I just would never do that.

Andy: Right.

Jessica: A lot of time, that’s one of the other things we do a lot is we talk about that whole building empathy for other people and say, “How would you feel if so-and-so did this to you and just turn the tables?” I think be because our kids tend to think that it’s our job as parents to do these things for kids and believe me, they make me very, very happy to do them. I love showing my love by cooking a good meal and making their lives a little easier when they need help, but in the meantime, what I’m also trying to do is make it really clear that they’re part of this family. When we support each other, that’s how we function as families. It’s not like they’re not going to be paid for doing household duties around the house because I don’t get paid for doing household duties around the house.

Jessica: It’s what we do because we support and love each other and respect each other. Having all of those discussions come from there, so what I should have done was ask him to come back into the room, which of course always drives him bonkers and say, “You know actually, thanks for giving it a shot the first time, but as you may recall, tall things have to go on the bottom and the shorter things have to go on the top, so could you fix that so that we can actually fit more dishes in the dishwasher?” Both of my kids tend to be pretty good about that, but at the same time, they’re kids and they’re going to have lapses, where like all of a sudden they forget that the dishwasher exists in the first place, and everything just goes in the sink and then we have another conversation.

Jessica: I used to write this column from the New York Times called the Parent-Teacher Conference, and the very last piece I ever wrote for that column was one about parenting being a long haul progress so long haul process, a long haul job, not this short term function in the emergency thing. When we work from the daily emergencies, we tend to get it pretty wrong, but what I’m always trying to do is think ahead to where I want my kid to be in six months, in a year. In that article, I said to my editor at that time, I said, “My kid has only forgotten how to do laundry. Like I know he knows how to do it. It’s like it’s erased from his memory or something. He had a memory wipe.”

Jessica: At the same time, she said, “Yeah, but think about how far he’s come since this time last year. Think about where he was a year ago,” and I think we tend to lose long-term perspective on just how competent our kids become when we let them become that. It’s a process of constantly having to remind ourselves that it’s a becoming, not a okay, this lesson has been learned, we’re now done, we can check that off the list, and we never have to talk about it ever again. The dishwasher will be a constantly recurring discussion, I’m sure. We will not get a right probably ever, but that’s okay, it’s a process.

Andy: You get closer and closer to perfection…

Jessica: Don’t they have to load their own… Well, at some point, they’re going to have to load their own dishwashers and at that point, I just hope like a little voice in their head says, “Oh yeah, she said something about how you put the big, huge pots on the bottom, no water will ever make it to the top of the dishwasher.” Then he’ll say, “Oh, I should have listened to that six years ago.”

Andy: Ah. She did know a thing or two that lady.

About Jessica Lahey

Jessica Lahey is an educator, author, and podcaster. Her book Gift of Failure has practically become canon in the movement away from helicopter parenting toward a mentorship model. Her second book, The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence is due out in April 2021. In the meantime Jessica keeps busy with speaking, being a mother, and writing for publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. She is also the co-host of the Am Writing podcast, where she discusses and interviews other writers on all the stages of producing the written word and tops and tricks for getting it all done. You can hear Jessica on the Am Writing Podcast wherever you get your podcasts.

Want More Jessica Lahey?

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