My daughter taught herself how to play the Stone Temple Pilots tune “Truce” on the piano, finding the sheet music online, listening with a musician’s ear to the song on her iPod, and practicing in the quiet of her own time to produce a haunting tune so heavy with emotion that hearing it float from our family room makes me want to cry.
She’s taken piano lessons for years because she likes playing the piano, and the songs she comes back to, “Misty” and “Georgia” and a handful of pieces whose composers I’m not sure of (but with melodies now familiar) are the ones she enjoys hearing. For the most part they’re songs from the piano books her teacher gave her, but “Truce,” that’s hers.
I thought about my daughter’s piano playing when I read Jessica Lahey’s book The Gift of Failure, the subject of our first ACMA Book Club on December 5th. Leading up to that gathering, It’s my hope to share some articles and interviews about Lahey’s ideas and offer a short post for each of the three sections that make up her book. Here’s the first…
As a dad and an educator I picked up The Gift of Failure looking for ideas that might help me help the kids in my life. From the title and a handful of reviews I’d read, I supposed this would mean finding ways to get them to see that failure was a natural part of learning and that hard work and a growth mindset could go a long way in supporting eventual success.
Part one begins with a nod to two iconic parents: Ma and Pa from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, two stalwarts in the tradition of serious and steady parenting. So glowing with nostalgia as to be almost parables, Wilder’s stories of Ma and Pa show parents in traditional and familiar roles raising kids to be resilient, (mostly) obedient, and ready for the 19th century world they would be living in. She juxtaposes this with the pressure on today’s parents, for whom the role of “ma” or “pa” feels very different.
Those differences felt very real to me, and while Lahey certainly didn’t have me longing for any “good old days” (of starvation and hardship), her perspective on the changes to what is expected of parents (and what we expect of ourselves) was rich with wisdom.
Next, Lahey offers a parenting history lesson from Locke to Spock, making meaningful connections to her own parenting and the contemporary examples she chooses to include. The immediacy of her own journey helped me connect with what she was saying, even as she spent considerable time on self esteem and narcissism and I found myself uncertain of her strongest criticism of the “self-esteem movement.” That said, the concept of making decisions as a parent, and an educator, with a focus on “long term learning” resonated with me as did the idea of “parenting for tomorrow.”
To do so Lahey lays out a compelling argument against the control we sometimes grasp for in both parenting and education. “Just about anything humans perceive as controlling,” she writes, “is detrimental to long term motivation, and therefore to learning.”
That line is one I’m excited to talk more about with parents, teachers, and especially students when we get together in December.
Lahey goes on to discuss the benefits of “desirable difficulties” and the addictive nature of success (when that success is the student’s own). “Truce,” I thought. Or my son’s adventures in Minecraft. Or the hundred works of art I’ve seen in studios and classrooms at ACMA.
Part one of The Gift of Failure continues with a practical example of controlling versus autonomy supporting parenting that reads like the example from a textbook on ethics.
The scenario: kid forgets to take completed homework to school and parent spots it on the kitchen table with enough time to drive it in before class.
Lahey fleshes out the example in ways both philosophical and personal. Her honesty and empathy, coupled with her dedication to “parenting for tomorrow,” shine through in this section of the text. She challenges readers to put themselves in the situation, something she makes as easy to picture as it is difficult to process.
One joy of reading Lahey’s book as a part of a greater school community will be listening to the diverse perspectives of our teachers, parents, and students. This homework on the table question is one we’ll be sure to discuss.
A shout out to Carol Dweck and her book Mindset ends the first section of The Gift of Failure. Cautioning us not to sacrifice credibility on “the flimsy altar of acclaim,” Lahey provides a succession of short lessons applicable to any of us who work with kids.
Being an educator, like being a parent, brings equal parts anxiety and angst. At best, however, it those emotions pale in comparison to the hope and anticipation our kids inspire.
The Gift of Failure, while acknowledging our challenges, suggests that there is much we can do, and allow our students to do, to support that hope.
One of those steps, I’d suggest, is connecting with each other, parents, educators, and students too, to support one another. We’ll connect at 6:30 pm on December 5th in the Arts & Communication Magnet Academy library. See you there!