From Karla

Today’s letter is from Karla, who has given me permission to use her name and her photos. I will shorten her note a bit, as she is clearly very proud of her very capable triplets and had a lot to say about all the things they can do around the house!   

I am a Mother of triplets (two girls and one boy), turning 8 in April / elementary 1st grade at school. Me? Was WAS desperate, hopeless, exhausted (STILL EXHAUSTED), I AM FULL OF HOPE, PROUD AND JOY. As for today.

Her kids cook, and cook a lot.

One is a master at doing quesadillas, tacos con frijoles y queso, huevo revuelto, huevo estrellado, licuado de plátano…today he scrub his dirty socks because he was shoeless (descalzo?). I really asked my husband if he helped, because they were really well scrubbed when I load the washer. He said he didn’t. 

Besides cooking and washing, Karla’s kids have NAILED the morning routine:     

Some days the rush hour in the morning goes like this: Mariana is doing the tortillas, Eugenio spread the beans and add picadillo and roll the tacos, Sofia put them in wax paper, then in a brown bag, then in each school bag. It is a production line that makes me SO PROUD. 

But all is not perfect in Karla's home. 

We are failing (almost terribly) at homework. Terribly. School teachers, coordinators, and even the school principal set meetings with me, regarding the kids are not doing their homework. I am a bit in conflict because MOST of the homework is “for the parents” and the other ones are for “the parents to sit with the kids.” But the pride I feel, and the pride they feel for themselves, is a lot more worth it for me that when they finish the homework.
I really like a lot the school, and the staff. I only hate homework for the mom (when mom is super hyper busy with daily life).
THANK YOU!! 
Karla

Dear Karla, 

First of all, you should be so proud of your triplets. They are clearly brave, adventurous, and resourceful children. They seem to be excelling in the areas they feel most comfortable with, such as cooking and cleaning, and it seems much of that is due to the fact that you help them feel competent doing things around the house. 

Now, it's one thing to feel competent at home, under the gaze of an autonomy-supportive parent, and quite another to feel competent at school, or at sports practice, or at band practice. In order to help them feel brave, adventurous and resourceful where homework is concerned,  I'd sit down with them for a talk in which you: 

  1. Make your expectations for homework clear;
  2. Explain what the consequences will be when expectations are not met, and; 
  3. Allow your kids to describe what their homework routine would look like in a perfect world.

In our house, our expectations are that homework gets done to the best of the child's ability, and that it ends up in the hands of the appropriate teacher. If those expectations are not met, our children are responsible for meeting with the teacher to talk about strategies that might work to solve the problem. One of our kids likes to do homework immediately after school, but the other likes to do his own thing first and do homework later, after dinner. The important thing is that they can envision how, where, and when they will do their homework, and that you allow them to do it that way (within reason, of course!).

Now, for the part about their homework being for the parent rather than the child. That's a big problem, and I'm sorry to say you are in good company. Many teachers assign homework and projects that can't be completed by the child alone, and this is so unfair to parents and their children. It burdens parents and keeps kids from being able to feel competent around homework. Research on the utility of homework is pretty clear: homework for very young children is of limited - if any - academic benefit. Teachers who insist on assigning homework to young children often cite executive function benefits (time management, organization, that kind of thing) as their rationale. If teachers of young children expect homework to teach kids time management and organization, then homework should be the child's job, and the child's job alone.

If you want to tackle this topic with your children's teachers, ask them about their goals for your children's homework and further, about your role in that homework process. If the teachers claim you do not need to be a part of the homework, take a good look at how much you are contributing because you feel you should, as opposed to the degree to which your children really need you to help. 

When you talk expectations with your kids, explain that homework is their job, but that you will always be around to help if they get stuck. When they sit down (or lie down, or kneel...little kids often need to move in order to focus!) to do homework, find your own task to do nearby so they can see that you are occupied with your work, too. Then, if they get stuck, encourage them to take a breath, look at the directions again, or explain to you what they think their teacher wants them to do. 

Sometimes all a kid needs is to voice their frustration in order to get back on track. Reassure them that you are confident in their ability to focus, think, and find the answer, and then go back to your own task while they learn to rely on themselves. 

It sounds like your kids are doing great, and I have a feeling that once you are clear on teachers' expectations around your involvement in homework, and your kids are clear on your expectations for homework completion, you will all have a chance to show just how brave, adventurous, and resourceful you can all be around homework.

Thank you for your letter, and keep me posted!

Jess 

A Question A Day

If you have been listening along over at #AmWriting with Jess & KJ, the podcast I host with my friend, former boss, and New York Times writer K.J. Dell'Antonia, you heard that I get a fair number of questions from readers and the lovely people who attend my speaking events. I try to answer a question a day, in the order I receive them, via email. I was pretty proud of all that work, and said as much to K.J. during a recent podcast. To my dismay, K.J. failed to pat me on the head for being a good little writer and went on to scold me for not making some of that content available here, for the benefit of other parents and teachers.

She's right, of course. I hate that about her. 

From here on out, I will answer those questions here, while editing for clarity and brevity, and taking great care to preserve the letter writer's anonymity. 

So keep 'em coming, and I promise to keep on answering! Now, on to today's question. 

Dear Ms. Lahey, 

My tween has pretty severe Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and left to his own devices will miss most of his homework, forget to turn in what he does do. I have been helping him a lot, but after recent meetings with his school counselor and teachers, we decided to back off and see how he would do with some more support in school. Unfortunately, he is now missing numerous assignments and we are concerned about how well he’ll do on his upcoming tests. I am at a loss with what to do. Do you have any suggestions? 

C. 

Dear C, 

One of the most common questions I get after my speaking gigs is, "Yes, yes, all this autonomy-supportive parenting stuff is fine for most kids, but my kid has ADD [or ADHD, or NVLD...] and needs more support than the average student. How can I best help my child while supporting his autonomy and helping him feel confident?"

Every child is different, and yes, kids with learning or developmental delays, or gaps in their executive function skills do need extra support. However, we all tend to underestimate our kids' abilities, and I think we should all err on the side of overestimating our kids rather than underestimating them. 

If I were you, I'd ask your son's teachers to hold him fully accountable for the homework that's not being turned in. Those consequences should not be unrelated penalties, such as taking away electronics, or grounding, or that sort of thing. Rather, the consequences should be the sort of repercussions that would naturally flow from not handing in his work. In our house, that means that the kid has to arrange and conduct a student-led conference with the parent and teacher, in which everyone, but mainly the child, comes up with a strategy for getting homework done in a way that works for him and for his teachers. 

Now, regarding his ADD: when I asked psychotherapist and author Katie Hurley to comment on learned helplessness for the New York Times article "When Children Say 'I Can't, But They Can, and Adults Know It," she specifically addressed the fact that parents of kids with learning disabilities can go overboard in their attempts to shield kids from frustration and failure. From the article:

Ms. Hurley says that she sees learned incompetence in her clients who have recently been told they have learning disabilities, and this can be a real challenge for their teachers. “Their parents go to great lengths to ‘help’ their kids and let them off the hook for age-appropriate chores, tasks and responsibilities because they want to protect them,” she said. “The urge to shield and rescue can be strong, but it’s important to empower children with learning disabilities so they can internalize the fact that they can overcome challenges.”

Until our children can do for themselves, until they have fully developed frontal lobes and fully functioning executive function skills, our job as parents and teachers is to support that development while giving them opportunities to learn from their mistakes. To that end, support, encourage, offer up strategies, and focus on the process of learning to do better. 

Because one day, when you least expect it, they will. 

Jess

 

Ready, Set, Go.

No, I didn’t get much sleep.

I got into bed at a reasonable hour, and tried, I really did. But as the news turned dire, I sat downstairs, in the dark, eating granola and obsessively refreshing my Twitter feed.

Yes, I cried.

Around 3:00 A.M., when I understood that what was happening was really happening, and that refreshing my feed wasn’t going to change anything, I cried, and finally fell asleep.

No, I don’t know what you should say to your children.

I had enough to process with my own children. They needed me—and my explanation—in different ways, at different times, for they are two very different people.

Finn, 13, decided he’d go to bed early and find out about the result in the morning. He admitted he needed to feel “extra cozy,” so we put the heated mattress pad on his bed, swapped the plain cotton sheets out for flannel, and I kissed him goodnight.

When he emerged from his room in the morning, I told him, and he got very quiet. I let him have his space as he went through his morning routine. When he left the house for the bus, I reminded him not to let anyone push his buttons.

He knew what I meant; another child on the school bus has been angling for a fight over political differences for a while now. As in many small towns, the differences that divide our nation have been playing out on a smaller scale, trickling down from parents to their children. As a result, we have had a lot of talks about how Finn can stand up for himself, his family, and his beliefs without fanning the flames of discord or violence. 

Ben, 17, stayed up to watch the election with his friends, texting us all the while about his anxiety over the Congressional and Senate races. He arrived at his first class to find that he and his friends had all dressed in blue, without having discussed it ahead of time, and continued to text us throughout his day as he processed each new layer of the situation.

It took me the whole day, but by bedtime, I'd found my words. As I said goodnight, I reminded them of five things:

  1. Injustice exists on a scale you can’t fully comprehend because you were born male, white, and straight, into a family with financial security.
  2. We don’t have to love everyone around us, we don’t even have to respect everyone around us, but we do have to make the attempt to climb into their skin and walk around in it, if just for moment. 
  3. Informed, reasoned debate will always prevail over shouting in the long run. 
  4. That run can feel very long sometimes. 
  5. Hate makes us sick, and weak, and we don’t have time for that; there’s a lot of work to be done.

One Writer, Many Desks

A few weeks ago, on the #AmWriting with Jess & KJ podcast, I moaned and groaned about how difficult it is for me to write when I'm traveling for speaking gigs. Between my topsy-turvy sleep schedule, the weird juju of hotel rooms, and the inevitable travel brain drain, my writing really stalled out last year. I managed to write my New York Times "Parent-Teacher Conference" column  thanks to my editor's inflexible deadlines, and I read a lot of background research on planes, but that was about it. 

This year, I will do better. 

The Gift of Failure paperback edition was released on August 23, so I am back out on the road after a blissful, restorative summer at home. 

This week, I'm in San Antonio at the invitation of The DoSeum to give talk about improving the quality of education in San Antonio. I got in at sunset, so I took a walk along the river and rode over to dinner at Mi Tierra Cafe y Panaderia with my Uber driver, Sigfredo. He warned me about the touristy kitsch of Mi Tierra, so I was prepared for the spectacle (and the roving musicians). I'm not really sure what's going on over there decor-wise, but I can attest that their mole rocks the house. 

I arrived back at my hotel fueled up and ready to write. 

I've been working on a couple of different projects this summer, including articles I'd put on my mental back burner, chapter summaries for my next book, and a YA novel I started before this whole Gift of Failure adventure began. I lost traction on all of that last year, and won't let that happen again. 

To that end, I introduce "One Writer, Many Desks," an attempt to hold myself accountable and keep the words flowing while continuing to tour for Gift of Failure. My 2016-17 speaking schedule is booked solid, and I'll be visiting nearly fifty schools, nonprofits, and corporations in twenty different states.

I will chronicle my efforts to maintain a regular writing routine in the midst of a chaotic and busy travel schedule, and promise to share any tips and tricks I learn along the way both here and in the "Best Practices" segment of  #AmWriting with Jess & KJ

Date: September 22, 2016
Location: San Antonio, Texas
Words: 1877
Best Practice: "Just open the file every day. Just that." (K.J. Dell'Antonia)

Upcoming Desks
 

September 23DoSeum, San Antonio, TX

October 4-5LifeManagement Center, Inc, Charleston, SC*

October 6-7Charlotte Country Day School, Charlotte, NC*

October 14Virginia Association of Independent Schools, Richmond, VA*

October 15James River Writers Conference, Richmond, VA

October 17Rowland Hall/St. Mark's School, Salt Lake City, UT*

October 20Shady Hill School, Cambridge, MA

October 21: Private event

October 24Berwick Academy, South Berwick, ME*

October 27: Lake Forest Country Day, Lake Forest, IL*

November 1Nashoba Brooks School, Concord, MA

November 2Winchester Public Schools, Winchester, MA*

November 3Heard in Rye, Rye, NY.*

November 7Grosse Pointe Academy, Grosse Pointe, MI*

November 9Second Growth: The Children's Fund of the Upper Valley, Hanover, NH* 

November 17The Peck School, Morristown, NJ

November 29Oak Hill School, Nashville, TN*

 

2017

 

January 9Forsyth Country Day School, Lewisville, NC

January 11Corona Del Mar High School, Newport Beach, CA*

January 31Emerson Public Schools, Emerson, NJ

February 1Ridgewood Public Schools, Ridgewood, NJ*

February 2Montclair Kimberly Academy, Montclair, NJ*

February 22Laurence School, Valley Glen, CA*

February 22Westside Neighborhood School, Los Angeles, CA*

February 23-24Chaminade College Preparatory, West Hills, CA*

February 28East Moriches Union Free School District, East Moriches, NY*

March 1Avenues: The World School, New York, NY*

March 7Longmeadow Public Schools, Longmeadow, MA*

March 11American Montessori Society Annual Conference, San Diego, CA*

March 12-13LearnFest, Louisville, KY*

March 14Zionsville Performing Arts Center, Zionsville, IN*

April 3Downingtown Area School District, PA*

April 4: Cole T. Ballay "Carpe Diem" Foundation, Germantown, PA*

April 5Lancaster Country Day School, Lancaster, PA*

April 6Greens Farms Academy, Greens Farms, CT

April 25: Issaquah School District, Issaquah, WA*

May 10-12Mom 2.0, Orlando, FL

* indicates a community read/on-site sale and signing of The Gift of Failure

Getting All Stinky & Dirty

I thought the highlight of August was going to be the paperback release of The Gift of Failure on August 23, or maybe my trip to Arkansas to visit my sister and her family in their new home. The whipped cream on the top of the Arkansas trip is that my sister is an incredibly talented stylist and master colorist at Wella, and the chick does good hair. I just sit down and let her do whatever the heck she wants with me because, as I may have mentioned, she's an incredibly talented stylist and master colorist at Wella. 

But then, THEN, this announcement landed in my inbox:

I have been working on this show for a little over a year, and I love it. I was skeptical when Alice Wilder, Producer of Blue's Clues, approached me because, you know, what kid needs more screen time? However, Alice is super-smart and terribly charming, and then she double-teamed me with Tara Sorensen, the equally smart and grotesquely charming Head of Kids Programming at Amazon Studios. The Stinky & Dirty Show is about solving problems, collaborating with others, asking "What If?" and persevering through failures, they said. Aw, hell. They used the f-word. 

Funny story: the show is based on the I Stink! books by Jim and Kate McMullan, and the first book in that series was one of two books (Where the Wild Things Are was the other) that scared the bejeezus out of Finnegan. I think the idea that the dump truck had a mouth, and might just eat him, freaked him out. 

I'm happy to report that no one gets eaten in The Stinky & Dirty Show.

My favorite part of each episode comes at the end, when Stinky and Dirty offer a "view & do" (yep, I learned some official TV lingo!), an invitation for kids to take the skills and ideas they've learned during the episode (the use of levers or ramps, for example), and encourage them to go out into the world and create their own to real-world solutions.

I'm just happy I got to be a part of it. Thank you, Alice and Tara. 

Yeah, yeah. I know.

I can't believe how long it's taken me to get back to regular blogging. I used to love it; it was my creative outlet and my playtime, but for the past year or so, it's felt like just another deadline, if self-imposed. If you've read The Gift of Failure (and if you have not, you can buy it here), you know that even the most joyful, entertaining tasks can become drudgery when qualified by "should," "ought to," and "have to." Fortunately, I was reminded recently that my favorite writing, the stuff that makes me giggle, lives on my website.   

I have Victoria Elizabeth Barnes to thank for the reminder. I read her post about finding the mirror with the Kingdom on top and was struck by the joy, the sheer blissed-out enthusiasm in her writing. 

Fortunately, there's lots of bliss to be found on this glorious New Hampshire weekend.

Finn's outside taking down a dead tree that's irked him for a while,

and Abby has located plenty of sticks, water, and smelly things to roll in. 

Walter is sitting around the house, Lucie is pissed off about the household kibble shortage, Gunther is keeping an eye on the songbirds. 

Tim's on call this weekend at the hospital, eradicating germs and saving lives. 

Ben's...well, Ben's doing what he does best, hibernating in his teen cave. I'd show you, but photography is not allowed in the teen cave. 

I'm excited about the stuff that's going live on my site in the next few weeks. I have a Gift of Failure bonus chapter in final edits ("For the Kids," a version of the talk I give to students when I visit schools), a Frequently Asked Questions page that's almost ready for prime time, and some community read discussion questions for parents and teachers. Finally, K.J. Dell'Antonia (my friend, neighbor, and New York TImes Well Family colleague) and I are working on a super-secret project we are really excited about, and plan to announce soon. 

In the meantime, if you are reading The Gift of Failure for a school community read or for professional development, shoot me an email here and I can send out signed, personalized bookplates.

I hope you are having a blissful, warm, and wonderful weekend, and stay tuned. Lots more to come.  

Jess

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggedy-Jig

I'm home! I'm home! Book tour was wonderful and exciting and exhausting, and I fully plan to write about it after I retain my sanity and re-acquaint myself with my family. And for those of you who received an email about an old blog post rather than this post, well...sorry about that. I'm chalking it up to jet lag. Won't happen again.

In the meantime, here's my favorite Gift of Failure book tour tweet. Best speaking testimonial, EVER.

In stark contrast to Master Saibel's newfound introduction to the world of autonomy-supportive parenting and heretofore unknown levels of childhood competency, I must come clean and reveal what my own absence has wrought in the Lahey household:

The cats survived, but clearly, there's some remedial work to be done around here before I head out on the next leg of the tour. 

 

Something Wonderful This Way Comes

IMG_4618.JPG

It's finally July. I've been waiting for what feels like forever for it to be July, just so I can say, "My book comes out next month." It's a small thing, conversationally, but a giant thing in the context of the past couple of years.

It's been a very, very long road to July. I wrote "Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail" in January of 2013, sold The Gift of Failure in March, handed in the manuscript on October 31, concussed myself on November 1, took nearly four months off to recover, then revised the book over 2014. The manuscript was accepted in October, I received a box of galleys in the last hours of 2014, and recorded the audiobook in April. 

The last big milestone circled in red on my calendar is the book release on August 11 - or at least it was until today. Thanks to Lisa StoneElisa Camahort Page and She Knows Media, I get to look forward to one more milestone before August 11. 

I am thrilled to announce that The Gift of Failure will be available for sale and signing in an exclusive pre-release event on July 16-18 at BlogHer 2015: Experts Among Us in New York City. 

I owe so much to the women I've met and worked with as a result of BlogHer, and I can't think of a more appropriate place to launch The Gift of Failure.

If you would like to attend BlogHer and have not registered, there are still spots available here. It's going to be so much fun, and the lineup of speakers is fantastic this year: Gwenyth Paltrow, Christy Turlington Burns, and more inspiring, amazing speakers than I can list

In other news, my book tour schedule is still evolving, but what I know about as of today is listed here. I've been knocking down deadlines right and left for articles and interviews that will run around my publication date, and working on a couple of new projects I'm really excited about. 

Last month, I was asked to join the Amazon Studios Thought Leader Board and am consulting on a new series for kids called The Stinky and Dirty Show. It's based on picture books by Jim and Kate McMullan and follows the adventures of Stinky the dump truck and Dirty the digger as they try, and fail, and try again, to solve all sorts of problems through resilience, resourcefulness, and the creative use of trash. I'm thrilled to be a part of a production team that includes Dr. Alice Wilder, children's programming Grande Dame (and mastermind behind Blue's Clues), and Tara Sorensen, Head of Kids Programming at Amazon Studios.

These days, I tend to carry around a couple of scripts and a red pen, and I spend a lot of my time in the hammock or lawn chair reviewing the first season of the show with an eye to the research on resilience and resourcefulness. It's a pretty great way to spend the summer. 

The first episode of The Stinky and Dirty Show is available here if you'd like to watch. Amazon Studios invites anyone to submit scripts or videos, then creates fully produced pilots of selected shows. They then crowd-source those pilots to Amazon customers, who decide via reviews which shows get the green light for full seasons. The Stinky and Dirty Show got a couple of thousand five-star reviews, so we are off to the races, so to speak. I love the show, and hope others will, too. 

stinky.jpg

If you are going to be at BlogHer, please come find me, either at my session on July 17th (Next Generation: Breaking Stereotypes and Building Self-Esteem) or at the book sale and signing (time TBA, but a bookseller will have Gift of Failure books available on-site during the entire conference). I will have a gift and a custom bookplate for everyone who purchases a book during BlogHer.

If you can't be at BlogHer to snag a pre-release copy of The Gift of Failure, I'd appreciate it so much if you would pre-order it at any one of the retailers linked here, or at your local independent bookseller. Help yourself to the free excerpt of the book, and if you like it, talk it up! Tell people! As some of you may know, pre-publication sales figures are a big part of what drives marketing, demand, and first printing numbers, so pretty, pretty, please, pre-order your copy today!

Thank you for being a part of this loooong journey, and for supporting me and my writing along the way, 

Jess

Now is the Season of Our Malcontents

Yes, it's hard to say goodbye to our babies, even when we know they are going to have a great time under the care of enthusiastic counselors in a forest idyll. I've been through a few drop-offs in my time, so I offer up the following reassurance: while a quick goodbye may not be enough for you, it may be just what your kid wants and needs

A Summer Camp Lesson: Good-bye, and Go Away, Thank You Very Much
Originally published in The Atlantic, June 2013

Three years ago, when he was eleven, my son Ben set down a very specific parental code of conduct we'd be expected to follow at summer camp drop-off. We could say our goodbyes at home, but once we arrived at camp, any displays of affection, attempts to make his bed, arrange his things, or force premature familiarity with his cabin mates would be strictly prohibited. We could hang around during registration, watch while they check him for lice, help him lug his bags to his cabin, and shake hands with his counselor, but after that, our parental duties were complete. We were expected to say goodbye, and go away, thank you very much.

My husband was taken aback by Ben's request, but I was not. I totally understood his yearning for independence. I went to camp as a child, and as much as I adored my parents, I, too, looked forward to the autonomy I found during those glorious summer months away from home. I missed my parents, of course, but in their absence, I passed my swim test, dove off the high dive, ran my first 5k, spent three nights alone in a dark forest, and shared my first kiss.

The fact that Ben is eager to watch me walk away from him is a sign of strength -- both of our bond, and of his sense of self. According to psychologist Michael Thompson, childhood requires an endpoint, and it's a parent's job to raise children who can leave, children secure enough to turn away from the safety of a parents' embrace and look toward the adventures and challenges to be found beyond.

In his book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow, Thompson writes,

...in the final analysis, there are things we cannot do for our children, no matter how much we might want to. In order to successfully accomplish these tasks, to grow in the ways they need to grow, children have to do it on their own, and usually away from their parents, sometimes overnight, sometimes for days or weeks or even months.

He goes on to list the eight things parents cannot do for their children, no matter how desperate we are to do so:

1. We cannot make our children happy.

2. We cannot give our children high self-esteem.

3. We cannot make friendships for our children or micro-manage their friendships.

4. We cannot successfully double as our child's agent, manager, and coach.

5. We cannot create the "second family" for which our child yearns in order to facilitate his or her own growth.

6. It is increasingly apparent that we parents cannot compete with or limit our children's total immersion in the online, digital, and social media realms.

7. We cannot keep our children perfectly safe, but we can drive them crazy trying.

8. We cannot make our children independent.

Thompson's list of developmental milestones -- critical, essential milestones every child is going to have to navigate -- is terrain our children must traverse on their own, and parents who believe they can span those uncomfortable gaps with lovingly made bridges woven of organic hemp and allergen-free twine are kidding themselves. Despite all our parental worries, these gaps are not deep, dark, places of danger where there be dragons and creepy Stephen King clowns; they are places of wonder, filled with adventure, and excitement, and the promise of untold successes. If we allow our children to head out into these uncharted territories on their own, they will get there and back again, and when they return to us, ready to tell their tales of adventure, they will be much more competent and capable human beings.

So when I drove my son to camp today, we did not have to review his rules. He knew I would remember and honor them. We parked, he was checked for lice, I met his counselor, and while the other parents moved about the cabin, making their children's beds and suggesting where to store their flashlights and extra sunscreen, I quickly took my leave with a wave and a good-bye.

On the way back to the car, my younger son slipped his hand into mine, something he hardly ever does anymore.

"I think I'd like to come to camp next year," he said.

"Really?" I said, picturing him running around among these hulking adolescents.

"Yep," he nodded. "I think I'll be big enough next year."

And with that, he let go of my hand and ran ahead to gather up a pile of pine needles he'd spotted just off the path. As I watched him attempt to stuff two handfuls of the needles into his pockets, I realized that next year, he'd be almost as old as his brother was the first year he went to camp. So just maybe, if I do my job right, he will be big enough next year. Big enough to want me to say goodbye, and go away, thank you very much.

What Gives

Jenny Lawson, on the left, and Laura Mayes, on the right, at Mom.20. 

Jenny Lawson, on the left, and Laura Mayes, on the right, at Mom.20. 

Last month, I was in Scottsdale, Arizona, at Mom 2.0, a conference for parenting writers. I find conferences overwhelming, but I stuck around for every minute of Mom 2.0 because I learned something cool in every session.

The afternoon of the last day, I was tempted to retire to my room for some much-needed quiet time, but Jenny Lawson, “The Bloggess” was on the schedule. I’m a fan of Jenny and her work, so I gulped down a cup of coffee and headed in to the session.

The room was nearly empty, so when the start time came and went, I figured Jenny's session had been cancelled. But a few minutes later, she appeared onstage, clutching a giant white binder adorned with pictures of taxidermied animals. She was accompanied by Laura Mayes, her friend and co-founder of Mom 2.0.

Frankly, Jenny didn’t look so good. She was pale, and shaky, and scowling. She certainly didn’t look as if she wanted to be there. As Laura wandered up to the microphone, Jenny settled in to her chair on center stage and made stress faces.

Jenny, Laura announced, was there to read from her new book, Furiously Happy. Alas, Jenny looked anything but.

As soon as she began reading, I understood why. Furiously Happy is a memoir about the dark and scary monsters under the bed. Furiously Happy is funny, because Jenny is funny, but it’s also unflinching, and terrifying.

We watched, captivated, as Jenny yanked her monsters out from under her bed, one by one, and named them for us. She was frightened, but vulnerable, and honest. Above all, she was brave.

As I watched Jenny name her monsters, I realized it was time to name mine.

That day, I was part of a panel on publishing with Gabrielle Blair, Katie Workman, Bill Braine, and Doug French. Doug, who was moderating, asked the audience to raise their hands if they had a book they wanted to write (everyone’s hands went up) and to raise their hands again if they felt they just did not have time in their busy lives to write that book (many hands went up).

When it was my turn to speak, I argued that they do have time. If you really want to write that book, and you look closely enough at your life, you will find that there’s something that can give, something less important than the book. Something that maybe needs to give anyway.

I paused, unsure of whether or not to go there, but I took a deep breath, seized my monster by its spiky, slimy, venomous tail, and yanked.

“When I sold my book in 2013, I knew something had to give. For me, that thing was alcohol. I knew I had a problem, and I sure wasn't going to be able to drink and write my book. In that equation,  my book was more important.”

This Sunday, June 7, I will celebrate my second year of sobriety at my favorite AA meeting, the first meeting I ever attended. I will greet newcomers as they arrive at the door, because I was greeted at the door when I first arrived. And at the end of the hour, I will collect my two-year medallion in front of the same people who supported me the night I took my 24-hour medallion. 

The same people who, over the past two years, have helped me name my monsters.

So thank you to those people, and to Jenny Lawson. Because, as she wrote recently, “I thank people who help save me.”

Now go. Go figure out what gives, and write your book.

 

Reading on the Hill

Image courtesy of Reading is Fundamental (RIF).

Image courtesy of Reading is Fundamental (RIF).

I'm headed to D.C. this weekend in order to be a part of the RIF (Reading is Fundamental) Read for Success discussion and I don't know when I've been more excited and honored. RIF has been putting books in the hands of kids who might not otherwise get a chance to own them since 1966, and I can't wait to be a part of the next phase of their evolution.

Watch for next week's "Parent-Teacher Conference," a look back at one of my most cherished memories of childhood, RIF's Bookmobile. 


The High Untrespassed Sanctity of Space

This is one of my favorite writing assignments, and on the anniversary of the Challenger disaster, seemed a fitting post. 

Teacher Gretchen Schaefer (@snappity) DM'd to let me know that the readings I recommend for the lesson are available here via Google Books. Thanks, Gretchen! 

Photo credit: NASA.

Photo credit: NASA.

I taught one of my favorite lessons today, the 27th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. No, I don't have this lesson on my calendar scheduled for every January 28th; the lovely people at The New York Times Learning Network reminded me.

I only realized the significance of the date at lunchtime, and I had other lessons planned for my afternoon English classes (Robert Frost for seventh grade, A Tale of Two Cities for eighth), but I was happy to change my plans. Teachers learn early on that flexibility is all. 

I begin by telling my students that on this day, 27 years ago, children across America were watching the launch of the Space Shuttle, eager to see the first teacher go up in to space. New Hampshire children thwart the cloak and dagger nature of this lesson, as they are immediately on to me. Christa McAuliffe was a New Hampshire teacher. My students know her name. She, and the planetarium bearing her name, are memorialized in Concord, N.H., and most of my students have been there. When I've taught this lesson in Utah, it's quite a different story. I had the element of surprise in Utah.

Let's assume your students don't know. Queue up the launch video (below) for your students, but make sure it's ready to roll, not on the freeze frame moment of explosion, or on the "Challenger Disaster" title frame. Be very careful to preserve the surprise, much as the student watching this clip in 1986 would have been surprised. Start the clip, then hit pause, so all they see is the space shuttle on the launch pad, ready to launch. Set the scene; schoolchildren all over America were watching, waiting, to see a teacher go into space. They were imagining their teacher up there, strapped in to the space shuttle, scared, but determined, and ready to make that giant leap into space. In fact, Christa McCauliffe's students were there, watching the shuttle that carried their teacher away from earth, and up into the sky. 

Hit play, and say nothing else until the clip runs its course. 

Turn off the projector, and explain that you are going to read from the memoir of Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for the then-President, Ronald Reagan. Her account in What I Saw a the Revolution, Chapter 13, "Challenger," is not all relevant to the students, so I start at p. 253, from "It was a pretty morning" to p. 254, "I got it Dick, Thanks." This passage describes what she was doing the morning the Challenger exploded, at that moment, while her boss' kid was in the office, and sets the tone for the lesson. 

Ms. Noonan has very little time to write Reagan's remarks to the country - I tell my students one hour, but in reality Reagan does not speak until after the search for survivors is called off, a couple of hours later - and segues into the next part of the lesson. I won't re-type the entire section out of respect for Ms. Noonan's book - a great read, no matter your politics. Pick up a copy. You will enjoy it and use it year in and year out for this lesson. 

After "I got it, Dick. Thanks," make sure everyone has a sheet of paper and a pencil and give your students ten minutes to write down five goals for Reagan's speech. Tell them to imagine that they are Reagan's speechwriter, that they have been given less than an hour to write Reagan's address to the nation. A nation in shock. A nation that can't comprehend what has just happened. 

Okay.....go. You have ten minutes. 

Political speechwriting is about three vital elements - voice, audience, and rhetoric. In this lesson, I focus on audience. I was a political speechwriter about a decade ago, and it was a gift. The best writing education I could have received. I wrote for a politician whose views could not have been more disparate from my own, but as any writer will tell you, having to write - and write persuasively - from another viewpoint is an invaluable education.

But back to the lesson. 

Once the students have laid out their five goals, go around the room and ask for one goal from each student. They may run out by the time you get around the room, but that's fine. Keep it moving. Get all of their ideas up on the board.

Teacher tip: I start on the side of the room with the less participatory kids so they can't use the excuse of "all my ideas are on the board already" by the time I get around to them. 

I try to dig into ideas that will come up later in Reagan's speech - service, exploration, knowledge of risk, the future of the space program, the kids watching, the families. I make it clear that Reagan did not go on air until the search had been called off and NASA was sure there were no survivors so we can avoid a discussion of who lived and who died. Once the kids have exhausted their ideas, I queue up the video of Reagan's speech.

Make sure you get past the requisite ad before opening the projector up for viewing. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.
Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But, we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.
For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, "give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy." They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.
We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the member of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.
And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.
I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space.
Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: "Your dedication and professionalism have moved an impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it."
There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, "He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it." Well, today we can say of the challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

As Reagan speaks, jot down the big points on the board:

Mourning
Remembering
National loss
19 years ago (reference to the fire in the Apollo 1 capsule in which three crew members were killed in a launch pad test)
"Challenger Seven"
Aware of the dangers
Names of the fallen
Families
Daring
Brave
Grace
"Hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths."
Service to us all
Schoolchildren of America (note the diction of children's language used)
Exploration
Discovery
Brave
Don't hide
Don't keep secrets
Freedom
"We'll continue our quest in space."
NASA
Sir Francis Drake
"Their dedication, was, like Drake's, complete."
Never forget
"Slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

We talk about the theme of exploration, pioneers, and bravery, and how it lends itself to the allusion to Drake. We talk about the language of transparency, about only through honesty comes freedom. 

We talk about how Reagan modulates his language in the section for the children of America. "And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen - it's all part of the process of exploration and discovery - it's all a part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons." 

Lovely. See that adjustment in the speech? See the switch from "They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. they wished to serve and they did  - they served us all" to "I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen"? Note the switch in tone and diction [word choice]? It's subtle, but clear. Nicely done, Ms. Noonan. 

I talk with the class about how many of their points overlapped with what Reagan/Noonan actually said. As a side note: I tend to slip in to "what she [Noonan] said" rather than "what he [Reagan] said," which inevitably leads to a discussion about Presidents and why they don't write their own speeches anymore. I talk about the reality of the office and why we don't have many Lincolns anymore. Eventually, I have to tamp down this discussion and segue back to the topic at hand. 

I go back to Ms. Noonan's book and read from the first sentence of p. 258: "The next morning there was a deluge." I read through Ms. Noonan's discussion with Reagan about the speech and the poem, and end with the top of page 259, "And you comforted everybody."

I like to close with a quote from Christa McAuliffe as it relates to the ending of Reagan's speech. Reagan [Noonan] quotes a poem at the end of his speech. The poem, "High Flight," by John Magee, was written in 1941 and was well known to pilots--pilots such as Ronald Reagan. 

 Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; 
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
- Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Peggy Noonan used lines one and fourteen, "slipped the surly bonds of Earth"..."and touched the face of God." to close Reagan's speech because she knew he would have seen or heard that poem. And she was right. Reagan knew that poem well. Christa McAuliffe may have been thinking of the same poem - or at least the same theme when she said,

"I touch the future. I teach."

I leave it there. I don't care if the class period is over or not. There's not much else to add. 

Sex, Drugs, and Dripping Woe

Lucie Manette expresses her disdain for winter's callous indifference to nap location #7 (of 24). 

Lucie Manette expresses her disdain for winter's callous indifference to nap location #7 (of 24). 

Oh, March. 

Every year I remind myself that the lions will, at some point, give way to the lambs, but it's hard to keep an eye out for those lambs when I'm racing around the house with bowls, tubs, buckets, and towels to catch the drips and drizzles seeping out of my doorframes, light fixtures and ceilings. We've signed on the dotted line for a beautiful, drip-free new roof, but alas, our roofer ran late last season with installations, so consequently, we came up a season late and a 50% deposit short.

While I've been holed up like a hermit in her drippy cave, I've had a productive month with sex and drugs. Well, research about sex and drugs, anyway. All I need is a Rolling Stone assignment, and I will have scored a trifecta.

Recently, a mother asked me about what might make her son, who was dabbling in drugs and alcohol, listen to her. What could she say that might make him stop and think, maybe even make better choices? I just happen to teach at a drug and alcohol rehab, so I asked my students to respond to her question. I then asked author and addiction expert David Sheff to take a look at what the kids had to say. Turns out, kids are smart. This isn't exactly news to me, but it was a nice reminder that sometimes, all we have to do is ask kids what they need, then listen to their answers. Here's the link to that article, "Teenagers, Dealing with Addiction, on What Have Helped," which appeared in my column, "The Parent-Teacher Conference," at the New York Times Motherlode blog. 

Which leads me to sex. I've wanted to write a piece about sex education for a while, but when NYU professor Jonathan Zimmerman's new book, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education arrived in my mailbox, I knew it was time. Zimmerman's book is fantastic, and it served as the perfect launching pad for a piece about the state of sex education in the United States. Specifically, it's about the history of sex education, what we teach kids and why, where we are now from a social and political standpoint, and where we might be headed. It features interviews with Zimmerman, sex education instructor Karen Rayne, and Savage Love writer and podcaster Dan SavageHere's that article, "What Schools Should Teach Kids About Sex." 

In book news, I just signed the contract for the audiobook of The Gift of Failure, and I am thrilled to announce that I will be recording it myself! Thanks to my Vermont Public Radio editor and producer, Betty Smith, I am feeling more than up to the task. I've known from the beginning of this wild ride that I wanted to record my book -  I wrote it in my teacher and mom voice, after all - so I'm beyond excited I get to head to the studio at the beginning of April. 

Finally, congratulations to the Massachusetts teacher I don't have permission to name who won the February Gift of Failure drawing! I'm always nervous when I put a galley in the mail, but now that the blurbs are in, I can relax a little bit. At the time the manuscript went out to potential blubbers, exactly two people had read the book, my agent and my editor. Well, three, if you include my editor's assistant. And no, not my husband, not my mom, not my friends. Three people do not a representative sample make, so when the book went out to some of the people I respect most in the world for their opinions, opinions that would end up in print, on my book's cover, I was, well, a little freaked. 

Fortunately, they liked it. I am forever grateful to Susan Cain, Gretchen Rubin, Ellen Galinsky, Amanda RipleyDan Willingham, and Jennifer Senior for agreeing to read my manuscript and for bestowing their kind words on its cover. I've included the blurbs at the end of this post, because it makes me all happy inside every time I see them. 

And thanks to all of you for signing up and being a part of this ride. As always, information on my book tour will be available here, and if you are interested in learning more about using The Gift of Failure as your school or community read (or to find out what the heck a community read is), head on over here

Have a great week, and stay tuned for the results of this month's signed galley drawing on March 31 (the day after a public event at 7PM at Resurrection Episcopal Day School in New York City - come on by and say hello!).  

Blurbs:

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of this book. The Gift of Failure is beautifully written; it’s deeply researched; but most of all it’s the one book we all need to read if we want to instill the next generation with confidence and joy.” (Susan Cain, author of Quiet)

“How can we help our children grow to be resourceful, happy adults? Lahey shows in practical terms how to know what your child is ready for and how to offer support even as you encourage autonomy. A wise, engaging book, steeped in scientific research and tempered with common sense.” (Daniel T. Willingham, PhD, author of Why Don't Students Like School?)

“This fascinating, thought-provoking book shows that to help children succeed, we must allow them to fail. Essential reading for parents, teachers, coaches, psychologists, and anyone else who wants to guide children towards lives of independence, creativity, and courage.” (Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project)

“Instead of lecturing us about what we’re doing wrong, Jessica Lahey reveals what she did wrong with her own children and students -- and how she systematically reformed her ways. A refreshing, practical book for parents who want to raise resilient kids but aren’t sure how to start.” (Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World)

“Lahey offers one of the most important parenting messages of our times: Unless we allow our children to learn how to take on challenges, they won’t thrive in school and in life. Her extremely helpful book tells her story, compiles research, and provides hundreds of doable suggestions.” (Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making)

Random Acts of Linus

Linus.jpeg

At the end of the day yesterday, I was SO excited to pick the first Gift of Failure galley winner. Unfortunately, nature intervened and messed with my plans. In my universe, Linus is a cute kid with a blanket and a combover, but apparently, this storm is ramping up into something serious, and it threatened to mess with a speaking gig I booked over a year ago.

I am giving a keynote speech this week at the American Camp Association national conference, and was scheduled to fly out on Monday, mid-Linus. After an hour and a half on hold with Southwest Airlines, I snagged a flight out today. About ten minutes ago, I held my own little lottery drawing party in my hotel room in New Orleans.  

It was all very exciting. I was determined to make this drawing as legit as possible, so I exported my subscriber list from MailChimp into Excel, then used Random.org to come up with a random record number. That number was 268, and the winner is...

Tim Lahey. My husband. Seriously. 

On to random number selection two, which is....number 569. Congratulations, number 569! I've contacted that person by email, and will ship out January's galley from New Orleans as soon as I hear back! 

Be warm and safe, everybody. 

Touchy Subjects

Before I sit down at my laptop and start work out a first draft of an article about a topic that's likely to stir up debate, I like to spend a good, long time pondering the subject from all angles. The topic of today's Atlantic piece, "Should Teachers be Able to Touch Students?" has been on my back burner longer than most, just stewing and bubbling away, so when a copy of David J. Linden's Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind arrived in my mailbox, I took it as a sign from the gods. Or a publicist, anyway.

[Insert your own publicist/deity joke here]

Some articles sit on my slow-simmer back burner for a day or two, some for weeks, but this one has been cooking for well over a year, so I really hope you like it. I don't really care if you agree or disagree with my premise, that touch plays a very important role in education, but I do hope that you think about it a little bit, maybe even from a new perspective.

In other news, the drawing for January's signed galley is only a week away, and I can hardly wait. I will randomly pick one name from all my subscribers and get in touch by email on the 31st. 

Speaking of galleys, if you know of a school or organization that might want to use The Gift of Failure as a community read, know that I'm making review copies available for that purpose. Just use the contact form here to get in touch. Yep. Pun intended.

You can click on the photo below to link to the Atlantic piece on touch in the classroom. Have a great weekend!



Out With the Old, In With the Book!

Around 8:00 last night, just as I was tucking in to a cup of tea and a night of research, I headed out in to the mudroom for a couple of logs for the wood stove. And there, waiting just inside the threshold of my front door, was a large box. Too large to be the Edgar Allan Poe t-shirt I'd ordered, too small to be GumNut the Koala...

I hardly dared hope, but it was true. Hours before the stroke of midnight, on the last day of 2014, the advance copies of my book had arrived. 

Which means it's time to announce the much-anticipated and alliterative Great Gift of Failure Giveaway! 

On the last day of each month between Jan 1 and July 31, 2015, I will select a name at random from all the subscribers to my website and that person will receive a signed advance copy of The Gift of FailureIf you are receiving this email, that means you have already signed up for my website, are already entered to win a book, and will continue to be eligible every month - as long as you don't go crazy and unsubscribe. 

Thank you for signing up, and good luck! 

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