Episode 3: Should I Let My Kid Quit?

Three weeks in, and this video thing is really fun. Not only am knocking down your fantastic reader questions left and right, I'm getting tons of new ones.

Oh, wait. This was supposed to reduce my reader questions. Ah, well. Keep 'em coming. I love it. 

Episode 1, "How to Parent and Teacher Perfectionist Kids" is really about helping kids value the learning more than the grade, the process more than the product. 

Episode 2, "How to Motivate Kids Who Coast" is about more than giving our kids a kick in the pants so they live up to their potential. It's about modeling intellectual and emotional bravery so our kids will believe us when we tell them that we really do care more about their learning than their grades. 

Episode 3, fresh off the digital presses, is "Should I Let My Kid Quit?" I talk about those music lessons and swimming practices and basketball games your kids claim they don't want to do anymore. Should we allow kids to quit even when they (and you) have years and years invested?  

I hope you find the information helpful, and thanks for watching! If you have a question, feel free to submit it via the form here

Follow Through

I wanted to teach at Rowland Hall/St. Mark's School from the first day we moved to Salt Lake City for my husband Tim's medical residency at the University of Utah. I sent my resume to the main office along with a letter to every person in a position to hire me at the school, and waited, very impatiently, to hear back. Once a week or so, I'd drive by the school and picture myself walking in through the front doors, books in my arms, a bag of lesson plans slung over my shoulder. On the way home from the store, I'd look at Tim with That Look on my face, and he'd say, "You want to drive by the school again?" He gets me. When I'm focused on a goal, I don't just write it down or dream about it, I visualize it, making the goal real for myself until it becomes real for everyone else or I set my sights on something else. 

Yeah, I'm a handful. I described Tim as a "goddamn miracle of a person" to an old friend yesterday, and it's in these moments, when I'm in peak manifestation mode that he earns his marital stripes. 

I was hired at RHSM 48 hours before the first day of school to teach British Literature, and became full-time later on that year when another teacher took maternity leave. I could not have hoped for a more fulfilling and idyllic first couple of years as a teacher. 

I knew Caroline Gleich was special from the moment she walked into my classroom. She was dreadlocked, makeup-free, and supremely Caroline in a culture that tends toward conformity and a meticulous, "just so" aesthetic. Caroline isn't "just" anything. She's always been bigger than her small form, a force of nature in her ability to manifest her particular, often endearingly peculiar, vision of the world. 

After graduation, she became a professional athlete and sports model. She wanted to spend her life outdoors, skiing, mountaineering and paddling, so she created a financially viable way to live that life. Today, she travels around the world doing her Caroline Thing while professional photographers follow behind, snapping away in an attempt to capture her magic on film.  

The camera loves Caroline, and very little of Caroline gets lost in translation. She glows, even when reduced to two dimensions on a magazine cover, and her Instagram feed is a testament to that glow. She has over 130k followers, most of whom admire and envy her adventures living a life of adventure and wonder. 

One follower, however, has decided that Caroline is too pretty and too female to deserve the life she's worked so hard to achieve, and has stalked her for the past few years, berating, dismissing, and threatening her.  

Caroline, predictably, will have none of it. 

Besides, she's too busy to be distracted by the haters. You see, a few years ago, Caroline decided to ski every line described in the book The Chuting Gallery, author Andrew McLean's collection of the most difficult, inaccessible chutes and couloirs in the Wasatch mountains. As the threats, taunts, and bile, continued, Caroline grew stronger, more sure in her own power and less afraid of his threats.  She just kept putting one foot in front of the other, one chute at a time, leaving the fear and doubt and dismissive trolls behind her.  

It's been fifteen years since I taught Caroline, but we've kept in touch. I wrote about her in The Gift of Failure sports chapter, and then, last week, REI released Follow Through, a documentary short about Caroline's quest to ski The Chuting Gallery lines in the Wasatch Mountains. I thought the kids in my inpatient drug and alcohol rehab classroom would admire her pluck, and the topic of personal goals might make for an interesting writing prompt. 

Most of the kids in my class have been berated, dismissed, and threatened repeatedly by the trolls in their lives. They are familiar with the exhausting weight of low expectations, and hardly anyone thinks to ask them about their life goals. I was going to ask them to write about their goals, then ask them to write down the specific steps they would have to take to achieve them.

The importance of articulating goals in words can't be underestimated; one study found that when we write our goals down, we are 42 percent more likely to achieve them. Sure, it was a small study, but other studies have shown that writing down fears can ease anxiety and increase performance. Yet others posit that hope can often be the X factor that allows kids to change their present and manifest a better future. Hope. Goals. Dreams. Call this aspirational, visionary mumbo-jumbo what you will, when a child feels he or she has the power to change her life, she's less likely to feel helpless, depressed, and afraid, and much more likely to achieve her goals. 

And so, with Caroline's help, my students took that first uphill step toward their dreams. After we watched Caroline check off the final Chuting Gallery line on her list, each student wrote a few pages about his or her one big goal. They wrote about the details of that dream, what a day living within that dream life would look, sound, taste, and smell like. 

So many kids live in a world of "no," of limits and proscribed futures and pressure to conform to their parents' narrow and exclusive vision of happiness and success. Many of the students I teach at the rehab don't have a plan for their future beyond their next drunk, let alone a plan for escaping a future of group homes and prison. They self-medicate the pain of their hopelessness with booze and smoke and pills. Above all, they are scared, and can't imagine anyone else doubts their place in the world the way they do. 

But then, there's Caroline, her skis balanced on a narrow ledge of rock and ice at the top of the chute she fears most of all, where her half-brother Martin died under an avalanche. Her breath comes in gasps of exhilaration and fear as she pokes at the snow just below her with a pole, testing its structure and integrity. Her breaths grow louder, she reassures herself "This is fun," and she drops into the unknown.

Caroline's helmet cam captures one hesitant, uncertain turn, then two, before she surrenders--to her fear, the slope, and the unpredictable will of the snow in the mountains she loves. The jagged rush of her breath slows to match the graceful arc of her turns through the powder.

The goals my students write about are fairly pedestrian as compared to Caroline's alpine adventures around the world. One yearns for a family of her own, another describes a trade job he's dreamed about for years. They describe these futures, hesitantly at first, hardly daring to hope, then fall into their rhythm as a rush of words and images begin to fill the page. 

Thank you, Caroline, for showing my students how to dream bigger than they've ever dared. Thank you for teaching them to have faith in themselves as they dare to make that first, frightening turn into the future. 

Wiped Out

This piece first ran in our local paper, the Valley News, on Finn's first day of school at Lyme Elementary. Yesterday was Finn's first day of eighth grade, his final first day at our little village school, so here's my love letter to his school, our town, and its traditions.

As a parent and a teacher, September has always represented the promise inherent in handfuls of freshly sharpened pencils and new beginnings. I adore the first day of school, I can’t wait for the arrival of my tanned, happy students, and oh - that first day of class, when anything is possible.

But this year holds special promise for me, as Finnegan, my youngest child, will step up on to the big yellow #2 bus and ride off into his new life as a student at Lyme Elementary School. It’s been a long time coming. I wrote about this day in a letter to my parents years ago, after attending Lyme Elementary School’s holiday concert. Ben, my older son, was in third grade, and therefore officially part of the night’s performance, but four-year-old Finnegan stole the show and set the stage for his future as a part of the Lyme community.

Dear Mom and Dad,

We attended the holiday concert at the Lyme Elementary School last night. Benjamin stood on the risers, dutifully mouthing holiday songs with the rest of the third graders. Meanwhile, down on the gymnasium floor, Finnegan was engaged in his own little performance. He was manically twirling to a beat of his own, tongue lolling, arms all akimbo, all in pursuit of a glance, a smile, any flicker of interest from the object of his affection, the golden-haired Ellie from his preschool class.

I’d like to say I enjoyed both performances equally, but poor Benjamin’s holiday songs were all but ignored by everyone within twenty feet of Finnegan’s preschool mating ritual. It went on for twenty minutes or so. There were elaborate pauses, dramatic exhalations, jazz hands, and then, finally, mercifully, Ellie giggled. Finn froze, awaiting his prize. Ellie whispered to her mother, and a triumphant Finnegan was invited to sit with her on her mother’s lap for the remainder of the concert. He practically glowed with pride. People in the stands around us exhaled with relief, smiled, and whispered quiet congratulations for our son’s hard-won victory.

Nothing, not even the middle school band’s memorable rendition of the Surfari’s “Wipe Out,” could surpass Finn’s moment of transcendent joy in that crowded gymnasium.

However, my favorite event to grace this room, the moment I look forward to every year, is the Lyme Elementary School First Day Assembly.

Students, tanned and shining with excitement, race about in front of the school while parents clutch coffee, visibly relieved by the arrival of new the school year. The whole town mills about, swapping stories and catching up. At exactly 8:10, Principal Jeff Valence ceremoniously rings the old school bell and students congregate near their new teachers, each holding up signs decorated with numbers indicating their respective grade. Older students fall into groups easily, while the younger ones stick to their parent’s legs and nervously search about for familiar faces. Then, starting with the kindergarten, each class processes down the sidewalk and through the school’s front doors. Most years, the kindergarteners make it into the school under their own power, but every once in a while, the line of tiny children is punctuated by a mom or dad, clutching their weepy child to a moist shoulder.

This procession moves in to the gym, where Jeff introduces the teachers and offers up words of inspiration to the students and parents. He might even introduce a kindergartener’s love-tattered stuffed animal to the crowd in order to set a particularly insecure child at ease. Finally, he steps back from the podium and orchestrates the moment we have all been waiting for. We all know it’s coming, we’ve seen it many times, but it’s always the best part of the year. All of the new eighth graders stand at the front of the gym with the kindergarteners in a line in front of them. The eighth graders, who just moments ago seemed so young and vulnerable, morph into hulking, capable giants alongside the tiny kindergarteners.

And then, solemnly and sincerely, each eighth grader pledges to mentor and guide the kindergartners as they make their way through this first school year. This exchange has taken place for so long that the parents of the oldest children can remember when their towering giants were the weeping babies. What’s most striking is the seriousness with which this pledge is undertaken by the teenagers. It’s tempting to think of this moment as playacting, a sentimental drama cooked up by the school for the benefit of the parents, but it’s not. It’s a real moment, a real vow. The big kids really do look out for the little ones, and it shapes the relationships and day-to-day workings of the school.

I am in awe of this moment, and I can’t wait for Finnegan to be a part of it.

Years later, Ellie’s love for Finn has long since faded, but he is about to enter that gymnasium once again, where so many wonderful things will happen to him. School concerts, middle school dances, town meetings. He will play dodge ball, dance his first slow dance, and someday, vote in that room. As I send Finnegan off on his first day of school, I am so very grateful. For it is that gymnasium, those teachers, and the people of Lyme, who will bear witness to all my son’s future stumbles and soft landings.

And Now For Something Completely Different

This is going to be quick, as I have a monster deadline for a newspaper today, and another for my agent by the end of next week. 

I could not let the summer wind down without recommending some of my favorite professional development books of the year. From what I can see on Twitter, most teachers are reading some fine choices, and there will be lots of people teaching like pirates, becoming the math teacher they wish they'd had, teaching with mathematical mindsets, and thinking with an innovator's mindset, and that's great. I heartily recommend all of these books (I linked to all of them and you should totally buy them. Dave Burgess, Tracy ZagerJo Boaler, and George Couros are fantastic authors, teachers, and people). 

I went in a different direction this summer, and spent time reading professional development books that challenged me in different ways. I wanted to stretch myself, to get a little pissed off, feel defensive and have to work through it, and come out the other side a better teacher. To that end, here are my favorite professional development books of the year, with summaries and links below:

First, and in no particular order, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris. A fantastic, important read, and a great place to start your professional development. The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality recently released the report "Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls' Childhood," and these are BOTH worth your time. Read them together to understand what's happening to black girls in our culture generally, and in our classrooms specifically. 

My drug rehab students are a disobedient lot, so I'm always looking for ways to view that behavior as ANYTHING but a challenge to me and my teaching. Ira Chaleff's Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You're Told to Do Is Wrong helped. A lot. I really enjoyed it, and it's a quick read. Plus, I'm frustrated with what's going on in politics, and it helped me feel better about my own thoughts on that front, too. 

Kristen Green's Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle is one of my favorite books of the past five years AND a brilliant look at education and race relations in America. Love, love, love this book. Not just for PD. 

Eric Jensen's Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind (and Teaching with Poverty in Mind) are both great resources for teachers looking to expand their toolkit to include poor kids. Tons of background on what poverty does to kids on a cognitive, physical, and emotional level, and how that affects their learning, and what we, as their teachers, can do to help them learn. Great stuff. 

And Still We Rise: The Trials and Triumphs of Twelve Gifted Inner-City Students by Miles Corwin made me think, kept me captivated for 400 pages, and I cried. More than once. A fantastic book about smart kids in really difficult circumstances.

Yes, I know. These summaries are getting shorter, but PEOPLE, I AM ON A DEADLINE. 

Finally, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, by Annette Lareau is simply a classic. It should be on the professional development bookshelf in every school. It's not new, but it's essential reading. It's not easy, it's dense, but it's a great read, so put on your reading glasses (isn't it time to admit they are not optional? Just me? Huh.) and get ready to learn something. 

Happy reading! Seriously, I have to get to work. 


I'll Be Watching You

     Every move you make, Ben. Every. Move. You. Make.

    Every move you make, Ben. Every. Move. You. Make.

Dear Jess, 

Thank you so much for coming out and speaking with our children and parents. I loved your talk-it was funny and meaningful all at the same time-I also loved your book, so thank you. 

I’m writing to ask a question about something you brought up to the kids and us, but it wasn’t really in the book. It was brought up about extrinsic motivators; which I understand to be bribes, money for grades, etc, but I don’t understand how checking their emails, phones, text, tracking were brought up negatively in that same discussion? And of course that’s one thing my son took away from your talk. I just don’t understand how those things are extrinsic motivators, it you could elaborate I would truly appreciate it.




A great question, one that’s answered in a couple of places sprinkled throughout The Gift of Failure (pp. 30-32, 160, 236-7 for a few references), but here’s a refresher course:

Extrinsic motivators can take many forms. They can be the ones we perceive as positives, like bribes and rewards. Money, ice cream, stickers, any kind of “if you do this, I will give you that” motivators. They can also be perceived as negatives, like surveillance, grounding, the “unless you do this, I will impose that” motivators. 

The specific extrinsic motivators you asked about—checking texts, emails, monitoring where kids are all the time via an app, checking grades on a portal—these are all extrinsic motivators. They are attempts to shape behavior by checking up on kids. As I mentioned at the talk, extrinsic motivators may work for a little while, they may work for tasks that require short-term focus on a simple task, but for tasks or endeavors that require long-term focus, prioritizing goals, creativity, and more complex management of executive functions such as time management, they undermine motivation. 

Think of it this way. Imagine you have worked for one boss for years, and she or he trusts you. You have control of how you do your job, when you complete certain tasks, and how, because the boss trusts that you are competent and will get things done. Your work is YOUR work. Then, you get a new boss. The new boss seems nice enough, and seems to have best interests of the organization in mind, but her first request is that you pass all work by her before hitting send  or closing the task. She trusts you, she says, she just wants to make sure you are doing your job well. 

Now, do you feel trusted? Do you feel motivated the same way you did under the old boss? I know I would not. I would feel resentful, as if I’m not trusted, and frankly, a bit disrespected. 

When we check up on kids constantly by reading their emails, checking their texts, logging in to check that they are doing their homework on time, we expect them to screw things up. We may SAY we trust them, that we are “just checking” for our own peace of mind, so we can sleep at night, so we can make sure they are not starting down the wrong road...we say all these things, but what they hear is, "I don't trust you." 

Older kids (and I’m assuming your kid is older as he has a phone) are going through a process of separating themselves from their parents, becoming their own people and shaping who they will be apart from us. In order to do that, they need a certain amount of autonomy, room to stretch, take risks, try things out, and grow. There’s research that reveals kids who are more controlled by their parents lie to their parents more. If we don't give them that room, they will create it, even through deceit. 

Now, every parent is different, and for some parents of some kids, it might be appropriate to check emails here and there or keep an eye on texts or peek into social media feeds. I get that. However, just because the technology exists, just because we can monitor their movement, purchases, words, grades, and distance from home does not mean we have to do it. 

Be judicious. For most kids, trust begets trustworthy behavior. Even my students, who are drug and alcohol addicted kids, some of whom have spent time in juvenile detention for serious crimes, respond to the words, “I trust you” positively, and by elevating their behavior to be worthy of that trust. Not all, but most. 

When I’m asked in interviews how I was parented, assuming that the way I was treated by my parents when I was growing up has some bearing on how I parent now, I always say, “They trusted me to make good decisions.” That was such a gift, one I worked hard to live up to and deserve.

I hope I have answered your question, and again, I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long to get to your question! Thanks for attending my talk, and my best to your son! 


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).

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!


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? 


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. 



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*




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.  


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


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. 


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, 


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.