THE BLOG

Lessons in Failure and Motivation From Jessica Lahey

01/24/2014 06:07 pm ET | Updated Mar 26, 2014

Imagine this scenario: You have been working for several weeks with your child to help improve his organizational skills, creating systems for remembering assignments and keeping schoolwork in order. He has been improving, and you feel proud.

One morning, you're at home and you see your child's homework assignment, one that you know he worked oh-so-hard on last night. You were already planning to stop by the school for another appointment... would you just drop off the assignment since you're already headed that way?

Our recent Expert on Air, Jessica Lahey, found herself in this exact situation, and the answer was easy for her. No! As she said, "This is a specific lesson that I'm trying to teach him. And I will undo that entire lesson about being responsible for your papers if I take it in for him," even if it was painful to imagine him not getting to go out for recess as a result. For Ms. Lahey, this is all part of building her son's intrinsic motivation to succeed, and giving him the autonomy he needs, even if he has these small failures along the way.

While Ms. Lahey's writing with The New York Times and The Atlantic, along with her own blog, focuses mostly on older kids, we found many of her lessons to be applicable to the younger set as well. She told us that she hesitated to write initially because, "Who wants to read about teaching middle school?" but we sure are thankful that she did!

During my Zoobean Expert on Air conversation with Ms. Lahey, she had several useful pieces of advice and anecdotes to help us in our journey toward autonomy-supportive parenting, and giving our kids the gift of failure. Here are a few of my favorites, and if you'd like to see the whole hangout, you can watch it here. Psst... the homework story is at 12:56!

Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today -- I'm looking at you, moms of preschoolers. It's far easier to build kids' intrinsic motivation by starting early than it is to wait until later in life. "It gets harder because the stakes get higher. Which is why it's great to start early, when the stakes are low. That's one of the reasons why I love to teach middle school because the stakes are still low enough where the kids can still make mistakes. Middle school is made for making mistakes." And, ahem, giving even littler kids space to fall on the playground or discover by "making mistakes" is even easier (minus the tantrums, but those come no matter what we do).

Try giving the teacher the benefit of the doubt... at least to start the conversation! As Jessica says, "When a teachers suspects something going on with your kid, too often the immediate response from the parent is to get defensive and get angry with the teacher for what they claim to have seen." Instead, listen, and react first by seeking to understand the teacher's perspective.

So long, cheat-ah. Building your kids' intrinsic motivation has the added benefit of reducing the chances they will cheat. "When kids are involved in lessons and work in school that they are intrinsically motivated to complete, they are a lot less likely to cheat. The stuff that kids cheat on tends to be stuff that they don't care as much about and so if they really care about the subject... if they care, they don't cheat as much."

What advice from Ms. Lahey did you most take to heart? Stay tuned for upcoming Expert on Air series with Zoobean via our G+ community.

This piece was originally posted on the Zoobean blog.