The Gift of Failure: A Valuable Read for Adoptive Parents

The Gift of Failure: A Valuable Read for Adoptive Parents

When my oldest daughter was a toddler, I hovered. Yes, I’ll admit it. I stuck to her like glue, quick to praise her every success and just as quick to correct her every mistake. In the early years, she was unbelievably compliant and good-natured. I thought I was a kick-ass mom who must be doing things right. Stay the course, I thought.

Ha! Then my second daughter came along. Every hovering technique that had worked on my first child blew up with the second. I was never late getting anywhere with our oldest, because she dutifully sat still and let me comb her hair, dress her, put on her shoes, and button her coat. My younger daughter turned into a whirling dervish of fury if I tried to do anything for her. She wanted to do it herself, and no amount of cajoling would convince her otherwise.

And it took awhile, but I came to see that it didn’t matter if she went to preschool with her shirt on backward or her socks inside out. What mattered was that she felt competent when she dressed herself. She screamed if I came near her with a comb, because she wanted to style her own hair. Sure, there were days when she went to school looking like an electrocuted Medusa, but she soon became handy with a brush. When I backed off, she learned things so quickly. By age five, she could braid her own hair and then fasten it with a rubber band.

I realized that I should back off more with my older daughter. Easier said than done, because by then, hovering was a habit. To complicate matters, my big girl was now a tween. And as kids grow older, their problems grow more complex. So now, instead of arguing about whether or not her hair was combed -- a never-ending batttle -- I spent time worrying about stuff that was much harder to fix. What would she do if she couldn't find someone to walk to school with her? How would she handle it when she learned that she was excluded from a sleepover party?

The answer came to me over the course of many difficult months – I couldn’t fix those things. I could only support her and provide a safe place for her. Sometimes, things had to fall apart. Sometimes, she had to make social mistakes – even huge ones – and she would learn from the consequences. I really wish that I had read Jess Lahey’s new book, The Gift of Failure, a few years ago, but it wasn’t available then. It would have helped me cognitively reframe these battles and see them as a launching pad for growth.

Lahey’s book does an excellent job of advising parents when to step back, as well as when to get outside help. She points out the difference between a kid who is struggling with normal problematic behaviors and a kid who is struggling with dangerous behaviors. This is valuable advice for any parent, but especially for those of us who are adoptive parents. My oldest daughter tends to express her complicated emotions about her adoption more with behaviors than with words, and I am endlessly evaluating how and when to intervene or respond. The Gift of Failure is another tool that provides perspective.

I have reread this passage of The Gift of Failure many times, because its value cannot be overstated:

If your child is in trouble, or at risk for dangerous behaviors such as substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, or any number of the pitfalls that come up in a teenager's life, remember that you have the power to align yourself with your child and help him cope. Keep autonomy, love, and support at the forefront of your priorities so as not to risk alienating yourself from your child and losing the opportunity to save him from peril. At the first sign of drug or alcohol abuse, eating disorders, or self-injury, seek professional help rather than attempt to handle the situation yourself.

Above all else, do not promise your child that you can "fix" his problems, social or otherwise. You may not be able to, and it's important that your child understand that not everything can be magically remedied with a wave of the parental wand. Some problems are too big for that, and some require complex and imperfect solutions.

Fortunately, if parents have done their jobs right, kids will have the competence and courage to face these complex and imperfect solutions. As much as I wanted to grow up as Anne of Green Gables with nut-brown-haired Diana Barry as my best friend, I didn't. I had complicated and often fraught friendships with the kids in my neighborhood. We were the fortunate prisoners of each other's constant company, and we had to cobble out our own treaties and lines of demarcation across the boundaries of our comfort zones. This is childhood. Those shifting, hotly contested, and embattled lines littered with successes and failures don't just define childhood boundaries; they define the people our children will become, and we owe them the time and space they require to explore those territories.

Excerpt from The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. Copyright © 2015 by Jessica Lahey. A Harper book, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Not every line in the sand is life or death. Not every battle requires adult oversight. In fact, more often than not, a hovering parent makes things worse, not better, for a child who is struggling to figure out social norms. In acknowledging the complexity of the solutions our kids come up with, we honor their autonomy and their ability to right their wrongs. And given the space to think about things, my middle schooler has impressed both my husband and me with her resourcefulness and resilience.

As for the younger members of our family, I am taking all of Lahey’s advice to heart and giving more responsibility to my smaller girls too. Before I read Gift of Failure, I made the bed each morning for my third daughter, my 5-year-old, and the finished bed always looked perfect to me. Now I let my little one make her own bed. She is so tiny that she has to climb up on the bed to tuck in the blankets, leaving lumps and wrinkles everywhere. But oh! her pride as she arranges a menagerie of animals with great care on the pillow. The finished bed looks perfect to her. And, I’ve learned, that makes it perfect for me too.

Jess Lahey pic Gift of Failure pic

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Check out Carrie's award-winning book Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear (Harper Collins, 2012).  

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