You should have your newborn child attached to your body at all times. No, wait – you should let them cry it out at night, otherwise you’re spoiling them. On second thought, not only should you share a bed with your child, you, as your child’s caregiver, are personally responsible for safeguarding their academic and professional success for the next foreseeable future – by any means necessary.

These mixed and demanding messages overwhelm parents the moment they find out they are expecting a child, according to teacher-turned-parenting expert Jessica Lahey ’92.

Lahey, who graduated UMass Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature, noticed the effect of “over-parenting” on her students when she worked as a middle school English teacher. The result of this aggressive push for straight As, top SAT scores and drilling of regurgitated data was the driving force behind Lahey’s New York Times best-selling book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

Whereas parents once relied on their instincts and the wisdom of their elders to raise successful children, two things have changed in modern-day parenting, says Lahey: what the media, professionals and other parents are defining as a “successful” child, and the fast-paced, standardized methods that are implemented to achieve this success.

“Our definition of success has become so myopic,” shares Lahey. “It used to be that success was the ability to afford your family and find fulfillment. Now, our definition of success is a very narrow view.”

Lahey’s own success as an author unexpectedly began while she pursued a career in juvenile court. “I went to law school at the University of North Carolina to study juvenile law,” she said. “But one of the summers I was in law school, I was asked to teach a class at Duke and I fell so in love. I finished law school, but I just knew I was going to teach.” Thanks to her experience studying abroad through UMass’s summer at Oxford program, Lahey was offered a position teaching British literature as her first official teaching position.

After teaching for 17 years, Lahey’s focus shifted again, this time to blogging about teaching as a craft. Lahey’s controversial-yet-relatable tone attracted Robert Pondiscio, then-director of the Core Knowledge Foundation’s blog, who asked Lahey to write for the organization, getting her first exposure to a credible education audience.

From there, “Teachers started finding my stuff,” she notes, “and they were saying, ‘Wow, this speaks to me.’” Lahey’s work began to go viral, getting published at The Atlantic and The New York Times.

Through her blog and her articles, Lahey began to reflect on her own shortcomings as a student, a parent and an educator. She then developed an understanding for how the fear of failure is manifesting long-term harm in children that outweighs the short-term victory of a 4.0 GPA.

“When I went to law school and took my first exam, I got back a 68. My first response was not, ‘I should figure out how to do this better next time.’ My first response was, ‘I have to quit law school.’ How insane is that?” she says. “That’s what I am seeing more and more often – the mentality of, ‘I’m not good at that from day one, so I’m not going to do it at all, because someone will find out that I’m not smart.’”

It’s not just that kids are afraid of failing, Lahey notes– it’s also that they have a maladaptive response to screwing up, or to not knowing how to do something challenging.

“Somehow, we have gotten to this place where if you even suggest someone’s kid is average, parents freak out,” she says. That, according to Lahey, is another enormous factor that plays into the parental fear of failure – that a child who makes mistakes and doesn’t nail an assignment on the first try is a reflection of shoddy, lazy parenting. But the irony of that, Lahey says, is parents who offer a more relaxed, autonomous approach to learning and give their children the opportunity to fail are the parents whose kids are statistically and repeatedly shown to have better grades and standardized testing scores.

“We are so nervous about whether or not we’re doing a good job as parents,” she advises. “We let each other get stirred up to the point where we feel so bad about our own parenting that we take it out on our kids. And when our children don’t fulfill our need for validation, then they feel awful about themselves.”

So, for an over-parented college freshman entering an unknown, daunting campus, how can they adapt? “A kid who has the ability to self-advocate and can ask for what they need from people will do better than a kid who can’t do that,” Lahey explains. “I chose UMass because it was big, but I also had small classes, really caring professors and I could even go to Oxford. If I had been the kind of kid who didn’t know how to ask for the things I needed and what I wanted to get out of my education, I wouldn’t have had the wherewithal to take advantage of all those things.”

That’s all parents can hope for when it comes to their child, Lahey says—to raise an independent adult able to adapt to new environments and not lose that love of learning that comes intrinsically as a child. “We need to foster an understanding that you get smarter the harder you work,” she shares, “and almost always, failing is a part of that.”

By Samm Smith '08