By Kassie Parisi
CLIFTON PARK — Teachers and parents at the Shenendehowa Central School District started the year a night early with a special guest.
New York Times best-selling author Jessica Lahey, who is both a parent and a teacher, addressed a packed Shen East auditorium on Sept. 5.
Lahey’s book, “The Gift of Failure,” argues that the best parents are the ones who allow their children the autonomy to make mistakes and learn from them, and it was that topic that she touched on in her address. She also took a few questions from audience members.
Prior to her 6:30 p.m. presentation, Lahey spent some time during the day speaking to teachers and school counselors. District counselors conducted a study of Lahey’s book a year-and-a-half ago, and were able to arrange for her to visit Shen in person to assist them in staying on top of the latest research regarding student success.
“The Counseling Department has seen an increasing number of students over the past 10 years or so that have become more stressed, anxious and depressed. The number of high school students with mental health issues has increased and that is a national trend, not just a local problem,” Jan Reilly, a Shen counselor said. “Colleges across the country are seeing the effects as well and are having a challenging time meeting the mental health needs of their students. All of these changes have gotten the attention of the Shen counselors as we work with our students on a daily basis. We have also seen an increasing number of parents taking over tasks for their children or intervening on behalf of them on routine matters that the students should be capable of handling at the high school level.”
Lahey splits her time between teaching English at a drug and alcohol facility for adolescents, and speaking. Lahey explained that when she first started teaching, she had heard from others that the relationship between teachers and parents was beginning to fray. Doubtful of that assessment, Lahey believed that she would be working in an equal partnership with her students and the parents of her students.
But she soon discovered that some parents were micro-managing their children so much that it was setting them up for failure.
“Something about over-parenting was not only undermining the motivation of my students and the desire to learn. It was also messing up their ability to learn.”
She also realized that, in the parent-teacher-child relationship, parents are taking over and speaking for their children.
“Your child is the most important person in this equation,” she told the audience.
Lahey addressed what she said are common mistakes she sees parents make in dealing with their students, including offering extrinsic motivations, such as money or material rewards, for getting good grades. Extrinsic motivators, Lahey explained, can undermine long-term progress, and are only usually effective one time.
She also cautioned parents against having their child’s IQ tested, and explained that a child who believes that his or her intelligence has a solid limit will not bother to push themselves to take on new challenges.
She also offered a few easy, but effective methods to making young students more autonomous. Allowing children to fill out their own school forms, she said, is an important and easy way to familiarize them with both filling out forms, and taking responsibility for themselves.
Reilly said the presentation was important because it provided parents with information regarding raising all types of students, and it also accessible for them.
“The presentation was valuable to the Shen community because Lahey offers practical advice for parents, that will have a lasting impact on family dynamics and parenting, advancing the ultimate goal of raising independent, resilient and motivated children. All of these changes have a positive effect and can help with students’ mental health in high school, college, work and beyond,” she said.
The most important thing parents can do, Lahey said, was make sure that parents focus on supporting their children no matter what, instead of longing for straight A’s all the time.
“You need to love the kid you have, not the kid you want,” she said.