The Spy Academy exhibit is complete with an undercover dress-up area. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

It seems natural to hear parents, educators, and politicians talk about their desire to see more students succeed. We can all agree on that, but that’s about where the agreement ends.

Utter the words breastfeeding, sleep training, private school, tutoring, or anything else that falls in the parenting decision category, and you will hear a host of opinions, expert and non-expert alike.

Few get into the details of what that success looks like, let alone the unique paths children take to get there. Failure, even little setbacks along the way, seems frightening to most parents. In the moment, it seems unthinkable that those moments could actually contribute to a child’s ultimate success.

That is exactly what Jessica Lahey, author of the New York Times bestseller The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Let Go So Their Children Can Succeedproposes in her book. 

Lahey will present her research at The DoSeum’s seventh annual Outside the Lunchbox Luncheon on Friday, Sept. 23, at 11:30 a.m. at the University of the Incarnate Word’s Rosenberg Skyroom. Tickets are still available through the DoSeum’s website here

“Every year the OLL luncheon is focused on bringing a national caliber author and, frankly, thought leader in early childhood (development) and parenting to San Antonio,” said DoSeum CEO Vanessa Lacoss Hurd, who recently announced her resignation.

The lecture promises to bring the kind of challenging and freeing research similar to Amanda Ripley‘s at last year’s luncheon. Among other things, Ripley assured parents that it is not the super-involved, ever-present, room parent’s children who do the best in school, but rather the children whose parent accurately read them.

This year’s topic – failure and success – takes on another trend in parenting: keeping kids from experiencing challenges and failures that help them build resilience.

“The irony is that many parents in this day and age are focused on protecting children,” Hurd said.

It’s that very protective instinct that when, left unchecked, shortchanges kids of valuable life experiences.

In her book, Lahey traces our obsession with success back to the rise of parenting “experts” and the evolution of society that has given parents the time to focus on maximizing potential, instead of surviving childhood.

“The self-esteem movement promised that we could feel good about ourselves in everything we do, that kids would always like their parents, and that we would feel great about our parenting all the time. But that’s not how life – let alone parenting – works,” Lahey writes in The Gift of Failure.

Being a “good parent” or feeling good about one’s parenting decisions, Lahey explains, is also a byproduct of our cultural evolution. We have been conditioned to feel good about everything we do, but the criteria for being allowed to feel good keeps changing with whichever parenting expert is en vogue at the moment. The result is misplaced priorities and unattainable goals for both parents and children.

“As we move through this new millennium, parents are caught in a bit of a catch-22. We are expected to feel good about ourselves and our parenting as we raise our children naturally and intuitively, while poring over more parenting books and magazines than ever about how to raise smart, creative and empathetic children who practice piano on their own, sleep inn hours a night, and play varsity soccer as freshmen. We are expected to take up the mantle of those authoritarian experts we abandoned in the fifties and function as professionals both at home and at work. As we sift through reams of parenting advice, we are left to strike our own balance between work and home, trust in our instincts, and trust in the experts. Today, parenting is less oxytocin-soaked rosy glow, more adrenaline-fueled oncoming-headlight glare,” The Gift of Failure reads.

The intended audience of the book, professionals and middle class parents, are likely to identify with much of Lahey’s research. She is now adapting that research to see if and how overprotection and dependency-based parenting styles play out in situations of poverty.

Hurd asked Lahey to present the information in light of her current research, so that the luncheon could be of value to the various members of the San Antonio community.

“That’s of course important to The DoSeum, because we are a resource for the whole community,” Hurd said.

Lahey’s work has “great transcendence” according to Hurd, largely because she focuses on the desires at the heart of the struggle.

“When we beg for answers to all those other nitpicky, insignificant question, what we really want to know is, “How will I know if I’m a good parent?” Lahey writes in The Gift of Failure.

Through the Outside the Lunchbox Luncheon, Hurd, a parent herself, and the DoSeum intend to put tools into the hands of those parents and educators who ask how they can be better. Thus far, none of the experts have recommended busier schedules, more expensive activities, or more worrying.

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Top image: A father and son enjoy The DoSeum’s Spy Academy exhibit, which is complete with an undercover dress-up area. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.