Four-year-old Gabino Martinez enjoys his lunch. Photo by Rachel Chaney.

Children of privilege and children of poverty have more in common than you might think, according to Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

All children need autonomy, competence, and connection in order to find the intrinsic motivation to learn. Those traits can be undermined in numerous ways. Middle class parents may hover and intervene to produce straight “As” while children in poverty hear that they will never succeed. Both kids hear a clear message: “You, on your own, are helpless.”

However, by letting children work toward meaningful goals on their own, and encouraging them no matter the outcome, children are empowered.

This was Lahey’s message to a crowd of about 600 at the DoSeum’s Outside the Lunchbox Luncheon inside the Rosenberg Skyroom at the University of Incarnate Word campus.

Before Lahey spoke, DoSeum CEO Vanessa Lacoss Hurd took the stage to a standing ovation honoring her work to build the DoSeum and the many programs it brings to the community. Hurd announced earlier in September that she will be stepping down at the end of the month.

(Read more: Hurd Stepping Down as DoSeum CEO)

“Her legacy will be the continued success of the institution she worked so hard to build,” said Meredith Alvarez, event co-chair.

Hurd reiterated the museum’s goal to be a resource for the entire community.

“We talk about leveling the sandbox for all kids in our demographic,” Hurd said.

To that end, 100,000 kids and their families have visited free of charge. The DoSeum also provides free transportation. Their ultimate goal, outlined by DoSeum Board Chair Suzanne Goudge, is to underwrite one third of all museum-goers.

Still, being accessible means more than “rolling out the welcome mat,” said Hurd. It means reaching out to the community. She announced two new initiatives to take learning to kids in poverty during out of school time. The DoSeum will partner with four schools in San Antonio ISD to provide after-school programming and summer camps free of charge. Even more ambitious, the partnership with SAISD will bring entire grade level communities of educators, parents, and families will come together to learn how to lead science nights and other community learning events.

“The DoSeum continues to expand our notions of what a museum is and does,” Mayor Ivy Taylor said.

The Outside the Lunchbox Luncheon series is one example of the museum’s reach. Taylor applauded Hurd and her team for bringing national thought leaders into the conversation in San Antonio. Taylor read and reviewed Lahey’s book on San Antonio Mom Blogs.

“As a parent I certainly agree with some of what Jessica has to say,” Taylor said.

She then wondered how the research applied to less privileged communities. Lahey herself had been wondering the same thing.

“I talk a lot to parents of rich kids, there’s no other way to put it,” Lahey said.

Now she is teaching kids in a rehabilitation center, kids without parents who “overparent.” Still, she said, she sees a similar sense of learned helplessness among her students. Both sets of kids, the overprivileged and the underprivileged, run the risk of giving up when the going gets tough. They have no idea what they can do. 

Speaking to the noticeably affluent crowd gathered at the luncheon, Lahey explained that she wrote the book because she was frustrated with “you people.” Affluent parents who make their kids anxious about getting As, perfect projects, and more. These parents Instagram their kids’ successes, and do everything they can to make sure there are more Instagram-worthy successes to follow. They hover, they push, and they avoid situations where their kids might fail.

She then realized that she was one of “you people” when her own children demonstrated the crippling perfectionism she saw in her students.

She started looking for a way to remediate her own over-parenting and cultivate children’s intrinsic motivation to learn.

Intrinsic motivation means that a child is driven by something within themselves. Extrinsic motivation, positive and negative tools parents use to get children to do what they want them to do, eventually undermines the love of learning. The moment you start paying a kid to get good grades, they do not have to be motivated by their desire to learn. They just need to hit the mark and collect the reward.

Negative extrinsic motivation replaces love with fear. A kid who loses their cell phone if they make a “B” is less likely to enjoy learning, because they fear that even their best efforts could result in punishment. They are trying to hit the mark that keeps them safe.

This is where parents can find an unlikely freedom. While they might not have as many fantastic Instagram posts, #humblebrags, or worry-free evenings, allowing kids to live by intrinsic motivation pays off. There’s less drama and negotiating. Kids have less reason to lie or cheat. Plus, hovering is exhausting.

According to Lahey, kids need to feel autonomous, competent, and connected in order to be intrinsically motivated.

Autonomous kids – those whose parents interfere less – have to develop the skills, or competencies, to achieve the results they want in spite of frustration.

Taking on clearly explained tasks that are doable but not easy forces children to really digest and learn things as they decode, organize, and interpret them. Information that is preprocessed by their parents or teachers doesn’t last in the child’s store of knowledge.

Connection happens on two fronts. Children need secure connection with those in charge of their development, mostly parents and teachers. They need to feel that their acceptance and value isn’t tied to their performance.

“When children who are having trouble in school are met with silence … that’s withdrawal of love based on performance. It’s essentially dooming those kids to feel worse and worse about their performance,” Lahey said.

Helping children feel that they can learn requires parents to step back. If they step in too fast, children hear the message “you can’t do it, so I have to.”

Kids get the same message when they are told they will never amount to anything. This is where Lahey’s  research connects to children in poverty.

In her current situation, even though they are not over-parented, many students are disconnected and insecure in their relationships with authority. Most have been ignored, abandoned, and devalued.

“The kids I teach these days are pretty sure they are worthless,” Lahey added.

She said that she seeks out ways to praise them for their hard work, kindness and fortitude. It changes the relationship. Kids can relax about learning if they know that they are valued for more than the results on a test. Whether the child can or cannot produce the desired results, no kid wants their acceptance to be performance-based.

Connection also requires relevance.

“One of the things we’ve managed to do is make education irrelevant to real life,” Lahey said.

She encouraged the audience to seek out opportunities to engage their children’s interests when discussing academic subjects, to connect it to the real world through technology, entertainment, or whatever gets them excited.

“This is what the DoSeum does so brilliantly,” Lahey said.

When they know that their worth is not tied to their performance, kids thrive in the face of a relevant challenge. They like to affect their world. It feels good to get better at something, or to explore things that interest them. Their internal rewards don’t dry up, and they continue to learn, try, and fail until success emerges.

Top image: Four-year-old Gabino Martinez enjoys his lunch.  Photo by Rachel Chaney.

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Bekah McNeel

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