In this episode we discuss the important difference between competence and confidence and look at the dangers of focusing too much on building up your self esteem. We explore the “gift of failure” and why, sometimes, it’s better to let children fail than to try and make them feel better. We learn why frustration is a vital and important piece of the learning process, why we must consider the inevitability of failure, and we uncover “one of the most powerful teaching tools” you can use to learn, grow, and improve with our guest Jessica Lahey.
Jessica Lahey is a teacher, writer, and author. She is an expert contributor for The Atlantic and the New York Times, and is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. She is also a member of the Amazon Studios Thought Leader Board.
The trajectory of parenting today into “overparenting” is dangerous and worrisome
Propping up kids self confidence and telling them how wonderful they are has done children a serious disservice
Kids today are more anxious, less interested in taking risks, less interested in learning, and less interested in being brave.
Lots of kids today feel confident about their abilities - but don’t at all feel competent. They don’t have any experience trying and screwing things up and learning how to do things better.
Confidence doesn’t go very far in the classroom.
There has been a big drop-off in interest in learning, motivation for learning, and self awareness - all because of the self esteem movement
Today - we live in a world of “empty, optimistic confidence”
The problem with telling kids they are smart or gifted doesn’t make their confidence or self esteem go up, it makes their self esteem go down.
When the vision of them being super talented doesn’t match up with their reality - having struggles and problems, which are inevitable - the disconnect creates serious problems for kids and erodes their trust in their parents. Kids become confused.
At an early age - turn it around and ask your kids “What do YOU think?” Instead of just telling them they are brilliant. Help them build an internal compass for quality.
To succeed - kids must be able to take feedback.
It never gets easy to withhold praise from your kids and give them real feedback - but it’s vitally important.
Ask your kids “Why does this mark progress for you?” If they are excited about something? “Why is this better?” “Why do you think this is an improvement on what you previously did?"
Emphasize the PROCESS over the END PRODUCT in what you praise
How do you deal with the difficulty of wanting to shower praise and love on them - but holding back?
Focusing on process over product is a great way to diffuse and help anxious kids.
90% of kids feel like we love them more when they bring home high grades.
The dangers of “outcome love” or “performance love” and why its highly destructive to kids on an emotional level
Focus on the process of what went into it - and help your kids focus on that.
When your kids fail - that’s not the end point, thats the starting point for learning.
Process oriented language:
“What are you learning here"
“How can you do better next time?"
Are you a parent listening to this who says “but I really do care about results, I care about grades” not this other BS - what should you do?
How can we redesign our schools and learning system to focus on mastery instead of cramming and playing games?
Kids feel like they can’t take to their parents when their parents become super fixated on grades.
Focus on the long term - how do you want to shape your kids in the future? Not just this one particular grade or issue.
Be an “autonomy supportive parent” and focus on preparing your kids to handle this particular challenge or problem NEXT TIME not just this immediate moment or problem
How do we focus on skills and mastery instead of opaque and unhelpful letter grades
Humans are really bad at “meta cognition” - knowing what we do KNOW or don’t know
A low stakes formative quiz can help you get a sense of where your skills ARE - and thus a starting point to learn from.
Should you let your kids be frustrated?
Why frustration is a vital and important piece of the learning process.
Support your kids frustration and let them learn to direct themselves.
Everyone hate’s having their kids being frustrated - and wants to just give them the answers - but that’s horrible for learning.
What is “desirable difficulty?” And why is it “one of the most powerful teaching tools” we have?
Kids who can’t be frustrated fall apart whenever they face difficulty.
Overparenting renders your children helpless and incompetent, especially when it matters most.
The way to overcome learned helplessness is to give your children autonomy and control
3 Keys to Thriving Kids
How do we foster competence instead of false confidence in our children?
Give your kids more choice, more autonomy, more control over the details of their lives
It’s so important to move beyond other’s thoughts and expectations to really create real change
The reality is that failure is inevitable - and it's very dangerous to make our kids brittle in the face of a difficult and challenging world.
Homework: Get in the mindset of Process over Product, Long Term over Short Term.
Homework: If you’ve been doing too much for your kids, give them an opportunity to do more - “I think I’ve been underestimating your - starting today you can do do X for yourself.” One instance could be giving your kids autonomy over when, where, and how they do their homework. With CLEAR expectations and CLEAR consequences.
It’s not that we abandon our kids, it's that we give them the room to figure it out for themselves instead of fixing every problem for them.
Thank you so much for listening!
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Want To Dig In More?! - Here’s The Show Notes, Links, & Research
[Wiki Article] Learned helplessness
[Article] NY Times Book review of “Gift of Failure”
[Article Directory] Articles written by Jessica for The Atlantic
[Article] NPRed - The 'Overparenting' Crisis In School And At Home by Anya Kamanetz
[Article] Washington Post - “The big problem with rewarding kids for good grades and punishing them for bad ones” by Jessica Lahey
[Article] Lifehacker - “The Stinky & Dirty Show' Teaches Kids to Ask, 'What If?” by Michelle Woo
[Podcast] Art of Manliness - Podcast #381: The Best Gift You Can Give Your Children Is Failure
[Podcast] The Hidden Why - 381: Jessica Lahey – The Gift Of Failure, Motivation, Parenting, Resilience, Writing & The Art Of Work
[Podcast] RichRoll - Episode 282: Jessica Lahey on the Gift of Failure
[Podcast] Tilt Parenting - Ep 88: Jessica Lahey talks about the Gifts of Failure for Our Kids
[Podcast] Edit Your Life Show - Episode 110: Untangling Overparenting
Jessica’s Youtube Channel
Jessica Lahey SXSW EDU Keynote | Teaching the Gift of Failure
Microsoft Research talk - The Gift of Failure: Fostering Intrinsic Motivation and Resilience in Kids
HarperBooks - Jessica Lahey on The Gift of Failure
Avenues Speaker Series - Jessica Lahey: The Gift of Failure
The Brainwaves Video Anthology - Jessica Lahey - The Gift of Failure
Discussing a specific example - “Letting Your Kids Make Their Own Mistakes Jessica Lahey”
[Book] The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey
[Book Site] Gift of Failure - Book page on her website
[Book] Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation by Edward L. Deci and Richard Flaste
[Audiobook] Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls by Lisa Damour Ph.D.
[Book] On Being 40(ish) edited by Lindsey Mead (Jessica one of 15 contributing authors)
[SoS Episode] The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing with Daniel Pink
[SoS Episode] Research Reveals How You Can Create The Mindset of a Champion with Dr. Carol Dweck
[Faculty Profile] Clark University - Wendy S. Grolnick, Ph.D.
[00:00:04.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[00:00:11] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than 3 million downloads, listeners in over a hundred countries.
In this episode, we discuss the important difference between competence and confidence and look at the dangers of focusing too much on building up your self-esteem. We explore the gift of failure and why sometimes it’s better to let children fail than to try and make them feel better. We learn why frustration is a vital and important piece of a learning process. Why we must consider the inevitability of failure and we uncover one of the most powerful teaching tools that you can use to learn, grow and improve with our guest, Jessica Lahey.
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In our previous episode, we discussed how you can get smarter in a complex and complicated world. How do you deal with confusing and difficult situations? How do you work through some of your life’s most complex problems? In a world of accelerating change, how do you accelerate the quest for wisdom and creativity? We shared a simple, powerful solution that you can use to handle to complexity in our previous interview with our guests, David Komlos and David Benjamin. If you want to finally understand how to deal with complex and confusing situations, listen to our previous episode. Now, for our interview with Jessica.
[00:03:14] MB: Today, we have another awesome guest on the show, Jessica Lahey. Jessica is a teacher, writer and author. She’s an expert contributor for the Atlantic and The New York Times and is the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. She’s also a member of the Amazon Studio’s Thought Leader Board.
Jessica, welcome to the Science of Success.
[00:03:38] JL: Thank you so much for having me.
[00:03:40] MB: Well, we’re super excited to have you on the show today. I really enjoy a lot of the topics that you speak and write about and I can’t wait to dig into a number of these different themes and ideas.
[00:03:52] JL: I love talking about this stuff. So this makes me very happy too.
[00:03:55] MB: Awesome. Awesome. Well, I’d love to start out with the starting point of much of this, which is the self-esteem movement and how maybe it was a little bit misguided.
[00:04:05] JL: Yeah. So it actually matches well with my starting place for all of these, and I’ve been a teacher for over 20 years now and have noticed how the trajectory of parenting into this sort of whatever it is you want to call it, the snowplow, lawnmower, black hawk, whatever you want to call it, over-parenting, and this whole we need to tell our kids constantly how wonderful they are so that we can prop up their self-confidence as much as possible so that they can go off to school feeling like they have this beautiful force field of wonderfulness around them that nothing can ever destroy.
It’s really done our kids a disservice, and I was finding in my classroom that the kids were more anxious, less interested in taking challenges and risks and less interested in being brave and less interested in the learning, which was a real – Obviously, as a teacher, that’s sort of where the rubber really hits the road for me. Lots of kids were feeling confident about their abilities because they’re being told constantly how wonderful they are, how talented and gifted they were, but weren’t feeling at all competent. Weren’t feeling like they had any experience trying and screwing stuff up and learning how to do it better to really back up that sort of empty optimistic confidence that they were carrying around with them.
As a teacher, the problem with that for me is that as a teacher, confidence doesn’t really go very far in the classroom. Competence is where kids really start to feel good about their work and good about their abilities. So when I have these kids where we’re just chronically afraid, chronically nervous, chronically afraid to take challenges, I really noticed a big drop-off in their interest in learning, their motivation for learning and their sense of their own abilities. At its best, education works as a really great team, a great partnership between home and school, and that partnership was starting to deteriorate as well I think because of some of the animosity that teachers were feeling for parents for setting that system up and then for parents were feeling for teachers, because as the stakes get higher, I think some of the parents were viewing us more as the enemy instead of an ally to work with towards their kids learning.
[00:06:25] MB: I love this phrase that you said, empty optimistic confidence.
[00:06:31] JL: Yeah. The problem is – So there’s this great research that shows that we seem to think that if we just tell our kids over and over again how wonderful and talented and gifted and all that. I make the joke of saying things like, “You just fell out of the womb, good at math. Therefore, math just comes so easily to you.”
The problem with telling kids things like that, especially kids who are struggling, is that that doesn’t make their confidence go up. That doesn’t make their self-esteem go up. With kids in particular who have really low self-esteem, who are struggling in school, it makes their self-esteem go down. Because when our purported image of our kids, of them being so incredibly talented and everything should be easy for them, when that thing we’re telling them, that vision of their lives that we’re telling them about doesn’t match what they’re actually experiencing at school, which is naturally having problems, understanding things, running into obstacles, finding new concepts difficult, which is how it’s kind of supposed to work. They start to not really trust our judgment, number one. Number two, they start to feel really bad about themselves and they start to be confused about which reality is they’re supposed to trust. The one in which they’re good at everything right away or the one that they’re actually experiencing in which some things are difficult for them. That’s a difficult place for a kid to be on an emotional level.
[00:07:58] MB: I didn’t even think about the angle of eroding your own trust and credibility when the perspective of the world that you’ve shared that they’re these gifted, talented, amazing individual doesn’t match up.
[00:08:12] JL: Well, it’s not even when we do that. I mean, when you have really little kids and they’re constantly showing the pictures they drew or the things they’re working on, the things they’re making and they’re like, “Mommy, daddy, look at this. What do you think? What do you think?” One of the best things we can do is turn it around and say, “Well, what do you think?” Because that constant sort of, “I do this all the time. I think what my kids do is just brilliant,” especially as they get older and they’re starting to be able to do things that I can’t do. I just I’m in awe of their abilities and I want to say constantly how talented and brilliant and amazing they are, but the problem with doing that too much is that they start to not believe us, because they know. We’re their parents. We’re supposed to think everything that they do is wonderful.
So if we were to turn it around and say, “Well, what do you think?” from a very early age, then we can help our kids come up with some sort of internal compass for good quality work as supposed to just sort of assuming that everything we’re going to say is that they’re great. You can see there’s this moment. It happens often in kindergarten actually, when kids will start showing us crap just to sort of test their theory of how we’re going to respond to it. If they start showing us stuff that isn’t their best work and we rave about it when they show us some, “Here’s a scribble on a paper,” and we rave over and put it up on the refrigerator. That’s not doing them any favors, because now there’s that distrust that can happen, but also they’re not really developing their own compass of quality, their own, “Huh! This is my best work,” or “Oh no! That’s not my best work. This was a scribble I made.”
It happens even in high school. I have kids do it with poetry all the time. They sort of think poetry – I’ve had students pull practical jokes on me where they’ll write down something they dashed off right before class and they expect me too ooh and ah over it because it’s incomprehensible and, therefore, wonderful. Sometimes the jokes works and sometimes it doesn’t, and I think that kids who have that sort of true north about their own abilities are going to be a lot more resilient, are going to have a lot more sense of actual real competence as supposed to this empty sort of optimism that the people around them will love every little mark they put on a piece of paper. We have to help them with that, because in order to become better writers, they have to be able to hear edits. In order to become better artists, they have to be able to hear feedback about their work. Again, we’re not doing them any favors when we don’t give them any of that constructive feedback and just continue to tell them that they’re the most talented creature that’s ever come down the pipeline.
[00:10:54] MB: How do you deal with the difficulty of wanting to shower praise on them and tell them how amazing they are, but holding that back or channeling that into something else?
[00:11:05] JL: Again, as I said over and over again, I do this all the time. This is a challenge for me all the time. My son right now who’s 15 is in the process of learning how to produce and create digital music, and he’s using these software programs that I don’t even understand how they work. Of course, I’m in awe of the situation. As he gets better and better at it, I’m not that great of a barometer for him. I can’t really tell when one thing is better than another.
So I ask him, he created something last night that I of course listened to and thought was brilliant and thought my kid was the most amazing thing that had ever dropped from the heavens. But I asked him to tell me why this marked progress for him, because he was explaining to me as a sort of a breakthrough for him and rather than just listening to it and telling him, “This is great.” I asked him to scribe to me why he felt this was better. Why he thought this was an improvement on what he was doing last week that I thought was great too.
That emphasis on process over end product is going to – It’s so powerful in so many ways. I mean this really gets back at – This sort of is tied in to the work of Carol Dweck, with Mindset. This is tied into that idea of if we’re constantly talking about the learning, then our kids will actually believe us when we tell them things like, “You know what? What I really care about is that you’re learning,” as supposed to what most kids tell me is that they know that that’s BS. That what their parents really care about is what grade they bring home.
So I’d much rather have a really useful discussion where I actually learn something and my kid can actually explain to me what he’s doing where I say, “You know what? This sounds fantastic to me, but explain to me what it is that you think makes this special.” In doing that, he has to come to terms with, “Well, is this actually something new and special or is this something – Here’s what I’m proud of.” That focus on process over product is great.
The other nice thing is I get a lot of questions about – When I’m out on the road, about kids that are highly anxious. Kids that are highly perfectionist, and therefore can get like paralyzed in their own fear of looking foolish or looking stupid. Focus on process over product is an amazing way to defuse really anxious kids, really perfection-oriented kids, because they’re naturally focusing on the difference between that 98 and that 96. They want to freak out over those points. But if we’re constantly pulling it back to process over product, we can help diffuse that.
The other thing we can do that it’s great for is one of the big things kids tell me, and I got to write about this recently for the Washington Post, is that feel like we love them move when they bring home really high grades and love them less when they bring home low grades. In fact, I ask this question all the time of kids when I’m out speaking at schools, and around 80% of the middle school students tell me that they really believe that their parents love them move when they bring home high grades and less when they bring home low grades. In high school, it’s about 90%.
So the messages we’re sending to kids are, “What I care about is the end result, not necessarily how you got there, because that grade is all important to me.” So when we praise them or love them just based on their performance, that’s called outcome love. It’s called withdrawal of love based on performance, and that’s a highly destructive thing to do to kids on an emotional level.
So whenever we have the ability to focus on process even if it’s a low grade. The difference between a test that’s an A and a test that’s an F on an emotional level for me, well, the F stinks and the A is fantastic. But what I can do is say to my kid, “Well, what did you do to get that grade?” or “What went wrong that you’re going to leave behind and what are you going to do next time to improve? Have you talked to the teacher? Did you get any feedback? You say your friend got an A on this and you got an F. Well, what did your friend do that you didn’t do and what did you do that your friend didn’t do? Did you get enough sleep the night before? What did you have for breakfast?” All of these questions about the process can, number one, help our kids believe us when we tell them that what we really care about is learning. It can help focus their attention back on the learning and less on the end result and it can bring everyone’s focus back to what’s really important, which is when you screw up, when you fail at something, that’s not the end point. That is the beginning point for your journey towards what you’re going to do next time to do better.
When we just pay lip service to that, kids get it. They know that we’re full of crap. So if we can just focus all of our language around what are you learning here? How are you going to do better next time? What did you do here? What are you not going to do? What are you taking forward view? How are you going to be better next time around? That process-oriented language, it’s a way to solve a whole lot of problems at once.
Sorry for the big, long rambling answer, but that whole focus on process over product is such an important element of helping kids stay immersed in the learning as supposed to getting so focused on the end result. If anyone who’s ever watched Dan Pink’s TED Talk or read Dan Pink’s Drive or read Edward Deci’s Why We Do What We Do: The Science of Self-Motivation, anyone who’s read any of that stuff knows that extrinsic motivators, motivators that come from outside of us like grades, points, scores, threats of punishment, promises of rewards for good performance at school. All of those things are really terrible for human motivation. What actually works for human motivation is being immersed in the learning for the sake of the thing itself. So anytime we can take that focus off of the grades, we’re doing our kids a huge favor.
[00:17:02] MB: I want to dig into the difference and deeper into this idea of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation. But before we do, for somebody who’s listening to this who’s a parent who’s thinking or saying to them self, “But I really do care about the results. I care about the grades. Not this other stuff.” What would you say to them?
[00:17:21] JL: Of course, we care about that stuff, because unfortunately we have made – Our society has made those grades all important for colleges, for scholarships, for all kinds of things. I’m happy to report – I’m really optimistic right now, I have to say. There aren’t a lot of super optimistic people in education right now, but I’m one of them. Where more and more, there are schools moving away from A through F grading, which is a really – It is such a blunt instrument. Such an insufficient instrument for keeping the focus on learning and moving towards things like standards-based grading, moving towards a system that actually works for helping kids achieve master as supposed to being really game players and cramming and regurgitating and that kind of thing.
So my advice to parents, anytime you hit one of these difficult moments where you really need to step back from that A versus that F is to say to yourself, “Okay, take a breath.” This parenting this is a long term process. It is not our success or failure. Our kid’s success or failure is not built out of these small moments. It’s in these emergencies. It’s built in the moments when we can step back and say, “Okay, what do I want my kid to be able to do six months from now? Do I want my kid to be able to go talk to the teacher? To think about the fact that maybe pulling an all-nighter wasn’t the best approach. Maybe that getting some more sleep was the best approach. Maybe I want my kid to be able to just develop better study habits.”
Where I think I hear that all the time from parents too, and the best way to do that is to constantly talk about what went wrong here. How to do it next time, and we have to keep that long-term focus on parenting, long-term focus on where we want our kids to be a month down the road, six months down the road, a year down the road, as supposed to allowing our freak out over this emergency in front of us to really dictate the communication with our kid.
Unfortunately, what ends up happening with kids, and they talk to me about this all the time, that they feel like they can’t talk to their parents anymore, because the parents are so fixated on the grades that they say, “I can’t talk about this stuff with parents because I know it’s going to deteriorate into a, “But I know you can do better kind of conversation, and they just don’t hear me when I tell that I need support, or I’m doing my best and I need to seek extra help from the teacher, or I need your support in order to help me get over this fear I have of screwing up, a fear that’s incapacitating kids, because they’re so freaked out about looking smart, externally looking smart and making it look effortless. Not just that they’re smart, but that it’s easy, like you can’t break a sweat. That is the stress that’s really paralyzing kids, making kids unlikely to take the challenge problems, or raise their hand in class, or ask me for extra help, or ask their friends for extra help, or ask their parents for extra help. Because they don’t want to be perceived as anything other than perfect. That’s just handicapping kids all over the place.
So focus on the long-term over the short-term. Take a breath. Think about not today, but where you want your kid to be next time. I think that’s, for me anyone, one of the best things I do, because it just sort of diffuses that feeling of urgency and that feeling of, “But I have to fix everything right this very second.” It also diffuses for me those moments when I want to do too much for my kid, when I want to deliver the forgotten homework to school, or take the cleats to school because my kid forget them at home.
When I take that breath and I think about, “Okay. Well, yeah. He’s 15 and he forgot his cleats today.” But I really would like is, “When he’s 15-1/2, I don’t have to think about his cleats anymore. It’s not my responsibility anymore, because in a few short years, I don’t get to be there to clean up for him. So I have to think more long-term and a half to resist that temptation to step in and do for him to be what’s called a directive parent. Instead, to be what’s called an autonomy supportive parent, where I help my kid come up with solutions for next time.” So that focus on next time, that focus on long-term. That gets me out of a lot of problematic moments.
[00:21:44] MB: So many different things I want to unpack from that. To start, without going super deep down this rabbit hole, I’m curious. You touched on this idea that the school system is starting to redesign some of the learning systems to focus around mastery instead of focusing on, as you called it, game playing and cramming, which I think is really interesting. Could you give me just a hint of an insight into what some of those solutions are?
[00:22:07] JL: Well, there’s actually even more than that. I mean, I think schools are really starting back with the idea of professional development. For so long, professional development, the training that teachers do just to keep up to speed on what works and what doesn’t work in education. For a longtime, professional development, it just stank. There really wasn’t a lot of evidence happening. There was a lot of, “We’ve always done it this way. So we’ll just continue to do it this way kind of thinking.”
As we begin to learn more and more about what really works for learning with the advent of functional MRIs, where we can look inside brains as they’re learning and actually see what works and what doesn’t. We’re learning so much about what works in learning, and that’s my favorite thing, is to talk to the researchers who are really doing this frontline research, looking at people’s brains and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. So there’s more of this sort of learning in the brain information leaking into professional development. Thank goodness.
So some of the things that are starting to happen are, for example, this focus not on grades, and A through F grading was never intended to be a measure of learning. Actually, the origin of grades themselves was as a socioeconomic sorter. It was the way you would seat kids in your class according to their socioeconomic status and how much you needed to pay attention to each kid. So the A’s were in front and the F’s were in the back. So that A through F grades.
If you think about it, as a parent – I have two boys myself. As a parent, I would much rather if – Let’s say my kid gets a B on a report card. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what he’s learned. I don’t know what he hasn’t learned. I don’t know what he can and can’t do. But if I get what’s called a standards-based report card, which is a listing of all the skills, for example, that a kid needs to know in a given year, and that could be based on the common core standards. That could be based on some edited version of the common core standards that a school chooses to come up with on their own. It’s just a list of skills that a kid should be able to master by a given year.
So if I know for example that my kid can add two fractions with the same denominator, but can’t add two fractions with a different denominator, then I know that’s a skill he needs and I can look at these list of skills and say, “Okay, he can identify a noun but doesn’t know what a verb, and he has no idea what an adverb is, but he can tell me what a pronoun is.” That kind of thing, that’s information. As a parent, I want information. I don’t necessarily want this B, this representation of whatever it is based on the teacher, based on the material, based on the grading system and all of these other things I can’t know. So that system, standards-based grading.
There are a lot of school that are trying to move in a direction of measuring mastery. Some of them I’m more excited than others. I won’t go into all of that. But on the other hand, we’re also doing these things. Teachers are beginning to understand the difference between what’s called a formative assessment and a summative or accumulative assessment.
Formative assessment are incredibly powerful, because they allow me on a daily basis to check in with my students and know where they all are in relation to the material that I’ve been teaching. So if I go into my classroom and yesterday I taught about – In Latin class, I taught about the difference between the nominative case and the accusative case, and I do a little check-in, a little low-stakes, low anxiety kind of quiz, check-in, that doesn’t count for anything. It’s formative. It’s formative for my students, because they can find out what they do and don’t know. It’s formative for me as a teacher, because I can find out what I did well yesterday and what I didn’t do well yesterday and what people heard and what they didn’t hear and what they learned and didn’t learn. So that when I get to like a big test, which is generally more of like a summative or a accumulative assessment, which is like teach, teach, teach, teach, and then we have this one big test that’s worth a ton of points and you better get nervous about it and you better take it seriously. It measures what kids know like at the end of a unit, summative.
Though summative assessments can be really valuable, but only when they’re prefaced by a whole bunch of formative assessment, and any teacher that’s using formative assessment well should be able to predict exactly how every single kid is going to do on some big test, because they know exactly where every kid is. Formative assessment, like I said, is valuable for both of us.
One of the big things – Both of us, meaning students and teachers, because one of the things that we as humans are really bad at is this thing called metacognition, which is knowing what you do and don’t know. We tend to overestimate what we know. For kids, any opportunity they get to take a little summative, low-stake formative quiz and find out what they do and don’t know, they can say, “Oh! Shoot! I thought I understood that. I guess I don’t.” That’s really exercising their skills and metacognition and that’s incredibly valuable to them.
So, for example, I just moved and we were lucky – We had our sort of choice of a bunch of different towns within a 40-minute radius of where my husband was taking a new job, and we looked at the school systems and we looked at who was using letter grades and summative and cumulative assessments and who was using standards-based grading and at least understood the benefits of formative assessment, and that’s how we chose where we live.
So luckily now, I have a kid who’s my younger kid is going to a school that uses standards-based grading, lots of formative assessment. The kids always know that the work that they’re doing, whether it’s like something is going to count or something that’s really just about their learning and the pressure in this school is so much lower and yet the quality of the learning is really high, because the stress is on the learning. The focus is on the learning as supposed to these high-stakes test grades.
The nice thing about this is that you can still grade kids. You can still put it in a format that a college can understand as a, “Here’s what kids know and here’s what they don’t.” Think about this, if a college sees a summative assessment and sees another report card for another kid that just has A’s and F’s, A through F grading, the college can look at the kid with the summative assessment and say, “Oh my gosh! Here’s what this kid actually knows. We don’t need to like go look at the standards this school uses to figure out what their A through F grading means.” This other school over here, I can just look at this kid’s record and I can see right here what he or she does or does not know and is that a good fit for the classes that this kid will be taking here?
I think colleges are starting to understand the benefit of more information as supposed to these blunt instrument grades. Again, I’m really optimistic. I think that understanding how kids learn is fueling teaching more than I’ve ever seen it fuel teaching. That’s stuff is benefiting kids and it’s benefitting parents, because parents get more information as well about what their kids do and don’t know I need help with.
So all around it seems to be working pretty well and I hope it catches on. I talk at a lot of school where they’re trying to move from one format of grading into another and they often bring me and to talk about the difference to the parents about the two so that I can help the parents let go of the idea that you have to have a grade that’s an A through an F in order to understand whether your kid is doing well or not, and maybe that isn’t as useful to us as an actual report about their mastery.
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[00:31:47] MB: I want to change gears and come back to a topic that I think is really interesting and important from gift of failure, which is this idea of the importance of letting kids be frustrated and how frustration ties into the learning process.
[00:32:02] JL: So here is what we know. When I talk about parenting styles, generally what I'm referring to is directive parenting, is when you tell your kid exactly how to do something, you tell them each step. They walk through it. So, for example, if your little kid is learning how to load the dishwasher, you say, “Okay, take this class and put it right there. Okay. Now, take this plate. Now turn on the water and rinse it and put it right there.” That's very directive parenting, and it also means that when they run into a problem or a frustration with a task that’s difficult for them, we often will direct them through that frustration and tell them how to do it and give them instructions, and teachers are guilty of this as well. There’re directive teachers, definitely.
Autonomy supportive parenting or teaching isn't different. It’s parenting that really supports our kid’s ability to get frustrated, to struggle with that frustration and find the answers themselves. It's directing kids in a way that directs them towards their own figuring out the answer to a problem as supposed to just handing over the answer.
Believe me, it would be so much easier to be directive all the time. I could save myself a ton of time. I could save my kids a ton of time, or at least push off a lot of problems till later. I hate seeing my kids frustrated. I hate seeing my students frustrated. I would much rather just hand them answers, but that's horrible, horrible learning.
The reality of the difference between directive parenting and autonomy supportive parenting is that when you take those kids and you give them tasks on their own that are challenging and you remove them from the parent or the teacher and ask them to complete those tasks on their own, the kids who have had the autonomy supportive parents are much more likely to be able to complete a frustrating task on their own, because kids who have been highly directed don't know how to cope with that feeling of frustration.
One study that I talk about in the book in particular that Wendy Grolnick did with some kids, the kids were highly directed, the kids who had highly correct parents, almost none of the kids were able to complete the sort of slightly frustrating tasks that she had designed for them, whereas the kids of the autonomy supportive parents, almost all of those kids push through their frustration and were able to finish the task.
So fast forward to school and you have a kid that comes to school and one kid can cope with frustration and the other kid can’t. Man! That kid who can handle some frustration and sort of wrestle with it and push through and persevere, have fortitude or have grit or whatever word it is you want to use, that kid is going to learn so much more, because there's this concept called desirable difficulties. Desirable difficulties are one of the most powerful teaching tools I have. It's when I give kids, I give my students tasks that are a little bit more challenging to understand, a little bit more challenging to get inside their head, a little bit more challenging to parse. Those kids will understand the task I’ve given them, the learning inherent in the task I’ve given them more deeply in the short term and more durably over the long term.
So if you think about who can benefit from desirable difficulties, who can benefit from getting a task that's a little bit frustrating and being able to push through and complete the task, that's not the kid with the parents who are highly directive. It is the kid with the parents who have given them the room – The autonomy supportive parents who have given their kid the room to screw up and figure it out for themselves. Kids who can't be frustrated are a nightmare to teach. They fall apart at the drop of a hat. They are those kids that go to their first gymnastics practice and can't do a round-off back handspring and say, “Well, that's it. I'm never going back to gymnastics ever, ever, ever. I can't do it ever.”
I can say that because I did that to my kid. The punch line of gift of failure is that I have made all these mistakes, and just when I was getting frustrated with the parents of my students for doing this to their children, I realized I had a nine-year-old son who couldn't tie his own shoes and was so ashamed of that fact that he was hiding it from me and hiding it from his teachers and being defiant and sitting out of PE class because he was wearing his brother's boots because he didn't have any shoes that he could tie. That was humiliating and embarrassing for me, but it was also a real breakthrough moment where I realized, “My kid can't do this thing, because I have kept him from being able to do it. Every time I've done it for him, I’ve told him in some implicit way, “You know, I just don't think you're competent enough to handle this,” and I did that to him. I rendered my kid helpless and incompetent. In order to do better for my students and to better for my own kids, that's basically why I spent a couple of years researching and writing this book.
[00:36:57] MB: That's a really succinct way to summarize it, this idea that a lot of the things we think are helping really render our children, as you put it, helpless and incompetent.
[00:37:07] JL: Yeah. The research on learned helplessness is fascinating. I love reading about that stuff. Because, really, the punch line of learned helplessness is that it's our – Martin Seligman at University of Pennsylvania did a review of the research on learned helplessness and realized that the punch line of learned helplessness is that it's actually our default sort – Our default circuitry when faced with long-term pain or frustration or struggle is to pretty much ball up and cover our heads and just sort of give up, go helpless.
The way we can get around that, the way we can stop that from happening and sort of stop that circuit is to give more control back to the subject, back to the kid, back to whomever it is that is feeling helpless. Over and over again, I find in my classroom that the more control I give my kids, my students – Sorry. Teachers often do that. We often call them our kids. We mean our students, although they’re really kind of our kids too. The more we do that with our students, the more we give them some autonomy over their learning. If I have a goal that they need to write or learn how to write research papers, you better believe I’m going to let them write research papers on whatever it is that floats their boat, because I’m going to get a lot more buy-in and they’re going to own learning more if I give them more control.
So for the students I teach these days, who are students who have been given very little control over their lives. I happen to teach right now in an inpatient drug and alcohol rehab for kids. So kids who have grown up with very little control over anything and who feel very helpless, whether that's because they’re in state care, in foster homes, in group homes, their parents are addicted themselves. They live in a lot of situations where they don't have the power to change much of anything, and they've come to believe that they are completely helpless and completely powerless.
The one way I can get them out of that is to give them choice back. So I've had to learn how to be an incredibly flexible teacher and an incredibly – I’ve had to let go of the control that I used to hold on to with the tightest grip possible, because I thought my job was to stand at the front of the room and be the expert on everything, and that's not true. My job is to be in the classroom and support them while they become experts in things with my help and to give them the room to do that in a way that will keep them interested. As a parent, it’s really changed the way I parent and the way I teach understanding that, that the way we get kids, what's called intrinsically motivated, motivated to do stuff for the sake of the learning itself, is to give them more autonomy, to give them a feeling of competence and not just that empty confidence that I talked about before, and to let them know that we really truly are connected to them. That we’re there to support them no matter what, that we don't just love them based on their performance.
I tell parents when I’m out speaking, it's really quite simple for parents. We have to love the kid that we have and not the kid that we wish we had, and we can't just love them based on their performance, because they know when we we’re were doing that, and that breaks our connection with the kids. It makes them distrust us. So autonomy, competence and connection, and that’s how we really boost intrinsic motivation.
[00:40:27] MB: Tell me a little bit more about how we foster competence.
[00:40:32] JL: Competence is all about, as supposed to confidence. Competence is about confidence based on actual experience. Competence is –I make the analogy when I’m talking to kids, especially in places I've never been before, I’ll say, “Look, I know how to drive a car. I learned how to drive just outside of Boston. So I grew up a Boston driver.” So I can drive a car fairly defensively, and I also know how to use navigation software.
So if I go to a new town, I can pretty much assume that I'll be able to figure it out. I should be able to get in a rental car from the airport to the school or the hotel where I'm staying, and yeah, I feel good about that. I feel good about my abilities, because I’ve done it. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve gotten lost. I’ve had to figure it out for myself. I’ve had to ask directions. I’ve had to make phone calls to ask people to tell me how to find them. So I’ve coped with doing that well and doing it poorly, and I’ve learned how to problem solve. So I feel competent that I’ve going to be able to get from the airport to this school and give a talk.
For kids, it means that they have been able to do really simple tasks and then maybe their teacher gives them a slightly more difficult task and they don't fall apart and they know that the teacher is there to support them, but that they can give it a shot. They might get it wrong, but they'll be able to figure out a way to get to the end result they want. That as those iterations, as those challenges that I give my students get harder and harder, that they maintain this sense of competence. They maintain this sense of, “Yeah! I did that easier one and I got through that, and then I did that harder one. Yeah, that was hard and I screwed it up a couple times, but I finally figured it out. So, yeah, I think I can do this much more difficult version here,” which by the way, often is the same thing as a desirable difficulty. The can – That's one way we sort of move kids towards acceptance of trying things that are difficult.
That’s how we create kids who don't just feel that empty sense of confidence, like, “It’ll probably be fine. I don’t know. Never done this before, but whatever,” to a kid that really has a sense of, “Yeah. I’ve managed some of the problems leading up to this and I think I can handle it given the skillset that I have.”
I make a joke in the book, in Gift of Failure, that this boy from down the street really wanted me to show how this big log splitter works. That was really a dangerous piece of machinery. But this is a kid who had been told by his parents – He has fantastic parents. I don't mean to disrespect his parents, but his parents had pretty much told him he was brilliant at everything and he could just do anything all the time whenever with no experience.
So he wanted me to turn on that log splitter and let him have a go at it. This was a little kid. He didn’t have any experience. He didn't know what to do if it jammed or where to put his hands and what happened if something went wrong. He had no – He wasn't competent in log splitting, but he was definitely confident in log splitting. Competence lasts. Confidence is easily shattered, but competence is this thing that really wants kids get a taste of it. They want more. It feels good. It makes us feel like we can – It makes us feel powerful and it really diffuses that learned helplessness, the more competent we feel, the more competent we want to become kind of thing. It's really magic when you see that positive feedback loop really start to happen in the classroom. A kid sort of gets that first taste of, “Oh, wow! I can do this.” Then they are like, “Okay. Let’s see what else I can do.” It's really amazing to watch.
[00:44:16] MB: So how do we give the gift of failure to our children?
[00:44:21] JL: I mean, those three things I was talking about before the ingredients for intrinsic motivation are really good place to start. Actually, the very first place that I would start is by really starting to convince myself that this parenting thing really is a long-haul job. It's really not something I’m going to be able to check off every single day this box, this check box of was I a good parent today. Because it's a little different every day and we’re going to have bad days and we’re going to have great days, and our kids are going to have bad days and they’re going to have great days.
What really matters is that final tally, like when they’re out there in the world and they're either able to problem solve and do things for themselves or they’re not. They either feel good about their competence or they go out into the world, can't do something right the first time around and fall apart and need to take a mental health year from college.
So, for myself, the very first place I started to say, “I really try to think long term. I try to stop thinking so much about the end product and focus more on the process.” So that’s sort of my mental starting place. Then from there, I really try to focus on getting my kids more choice, more autonomy, more control over the details. Little stupid things like I don't make my kids clean their rooms, because for kids, their room is the one place where they have some autonomy, the one place where they get to make their environment their own.
So letting go of little things like that, letting go of when I'm teaching them how to do laundry, for example, I have to let go of the fact that they all look rumpled and gross, because they haven't been doing their laundry. So therefore, they have no clean clothes. Letting go of what other people think about me. A bunch of parents come up to – Parents come up to me all the time and they say, “Look, I’m on board. My kid is – I don't let my kid do anything, and that has to change, because I don't know how my kid is going to make it the minute he leaves my house.” But I can't be the first parent to do it, because everyone's going to think I'm totally falling down on the job. The teachers will think I'm incompetent. Their parents will think of me as a bad parent. So I can't be the first one to do it.
But at a certain point, we need to find allies and stop worrying so much about what other people think about us and our children. For example, when my son was choosing a college, I told him from the get go, I said, “Look, the one thing we will not do is put a sticker for college on the back of our car, because that's not about your – We can't coop your accomplishment, your choice, your decisions about what's a good fit for you and what's not a good fit for you. It's not my boast to make on the back of my car. A choice of college is so much more important than that. So I won't make that about my report card as a parent.
I know the lore of wanting the right sticker on the back your car. So when you pull into the school parking lot people can go, “Oh my gosh! Look where that person's kids go to school,” and have that be some sort of ruling on your parenting. I get how scary it is to be a parent, because we don't get report cards on our parenting. We just don't, and that's incredibly anxiety provoking. I'm used to getting evaluations and grades and all that kind of stuff, and I crave it. But at a certain point, I have to let go and say, “Look, my kids are not my report card,” and how they turn out has to be about them and it's not a referendum on me.
So autonomy, give my kids a little more control over their situations so that they can feel – So that they can take that, become less helpless, feel less helpless, feel like crave more competence. So autonomy and not competence I was just talking about. Then making sure at every turn that I'm not just saying that what I care about is the learning and I love you no matter what. Making it so that they believe me, making it so that they watch me try stuff that’s hard for me and screw it up and come to them and talk to them about how I’m going to do better next time. Talking to them at the dinner table about this big screw up I made at work and how am I going to fix this and making goals with our kids and talking about how we want to be better ourselves. We can’t expect them to be more brave learners, to have more courage intellectually and emotionally unless they see us be brave too.
So I let my kids in on my screw up. So I let my kids in on my fears. I let my kids in on my goals, even the really scary goals, like publishing a place I’ve never published before, or giving a new talk somewhere when I've been relying on the same one for a long time. That’s really frightening. As much as I want my kids to respect me and admire me and think I'm perfect, I have to let them in on those struggles, or they’re never going to believe me when I tell them that their struggles are part of why I love them and their response to the struggles are part of why I love them and why I say things like, “You know what? I watched you when you did your homework last night, and you stuck with that math problem so much longer than you would have a year ago, and I'm so proud of you for that.” Without any regard to whether the answer at the end was correct. Because that struggle, that effort, that dedication to something that's challenging to them is what's going to feed their success in the future. How they respond when they fail.
I definitely don't want kids to fail. I hate it. But I do want them to feel that when they do fail, that they can have what’s called a positive adaptive response to that failure instead of falling apart, giving up, dropping out, quitting. I don't want them to be me who, a kid who went to law school assuming it was going to be easy for her, because things had always been easy for her. When I got my first grade in law school and it was a very low D on my first exam, my first instinct was to quit law school. I don't want them to feel that way about themselves. I want them to think, “Okay, how can I do better next time?” Luckily, I had someone who talked me through that and I stayed. But I don't want them to feel like it's either perfection or give it up. That's called a fixed mindset. That's thinking that you're either intelligent or you’re not. If you don't do something perfectly the first time, it must mean you’re stupid.
I just want kids to feel like they can learn. I want them to feel good about themselves. I want them to have competence and not just confidence. So all of that, that autonomy, the competence, that real connection with kids, making sure they know that we have their backs and we have their backs no matter what. That's what feeds this intrinsic motivation and this love of learning not just now, but hopefully for the rest of their lives.
[00:51:08] MB: The reality too is that failure is inevitable. It’s so dangerous to prepare or to send kids into a place with they’re incredibly brittle in the face of such a world that’s filled with difficulties and challenges, etc.
[00:51:24] JL: And that's why the heart of this book is middle school, because middle school is this, I say in the book, is this big set up. We thrust kids into a situation in middle school where they do not have the frontal lobe capacity to – Frontal lobe is the last part of our brain to develop. It's where we do all of our higher order thinking, our time management, and project planning, and all that kind of stuff. We put these kids, these 12-year-old kids, in the middle school, and hand lockers, and a schedule, and lots of books, and a planner, and time management stuff that is way beyond their ability and then really good – This is why middle school is so much fun for me. I love middle school, because my job as a middle school teacher is to stand there day after day, watch kids just screw up over and over and over again and pick my battles and my moment and my moment of trust with the kid and help them do better next time. Middle school is a miraculous place, because that's the game. The game is becoming better. The game is screwing up, because that's frankly middle school is a big set up for kids.
If parents are telling me now that the stakes are so high that we can't even let them fail in middle school, because middle school matters. Well, I don't know what to tell you. If failure is not an option for kids in middle school, then your kid has already lost. You’ve already – You’re going to lose the trust of your child. Your child is going to lose faith in you. Your child is not going to believe you when you tell them that what you care about is learning, because that's frankly BS. You clearly don’t.
[00:53:00] MB: So for listeners who want to start down this path and concretely implement some of the things we’ve talked about today, what would be one action item or a piece of homework that you would give them to start this journey?
[00:53:13] JL: Very first thing is that mental place of process over product, long-term over short-term. Then if you have been doing too much for your kid, whether that kid is really little – Frankly, talking the kindergarten teachers about this book when I was researching it, I asked them to tell me what I could tell parents that their kids can do that they don't think the kids can do, and kindergarten teachers, most of them anyway, just smiled and laughed and said, “Oh my gosh! Everything.”
So whether it's kindergarten or whether you have a kid, a 17-year-old who has never done a load of laundry or manage their own homework or scheduling or whatever, go to that kid and say, “You know what? I think I’ve been underestimating you. I think that you can do a lot more than I've been giving you credit for. Starting today, I’ve picked X.” Whether that's taking care of your own dishes after you eat, or taking care of your own laundry, or a commonplace I encourage parents to start is with homework.
Giving kids a really clear expectation, the expectations you have for them in terms of how they're going to do something and what that's going to look like. Then really, really clear consequences, and hopefully consequences that are actually related to not doing the thing itself. So if the kid doesn't take care of their dishes right after dinner. Well, that food is going to be really, really hard on that dish and really crusty and it's going to take a long time.
So in response to a kid not putting their dishes in the sink or taking care of them and putting them in the dishwasher after dinner, their job is to scrape all that icky food off of there and get that dish finally clean. If the kid who doesn't do their homework, because you haven't been checking up on them on their homework, because it's now their responsibility to do it when, where, why, and how they want to do their homework. Then they’re going to – You’re not going to something that's totally unrelated, like take away their electronics, or do these things that – For kids with still developing frontal lobe function make no sense to them whatsoever from sort of a cognitive perspective. If you could make the consequence be something that actually related to not doing their homework, like making the appointment with the teacher and then leading a meeting between you and the teacher so that the kid can articulate to the parent and the teacher what's been going wrong and the teacher and the parent can support the kid in coming up with strategies for how to do better next time.
I’ve run those meetings. Not run them obviously, because the kid runs them. But I've sat in on those meetings, and I can tell you right now that having to run a meeting with a teacher and a parent where you actually ask for help and do the strategizing, you, the student, is way worse of a consequence than having their electronics taken away. It's a way more useful way to help kids learn to do better next time. So really clear expectations, really clear consequences. Go to your kid and – The nice thing about this is you’re doing exactly what you're asking from your kid, which is, “You know what? I thought I had been doing this parenting thing right. I've been doing it the way my parents did it. The way I thought I was supposed to do it. You know what? I learned something today. I learned that maybe I’ve been doing a little too much for you, and when I do that, it gets in the way of your learning, and that stops today, because I learned something and I’m going to change what I'm doing based on what I learned.” That's all we are asking of them, which is to look with a really clear eye what they've done, whether that’s an A or an F or a failed project or whatever it is. Figure out what they did wrong and move forward after having learned how to do better next time.
So model that behavior for them. Be really clear with them. Be honest with them and then give them more autonomy. I promise you, you’re going to be shocked by some of things that they figure out how to do on their own, and that competence breeds more competence. It's like this fantastic positive feedback loop.
There are some bumps along the way. I’m not going to tell you it's super easy, and they will test and they will have a honeymoon period and then a very clear end of the honeymoon. But overall, when you're looking long term, if you get to a year from now and then look back and realize just how much more competent your child has become when you've given them the space to do that.
[00:57:26] MB: Kids everywhere are going to be cursing the Science of Success when they have to start doing their own laundry.
[00:57:31] JL: Well, my favorite – I have these on my website where under speaking, I have these testimonials if people are interested in hiring me to speak. My favorite one is from an eight-year-old kid who said something like “You don’t help me with anything anymore since you read that book.”
It's not that we abandon them. It's just that we give them the room to figure things out for themselves as supposed to just fixing every problem for them. Yes, some kids will get frustrated with that, but I'll also tell you that when I speak to middle schoolers and high schoolers and I ask them what kind of things they would like to be able to do on their own that they're not allowed to do. I have older teenagers tell me that they're not allowed to walk their dog by themselves in a perfectly safe neighborhood because their parents are afraid, or they're not allowed to ride their bike around town, or they're not allowed to take an airplane by themselves to go visit their grandparents even though there 17-years-old. That kind of stuff starts with, “Let me teach you how to do it right and then I'll show you, and then you need to be able to figure out how to do this on your own as well,” and we support them through that, because we're not always going to be there to teach them how to do every little thing and pick them up when they fall every single time.
So it's really amazing to listen to the kids too. When I get letters from parents and when I get letters from kids. I love the letters that say, “Yes, my kid has gotten more competent because I've given them more autonomy,” and that's wonderful and everything. But the letters that blow me away are the ones that say, and I get a lot of them that says, “The amazing thing to me is my kid is not only more competent, but our relationship has improved so much. Because I’m not nagging. I'm not all over them all the time, I’m not the one having to remind them constantly about doing X, Y and Z. They’re doing it on their own terms,” and that gives us the time and the space to have conversations that are actually meaningful and valuable to both of us. Those improved relationships, I mean, that’s the secret sauce right there. That's it, the secret sauce of parenting.
[00:59:37] MB: For listeners who want to learn more about you and your work, where they can I find you and the book online?
[00:59:43] JL: They can find everything at jessicalahey.com. Everything from a link to all my journalism at the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlantic, Vermont Public Radio, and then links to purchase the book, links to my speaking schedule if you're interested in coming out and seeing what I do in person. There is even a video there of a keynote I gave last year at South by Southwest is right there on my website. So just about everything you could ever want is there.
If you go on YouTube, if you Google gift of failure frequently asked questions. I have a set of videos out on YouTube that really answer the questions I get most often, like about parenting special needs kids, parenting kids who are obsessed with perfection. There is even one there about how to get your kid to shower. So everything you could ever need is either on my website or at the gift of failure frequently asked questions on YouTube.
[01:00:32] MB: Well, Jessica, thank you so much for coming on the show, for sharing all these wisdom. It's been a really insightful conversation.
[01:00:38] JL: Oh! Thank you so much for having me. I love talking about this stuff, because kid’s learning is really at the center of everything I do. If I can help with that, it's a good day for me.
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