The Gift Of Failure, The Addiction Inoculation, Making “Your Life Your Argument” & Much More With Jessica Lahey.

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If you have teenagers like I do, or have kids that will become teenagers, or are considering having kids that will become teenagers, or even know anyone with a teenager…

…you've probably thought about kids and substance abuse.

Of course, all parents want to give their kids the best possible resources and support to prevent problems with drugs and alcohol. But what does that look like? Is it teaching moderation or prohibiting substances before the legal age? How much does genetics play into it? Those are big, important questions, considering that according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, teen drug addiction is the nation's largest preventable and costly health problem. And nine out of 10 adults with substance use disorder report they began drinking and taking drugs before age 18.

My guest on this podcast, Jessica Lahey, was born into a family with a long history of alcoholism and drug abuse. Despite her efforts to avoid that path, Jessica struggled with alcoholism herself until 2013, when she got sober in her early 40s. Her latest book, The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence, is a comprehensive resource that parents and educators can use to help prevent substance abuse in children. A parent herself, Jessica has also learned firsthand how to navigate this highly sensitive and important topic. Jessica is also the author of the New York Times bestselling book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

For more than twenty years, Jessica has taught every grade from sixth to twelfth in both public and private schools, spent five years teaching in a drug and alcohol rehab for adolescents in Vermont, and serves as a prevention and recovery coach at Sana at Stowe, a medical detox and recovery center in Stowe, Vermont.

Jessica writes about education, parenting, and child welfare for The Washington Post, The Atlantic, is a book critic for Air Mail, and her biweekly column “The Parent Teacher Conference” for three years at the New York Times. Jessica designed and wrote the educational curriculum for Amazon Kids’ award-winning animated series The Stinky and Dirty Show, and was a 2019 Pushcart Prize nominee for her Creative Nonfiction magazine essay, “I’ve Taught Monsters.

The co-host of the #AmWriting podcast, with bestselling authors KJ Dell’Antonia and Sarina Bowen, Jessica also holds the dubious honor of having written an article that was later adapted as a writing prompt for the 2018 SAT.

Jessica will be soon featured in a special chapter of my Boundless Parenting book, for which this podcast interview is part of a series leading up to the official book launch in late 2022. She lives in Vermont with her husband, two sons, and many dogs.

During our discussion, you'll discover:

-Why Jessica wrote the book The Gift of Failure…8:56

-Examples of ways of letting your kids fail…11:50

  • What happened when someone intentionally tripped Jessica’s son on a race
  • He came back exhilarated, it was a personal best for him
  • Jessica suspects she would have made the situation worse had she been there
  • There are moments when we should step back and allow our kids to solve their problems

-Is there a curriculum that teaches failure?…13:47

  • Jessica gets to tour around different schools to speak to students and parents and train teachers
    • Momentous Institute in Dallas – kindergarteners are taught how the brain works
      • Lower brain – react and “punch back”
      • Upper brain – restrain and conversation
    • 6th-grade classroom in California – Teachers made mistakes in front of the kids, tried to get the kids to catch them, or the other teacher would catch the other teacher in the mistake and as a group they would talk through the mistakes.
      • Talk and work together to either problem-solve or work on ways to guide other people when they make mistakes
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
  • Having conversations with kids about “yet situations”
  • Problems in education arise when they do a fixed and growth mindset curriculum
  • The research is to instruct how to role model; how to give kids opportunities to learn
  • It's difficult how to put these concepts into an actual curriculum

-Importance of journaling and setting goals…16:54

  • Journaling helps kids view their progress
  • In the book The Gift of Failure, Jessica talks about how her family seasonally creates 3 goals:
    • One goal has to be scary and outside of their comfort zone
    • Check their progress at the end of each season
    • Learn from it or redefine and recommit to the goals
  • We do what we can with the information that we have; adjust if new information comes in, and if  something goes wrong, we learn from it

-Recognizing work and praising kids' efforts…19:16

  • The downside of just reading “mindset” articles vs. reading Carol Dweck's book Mindset 
  • Carol warns against a flawed understanding of her work
  • It's not just about praising the effort but also encompassing the growth end and all the aspects of becoming self-reliant and self-advocating

-Did The Addiction Inoculation book come after The Gift of Failure?…21:10

  • The Gift of Failure and The Addiction Inoculation books happened contemporaneously
  • Jessica got sober in 2013, same year she started selling the book
  • Jessica came from a family of alcoholics
  • The research on prevention science revolves around the concept of substance use disorder as a preventable public health problem
  • But what is really “preventable”?
  • How to increase the chances of her kids not resorting to alcohol

-Why Jessica mentions she wished she hadn’t allowed her children “sips of alcohol”…22:47

  • Allowing her kids to take a sip was one of the biggest pushbacks she received from parents
  • Initially, she patterned this on how European kids are allowed sips of alcohol
  • According to the WHO, EU countries have the highest level of alcohol consumption in the world
  • EU countries with lower rates of alcohol consumption are because of cultural taboos against public intoxication
  • The idea of teaching kids moderation by modeling moderation is not possible for someone who has alcohol use disorder and cannot learn moderation
  • Parents should have a consistent and clear message about not taking alcohol until the brain is fully developed (early to mid-20s)
  • The younger a kid starts taking alcohol and drugs, the higher their lifelong statistical risk of developing a substance use disorder
  • Parents who have a permissive attitude around drinking have kids with higher levels of substance use disorder
  • Starting age of taking alcohol and the lifelong risks of developing substance use disorder
    • An 8th grader has a 50% lifelong risk
    • A 10th grader has around a 20% lifelong risk
    • 18 years old and it goes down to around 10%, the same as in the general population
  • 90% of people who have substance use disorder in adulthood say they started drinking before age 18

-How does early exposure affect substance use disorder later in life?…27:26

  • Alcohol and drugs have a greater risk on the adolescent brain
  • Chronic users of marijuana have smaller hippocampus
  • The adolescent brain is still developing and so has a smaller hippocampus
  • A smaller hippocampus is  related to problems with short-term memory formation and storage
  • A thinning in the pre-frontal cortex is seen in kids who use a lot of marijuana

-Did either of your children go through some sort of substance use disorder?…29:27

  • Prevention science does not give any guarantees
  • Prevention is about giving kids the right information, teaching them refusal skills (inoculation skills)
  • Sana at Stowe
  • The more information people have, the earlier they realize that they need help

-What advice can you give to parents with a child with substance use disorder? …35:38

-The importance of afternoon quiet time…38:02

-Jessica's thoughts on coming of age rituals…42:23

  • New York Times column “The Parent Teacher Conference” – came up with a random list of things that were thought important for our kids to learn how to do as they got older
  • This led to her first speaking engagement with the Jewish Education Foundation about the future of Bar Mitzvah
  • Ben's kids' rite of passage types of activities
  • Creating games in a safe and controlled environment for introverted kids
  • Jessica loves building activities/traditions around things that teach kids important life lessons
  • This is a common thread in the upcoming Boundless Parenting book about parents intentionally weaving some type of coming-of-age activities in their children's lives

-Evidence-based learning methods vs. traditional learning methods…47:15

  • A research journal that is getting federal funding has to make its research articles free to the public
  • For a long time, access to research into what works for education didn't trickle down to the people who were teaching children
  • Teachers often operate on “This is how I learned, therefore, this is how it will work when I teach”
  • Traditional strategies are done without thinking about whether they work for learning
  • The school district in Vermont where they moved to was interested in what works for learning as opposed to what's convenient for teachers
  • Standards-based grading
  • Cumulative or summative assessments are not a great learning tool
  • Formative assessments allow kids to figure out what they know or do not know, exercising metacognition to help kids become better learners
  • Youcubed at Stanford
  • Jo Boaler
  • YouTube video – Why Are Timed Math Drills Bad for Kids?
  • The fastest way to turn off any learning is to increase stress in a kid's environment
  • Proficiency/mastery and speed are not the same thing
  • Duolingo

-What Jessica means when she says, “I choose to make my life my argument”?…53:37

  • “My life is my argument” is actually a Dr. Albert Schweitzer quote 
  • The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship – finding your “Lambaréné
  • “But it's the people that can really just shut up and make their life their argument instead of just blabbing away about how everybody else should be doing everything. Those are the people I tend to respect the most.”
  • A refined way of expressing “actions speak louder than words”

-And much more…

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32 Questions For Boundless Parenting

The following questions were posed to Jessica Lahey, and the rest of the wise parents interviewed for my upcoming book, Boundless Parenting.

  1. How many children do you have, how old are they, what is their profession or passion, and why, in particular, are you proud of them?
  2. Are there any elements of your parenting approach that you would consider to be particularly unique?
  3. What books, systems, models, or resources do you rely heavily upon or consider to be indispensable in your own parenting?
  4. What traditions, habits, routines, or rituals are most important, memorable, or formative for your family?
  5. What rites of passage or significant moments of maturation to adolescence or adulthood have your children experienced, if any?
  6. Who do you look up to as parenting mentors?
  7. What have you taught your children about raising their own children?
  8. Do you have any philosophies or strategies for educating your children outside of traditional school, such as homeschooling, unschooling, self-directed education, or other alternatives, creative, or “outside-the-box” forms of education?
  9. What has been your proudest moment as a parent, and why?
  10. What do you wish you had known before first becoming a parent?
  11. Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome as a parent? If so, how have you coped with that?
  12. How have you achieved a balance between mentoring and passing on wisdom without “living vicariously” through your children?
  13. Have you ever faced any big parenting decisions that kept you awake at night worrying or that you feared you would mess up?
  14. What do you regret, if anything, from your experience as a parent?
  15. What is the biggest mistake you have made as a parent?
  16. What, if anything, from your parenting experience would you go back and change or improve?
  17. If you had multiple children, what did you think was right at the time with one child that you then went back and changed with the next child or future children?
  18. Have you ever sensed or feared that your children would grow up too different or weird as a result of any “outside-the-box” parenting approaches you used? If so, how did you deal with that?
  19. Have you ever differed from your spouse on parenting principles, techniques, or approaches? If so, how did you manage that?
  20. Warning: This question is long but important: As a parent, have you ever felt conflicted about wanting to share a book, teaching, resource, or method with your children as a means of impacting their future success, but feared that it might “overload” them, especially at their age? If so, how did you balance bestowing this valuable knowledge to your child without causing them to worry too much about adult concerns? How did you decide when to just “let a kid be a kid” versus nudging them towards responsible adulthood and the attainment of valuable wisdom?
  21. How have you balanced being a present, engaged parent while preserving your own identity, taking time for your own self-care, tending to your career, or pursuing other interests that did not include your children?
  22. How have you engaged in one-on-one time or created space for dedicated time with your child, especially if you have more than one child?
  23. If your children have grown up and moved out of your house, what strategies have you found most helpful for maintaining and building your relationship with them?
  24. If your children have grown up and moved out of your house, do you often miss them, fear for them, or think of them? If so, how have you coped with any loneliness or desire for their presence?
  25. Do you have non-negotiable rules for your children?
  26. How have you disciplined your children, if at all?
  27. How have you helped your child to establish responsibly, moderated, or conscientious consumption or use of books, media, entertainment, screen time, and social media? This is not my favorite question because the focus on “limiting screen time” seems a bit blown out of proportion these days and I think causes kids to get obsessed with the “forbidden fruit” of screen time, but it seems to be on the minds of many parents today, so I’d be remiss not to include it.
  28. Have you emphasized or encouraged any health, fitness, or healthy eating principles with your children? If so, what has seemed to work well?
  29. If your child or children could inscribe anything on your gravestone, what would you hope that they would write? What would you most want them to remember about you?
  30. What do you most want to be remembered for as a parent?
  31. What do you think your child or children would say is their fondest memory of being raised by you?
  32. What message for parents would you put on a billboard?

Click here for the full written transcript of this podcast episode.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

Jessica Lahey:

– Books:

– Article:

– Other Resources:

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