Dr. Alison Gopnik, is a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and the author of three books on child development. At our September GaGa Sisterhood meeting she spoke about her most recent book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children.
When Alison became a proud grandmother five years ago, she noticed things had changed quite a bit since she raised her sons three decades earlier. As she helped care for her grandson, she found that today’s new parents felt much more pressure to push their kids to be smarter or to set them on a path to future success.
Caring deeply about our children is part of what makes us human. Yet the thing we call “parenting” is a surprisingly new invention. In the past thirty years, the concept of parenting and the multibillion dollar industry surrounding it have transformed child care into obsessive, controlling, and goal-oriented labor, intended to create a particular kind of child and therefore a particular kind of adult. Alison argues that the familiar twenty-first-century picture of parents and children is profoundly wrong — it’s not just based on bad science, it’s bad for kids and parents, too.
In her book, Alison focuses on the unique role that mothers and fathers play in nurturing this capacity. She asks: Should parents be “carpenters”? That is, should they focus their energy on trying to build their kids to be particular kinds of adults? Or should they think of themselves as “gardeners,” creating a “protected, nurturing” space that gives children freedom to play and explore?
She understands parents’ instinct to harness that precious brain power in a focused way, believing it will give their kids an advantage when they start school, which in turn is seen as the key to many kinds of success in today’s society.
Carpenter or Gardener?
The carpenter model is prevalent in the high achieving Silicon Valley where parents enroll their toddlers and preschoolers in academic and extracurricular programs hoping they’ll be doing math problems, speaking a second language or playing an instrument by the time they start kindergarten.
Some parents given to extremes, worry that they will damage their kids’ character or emotional development if they do the wrong kind of sleep- or potty-training.
Alison certainly understands their anxiety, and feels it herself. “We care a tremendous amount about our children. That’s what we’re designed to do. We also get these messages that there’s a bunch of things we have to do to make them come out right, and that causes a lot of anxiety and guilt in parents.”
Meanwhile, many middle-class mothers and fathers delayed having children until later, leaving them with little or no experience taking care of other people’s kids before they themselves had children.
“Most middle-class parents spend years taking classes and pursuing careers before they have children,” Alison says. “It’s not surprising then that going to school and working are today’s parents’ model for taking care of children.”
But, as Gopnik points out, the science doesn’t support the idea of pushing young kids to learn in a programmed way. “You can’t make them learn. You have to let them learn,” she says.
There’s also no one-size-fits-all prescription for raising kids; the progress of the human race has always depended on people contributing a variety of skills and experiences.
The primary way kids learn and innovate is through play. “For children, play is serious learning. Play is the work of childhood.”
To extend the gardening metaphor, Alison acknowledges that gardening is messy and sometimes heart-breaking when plants don’t grow in ways we can control.
She hopes parents will find the science “reassuring and liberating.” It tells them they can relax and tune out many of the messages about what they should be doing. The job of parents is simpler. It’s to provide kids “a rich ecosystem of love, safety and stability, where children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish.”
“Our job is not to shape our children’s minds,” she says. “It’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows.”
“Parenting” won’t make children learn — but caring parents let children learn by creating a secure, loving environment.
Which kind of parents do your grandchildren have — carpenters or gardeners?