“The Gardener and the Carpenter”: Alison Gopnik

Child psychologist Alison Gopnik has followed up her previous books about child development (The Philosophical Baby, The Scientist in the Crib) with The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children (2016). 

It will become clear which of the two types of parents, the gardener and the carpenter, Gopnik prefers:

In the parenting model, being a parent is like being a carpenter. You should pay some attention to the kind of material you are working with, and it may have some influence on what you try to do. But essentially your job is to shape that material into a final product that will fit the scheme you had in mind to begin with. And you can assess how good a job you’ve done by looking at the finished product. Are the doors true? Are the chairs steady? Messiness and variability are the carpenter’s enemies; precision and control are her allies. Measure twice, cut once…

When we garden, on the other hand, we create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish…Unlike a good chair, a good garden is constantly changing, as it adapts to the changing circumstances of weather and the seasons. And in the long run, that kind of varied, flexible, complex, dynamic system will be more robust and adaptable than the most carefully tended hothouse bloom.

Gopnik’s favored approach lets kids develop more naturally. Katherine Reynolds Lewis, The Atlantic: “It should be fundamentally both reassuring and liberating for parents to know that children are doing most of the work. All the research that shows how incredibly sensitive and intelligent and powerful and good at learning children are and that they do it by observing and watching the people around them doing the things they do every day and by playing spontaneously. Children learn much more from using their own brains to just observe and play than they do by having someone sit down and teach them.”

Not only that, they start right out of the gate. Ruth Graham, New York Times: “In fact, our brains are most active, and hungriest, in the first few years of life. Even as adults, our brains use a lot of energy: when you just sit still, about 20 percent of your calories go to your brain. One-year-olds use much more than that, and by four, fully 66 percent of calories go to the brain, more than at any other period of development. In fact, the physical growth of children slows down in early childhood to compensate for the explosive activity of their brains.”

Gopnik prefers taking the verb “parenting” out of the picture. A relevant The Gardener and the Carpenter quote: “’Parent’ is not actually a verb, not a form of work, and it isn’t and shouldn’t be directed toward the goal of sculpting a child into a particular kind of adult…We recognize the difference between work and other relationships, other kinds of love. To be a wife is not to engage in ‘wifing,’ to be a friend is not to ‘friend,’ even on Facebook, and we don’t ‘child’ our mothers and fathers.”

Below Gopnik “examines when caregiving became the art of hovering, and the pitfalls and anxiety of trying to shape children instead of raise them”:

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