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Why parents should give up trying to produce perfect kids

Alison Gopnik on the problems with parenting today—and how to embrace messes


 
Alison Gopnick. (Photograph by Jessica Eve Rattner)

Alison Gopnick. (Photograph by Jessica Eve Rattner)

Alison Gopnik’s forthcoming book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, sheds new light on the relationship between parents and children, but it is not a parenting book. Rather, Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, proposes that parents need not and should not seek skills to raise perfect children, as though they were tradespeople and their children, their products. Author of The Philosophical Baby and co-author of The Scientist in the Crib, Gopnik warns that children’s wisdom and spontaneity get lost when parents pressure their kids to be something specific.

Q: Children seem to do the opposite of what parents want. Is moulding children even possible?

A: I don’t think it’s possible. Even if it were, it would defeat the whole purpose of having children. From an evolutionary perspective, childhood is about mess. It’s about shaking things up—adding, as my computer scientist friends would say, a “boost of noise” to the system, making things a little random in a way that allows new possibilities to emerge.

Q: You write about “the gardener” and “the carpenter” in your latest book. What do they represent?

A: There are two different ways you could think about being a parent, and one that’s become very common since the end of the 20th century is a kind of carpentry model. The idea is that if you just got enough expertise and enough special techniques and read up enough, then you could shape a child into the kind of adult you wanted. There’s almost this kind of competitive enterprise. That picture is the picture I think people often imply when they use the word “parenting,” which rather surprisingly is a word that really only started showing up in the ’70s in the United States. And that’s not the picture that comes out of what we know from science at all.

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Q: What term was used before “parenting”?

A: People talked about being a parent, or being a mother or a father. We don’t talk about “wiving” our husbands or “friending” our friends, or “childing” our parents. We just talk about being in a relationship with those people. You don’t measure whether your marriage was good based on whether or not your husband is better now than he was 10 years ago, or whether your friend is richer than when they first became your friend. The relationships between parents and children is a kind of love, rather than a kind of work.

Q: So the “gardener,” then.

A: All of us gardeners know that nothing comes out the way you planned. It’s a different garden every year, and it’s always sort of different from what you were thinking when you began. What it really means to be a good gardener is to work hard to produce an ecosystem that will have enough diversity, enough possibilities, so it’s robust, and it’s resilient, and it can change when the seasons change. And that kind of robust, unexpected, variable, messy system—that’s what you want to create when you’re having children, too. At least, that’s what the science suggests is the evolutionary point of childhood.

Q: Did your own parents take the gardener approach?

A: Part of the inspiration for this book was my own parents. They came from pretty poor immigrant families. My parents dropped out of school and had six children, starting when my mom was 19. We lived in public housing projects to begin with. By most people’s standards, you’d say their children have really excelled. One of my brothers is a writer for The New Yorker. One of my other brothers was the art critic for the The Globe and Mail for many years. All of my three sisters are very successful doing a very wide range of things. But the funny thing was, growing up, we never felt as though we were under any particular pressure to do anything. My parents believed so profoundly in their values, which were all about art and science, that we all just thought about them as being part of everyday life.

All of us at one point or another rebelled and dropped out and did all sorts of things that I shudder to think about now, certainly in my case, but we had a sense of stability and love that led us to go on and shape independent lives of our own. And I hope that’s what I’ve done with my children, too.

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Q: With your own children, were you ever tempted to intervene more than you think healthy?

A: It all just goes by so quickly that you really are just reacting to emergencies. Just like all those other middle-class parents, I worried. I like to say there should be a worry bank for parents so that all the things you worry about that don’t happen could be deposited in the worry bank, and the next time something happens, you wouldn’t have to worry about it. I certainly would’ve had a substantial account in the worry bank.

Q: Why have parents turned to the carpentry model?

A: At the end of the 21st century, families got smaller, people started having children when they were older, people got more mobile. They’ve spent 35 years working and going to school, so when they have children, they think this is like working and going to school. You read a bunch of books and you get a bunch of how-tos, and you take a bunch of classes and you learn a bunch of techniques. You set yourself goals and benchmarks. I think people have imported that into their experience of taking care of children.

There are 60,000 parenting books on Amazon. By the way, there’s no rule that says you can only write a parenting book if you know something about parents and children. We’re in a culture where everything is either consumption or production, so child care is either a very, very bad-paying form of work or a very expensive luxury that you purchase. There isn’t a good place in our picture of the world for what caregiving is about. Even teenage babysitters have sort of disappeared from the scene.

Q: How can parents become better gardeners?

A: It’s all the things that we already know as parents. It’s where we unconditionally love this child that we get.

The second thing is we provide a secure, stable space for those children to grow up in, so children will be able to take risks and have adventures and do things that are unexpected. If there isn’t a risk that your children can fail, then you haven’t succeeded as a parent.

The third thing is, we pass our values, ideas and moral character on to our children, but we do that knowing that our children are going to revise our knowledge and reshape their values. There’s something very paradoxical and profound about being a parent as opposed to parenting. We put in all this effort and energy not so that we can shape a child of a particular sort, but so that all sorts of possibilities can happen in the future.

Q: How does the gardener model benefit adults?

A: Children are the most amazing thing in the universe, as far as I’m concerned. If you’re worrying about how it’s going to turn out, you aren’t experiencing that day-to-day satisfaction of being with these incredible, extraordinary creatures. Every single one of them is the most incredible, extraordinary creature that you’re ever going to want to see. I think the joy of having that deep relationship—that’s the core of what being a parent is.

My husband just spent last weekend digging out a model dinosaur with my grandson. About 3 o’clock in the morning I woke up and went into the other room and I saw that he was there, playing with his dinosaur. I spent most of yesterday morning climbing around underneath a dinner table with a bunch of Australian animals and my two grandchildren. Not usually the way I spend my [time].

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Q: What do you think parenting will look like at the end of the century?

A: We’ll have a generation of parents and a generation of children who won’t have had the deep satisfactions of being parents and being children in the way that they might have and are going to spend a lot of time fretting and worrying and being hovered over for nothing. The question isn’t so much “What will happen in the long run?” but “What’s happening to people’s lives right now?”

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: My joke is that my muses for this book are my grandchildren. I have three children who are now all grown up, and just as I was starting to write the book, my grandchildren were born. Being a grandmother is a wonderful thing, so my advice is skip the children. Go straight to the grandchildren.

Part of being a grandmother is that you can be a bit more reflective. I think there’s more and more pressure to have a child come out to be the one who goes to Harvard, and I think there’s tremendous pressure on parents to try to be part of that shaping process. It drives them crazy, and it drives their children crazy.


 

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