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Why Do We Think We Can Create the Perfect Kid?

You’ve probably been hearing about a new book that takes aim at “parenting,” pointing out that we don’t “spouse” our spouses, we just love them and live with them. But once parents start TO parent, they often feel they are actually able to control the person their child becomes.

(I’m pausing while you ruefully snort.)

So here’s a review of that book, The Gardner and the Carpenter, by Alison Gopnik. Reviewing it is Linda Flanagan, a writer, editor, high school cross-country coach, and erstwhile competitive runner. She is a regular contributor to the NPR education blog MindShift, as well as to The Huffington Post,  The Wall St. Journal, The Atlantic online, The New York Times, Newsweek, Runners’ World, and The Responsibility Project. Read more of her work  here (about bullies), here (about “All Joy and No Fun“) and here (about helicopter parenting). Her Twitter feed is @

WHY WE CAN’T TURN OUR KIDS INTO THE EXACT PEOPLE WE WANT THEM TO BE by Linda Flanagan

In one of Louis C.K.’s routines on the absurdities of rearing children, the comedian recounts his delight in watching his young daughter’s tap dance recital. She’s a miracle up there in her noisy little shoes, and he couldn’t be prouder. What bothers him is all the other kids hogging the stage. He has to sit through all their dances too, for these kids that nobody cares about?

University of California, Berkeley professor Alison Gopnik, who just published a book on parent-child relationships, helps us make sense of the peculiar feelings and experiences we have while tending to our children. In The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children, we learn, for example, that not especially caring about other people’s kids is one of the costs of our devotion to our own, particular child. Louis C.K. is going to have to sit through these interminable performances because other parents feel the same way about their darlings as he does about his own.

At the heart of Gopnik’s book is a distaste for modern child-rearing methods, captured in the ungainly and ubiquitous term “parenting.” As she asserts in one of many spot-on takedowns of “parenting,” with all the prodding, controlling, and shaping of offspring the term implies, we don’t “wife” our husbands or “friend” our companions, nor do we evaluate our “success” as friends or spouses by the latter’s achievements.  The value of these relationships comes from the depth of our connection and the quality of our love. The same should hold true for mothers and fathers with their children: our role is not to turn them into something—a perfectly accomplished violinist, say, or Ivy League coed—but to nurture them in a way that allows them to thrive.

“Parenting” is a by-product of widespread economic changes that compelled families to scatter and head for the cities, without other members of the clan to help raise the kids. Absent the accumulated wisdom of grandparents and aunts, clueless mothers and fathers have turned to “experts” who seem to have answers for fretful new parents’ multiple concerns. Modern, middle-class parents also borrow from their experiences as students and employees, applying lessons from these goal-oriented pursuits to family life.

This is wrong-headed in many ways. Or, as Gopnik puts it, “Parenting is a terrible invention.” Young children grow best in a loving and stable home, where they have abundant opportunities for social learning. Children figure out how to behave by watching and listening to the caregivers around them; this non-conscious learning dwarfs anything that is taught to them directly. Parents would serve their kids best by engaging in plentiful conversations, exposing them to multiple ways of doing things, and inviting them to play.

As you would expect, Gopnik slams the relentless standardized testing that children endure, often aided and abetted by parents. “A standardized test score is the apotheosis of the goal-directed, child-shaping, carpentry picture of schooling—the idea that schools should be designed to turn all children into creatures with particular characteristics,” Gopnik writes. Just as children do best in secure homes where they are encouraged to explore and indulge their diverse interests, so too do they flourish in learning environments that celebrate variability and discovery.

Gopnik devotes a chapter to technology, that wellspring of anxiety for us grown-ups. Her message here: relax. Every generation absorbs and transforms the lessons from the previous one, altering the environment and the culture along the way.  With one sentence, she demolishes the rationale for fussing over tiny “parenting” decisions: “It’s very difficult to find any reliable, empirical relation between the small variations in what parents do—the variations that are the focus of parenting—and the resulting adult traits of their children.”

My own children are out of the nest, and reading this today makes me wish I’d trusted my instincts about their scheduling and activities even more than I did. The pressure to “parent” is so insidious and ingrained in many American homes that it feels like apostasy, or even negligence, to allow children to goof off for an afternoon. When I recall the missed family gatherings, the splintered weekends—you take him to lacrosse, and I’ll run over to soccer—the countless times my husband and I divided and conquered, as we put it, to ensure the “best” for our kids—I wish I’d had the fortitude to say to hell with all that.  New mothers and fathers: skip the T-ball practice and Kumon class. Instead, head over to the park with a Frisbee and a couple of cheese sandwiches, and spend your free weekends playing in the leaves with your kids.

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Why do we think we can raise the perfect kid if we just do everything "right"?

Why do we think we can raise the perfect kid if we just do everything right?

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17 Responses to Why Do We Think We Can Create the Perfect Kid?

  1. K September 23, 2016 at 11:01 am #

    How does the author actually define “parenting”? We don’t “spouse” our spouses, but our spouses know how to use the toilet and eat with utensils, and they don’t bite people. Isn’t teaching those kind of things what “parenting” is, more fundamentally than signing up for violin lessons? Saying, “No, you can’t play soccer/lacrosse, because we’re going to have a family picnic” is just as much parenting as driving to soccer/lacrosse games. It’s making executive decisions as the adult in the family in an attempt at instilling your values in your children.

    “With one sentence, she demolishes the rationale for fussing over tiny “parenting” decisions: “It’s very difficult to find any reliable, empirical relation between the small variations in what parents do—the variations that are the focus of parenting—and the resulting adult traits of their children.””

    I’m not sure she does. I might be considered “fussing” over a small parenting decision right now – not obsessing, but sure, fussing – over whether to to wean my toddler gradually or cold-turkey. I have no illusions that it has anything to do with what kind of adult he’ll turn into! I just want to make it the least awful for the both of us over the next few weeks, and to do it in a way that won’t be confusing to him in the short term, because that would be a kind and respectful way to treat the person he is right now.

  2. James Pollock September 23, 2016 at 11:21 am #

    “But once parents start TO parent, they often feel they are actually able to control the person their child becomes. ”

    Control? No. Guide? Yes. (The most important thing to remember, of course, is that kids learn from everything, and not just from the messages we intend them to receive.)

  3. diane September 23, 2016 at 11:29 am #

    I always liked the term “rearing” better than parenting. It separates the job from a particular person, and implies guidance from behind, not leading a child about from the front. Didn’t Khalil Gibran write some poetry about parents being the bow, and children the arrows sent forth?

  4. Roger the Shrubber September 23, 2016 at 12:19 pm #

    Perhaps the bool is a good read but I am confused by this review. Does Gopnik really define everything she doesn’t like about how some people raise their kids as ‘parenting’ while everything she approves of as ‘something else.’ Does she really think that me, as a Dad, encouraging and enabling my son’s obsession with baseball is an attempt to perfect him or mold him into a future MLB player? Then the reviewer goes on to reconsider her own past parenting immediately after quoting the author as saying ‘It’s very difficult to find any reliable, empirical relation between the small variations in what parents do…’

    You know what, different people value things differently. Just because they value giving their children the opportunity to participate in athletics or dance over some idealized frolic in the leaves on a picture perfect autumn weekend doesn’t mean that they are attempting to ‘perfect’ their offspring or somehow mold them into something that they are not. Some kids gravitate towards athletics, music, and dance. Should parents deny them these opportunities for someone else’s idea of how parents and their children interact?

  5. Nicole September 23, 2016 at 12:53 pm #

    And yet another parenting book to criticize past parenting books, and tell use how to parent, or not to parent. Ha! As the other commenters said, hardly anyone thinks they are raising the perfect kid, and I assume those books that try to are also just trying to sell books.

  6. sigh September 23, 2016 at 2:27 pm #

    Hmmmmm… because there is no “tribe” anymore, and we’re all just making this up in our own little boxes with our own kids, it seems totally predictable that we’d be looking for guidance on how to socialize and support our offspring.

    Just like there weren’t any “career decisions” in a tribe that foraged, and everyone had a fairly natural role to play without pondering their “goals” or “fulfillment,” there weren’t any “parenting decisions” either. There just was “this is how we’ve always done it.”

    Look at how much anxiety there is in trying to figure out how to have fulfillment and “success” in our western adult lives. And that’s just us as adults. So of course we’re projecting onto our little ones, wondering how the hell THEY are going to “get along” in this world, where everyone has to scramble to figure out how to set up a sustainable existence.

    While I have had my phases of being overwrought about every little thing I have done or not done for my kids, I do recall my own childhood and the “tribe” around me in suburban Ohio. There were still activities and lessons, and homework, and grades, but it did all seem more relaxed. Or at least, it was up to us kids to decide how much to stress over any of it.

    I think the expectation of near-constant supervision of children is what has brought on the hyper-parenting experience. I mean, if you have to watch or organize someone else to watch your child 24 / 7, it brings on a kind of terror of scrutiny that no other generation of parents has had to deal with. The overwhelming judgement aimed at parents, and blame as well, for outcomes and decision-making, has put all parents in a position of having to justify themselves. So they’re looking to “experts” to back them up, or show them what will be considered “above reproach.”

    But please, don’t think parents are opting into this awful setup just because. It’s a cultural phenomenon, and human beings are wired to equate belonging with survival. Being an outcast, or rejected, is on par with death.

    So spare me the histrionics about how we all should “just relax.” It’s actually offensive to say that parents are choosing this shit. They may not have the consciousness to see beyond the hysteria and media and cultural crap, but like I say, things were simpler in the tribe, and we’re just not set up to have to deal with all of these social variable that change every damned minute.

  7. test September 23, 2016 at 5:13 pm #

    @sigh But then again, we are trivializing what went around for parents of previous generations. We imagine them to be worry free, because we as kids were worry free. I read a book about 19 century kids in Germany. They were not worry free nor free. Middle class kids had whole day lined up from morning to evening, because that was expected. There was no free play and definitely nothing that would allow them to mingle with lower classes (plus they worried boys will masturbate and turn themselves blind). Lower classes kids had to work since 7 years old to get money for food and parents seen school was seen as waste of time and intrusion into family.

    More eastern countries were agrarian, again from what I read, parents often wanted kids to work so teachers had hard time to get them to school. Girl married 15-16 years old after two weeks of dating, boys married after military service. Smaller kids were expected to work to their abilities – that includes 6-7 years old – the whole free play all the time thing was a matter of very little kids.

    Then there were two world wars where most of things focused on war or survival depending who you was. They were raised in tougher way, but oftentimes it was because “you might have to fight” was in back of the mind who raised the children and children aspired to fight. Even scouting has origins there – to make boys more ready to join the army and conquer lands once they grow. It is all about peace now, but the origin is in conflicts and struggles for power in that era.

    Parenting and childhood was more complex then we tend to talk about for most people most of the history. The school aged child plays a lot” is a product of modernity and safe future – mandatory school system, kids not being expected to work and work being of the kids that kids are unable to do anyway. Acceptably good jobs being available to people with not much education, so there is little reason to worry. All of that are good things. This was not necessary historical norms all the time.

    I suspect they had to end with some women wanting to have careers and jobs which led to kids needs being used in bitter fights. But they maybe had to end with middle class lowering in numbers – if your kid does not get to good college, kids life will be significantly harder. It is not just a question of luxuries, but also healthcare kids kids schooling and so on. Generally speaking, parents who had time and some money (but not too much) always wanted kids to grow up hard working and good.

  8. Anna September 23, 2016 at 6:39 pm #

    Well, personally the reason I hate the word “parenting” is that I loathe most neologisms that force nouns to pretend to be other parts of speech: to friend, to dialogue, to parent, to workshop – these are all offenses against the English language, whether Gopnik’s overall thesis is warranted or not!

  9. Dave September 23, 2016 at 7:42 pm #

    I object to using the term “parenting” to refer to any single “modern” approach to raising kids. It doesn’t. Every family does things a bit (or a lot) differently – we’re not all marching in lockstep. My own approach to parenting was very much “free range” long before Lenore popularized the term in reference to kids. My son’s friends were raised (parented, if you wish) following a variety of very different philosophies, as are my grand-kids and their friends. We should be clear about which parenting style we’re referring to, modern or otherwise – helicopter parenting, attachment parenting, tiger mom parenting, “pressure cooker” parenting, free-range parenting, etc.

  10. Crystal September 23, 2016 at 7:56 pm #

    Showing my complete ignorance here, but I am a mom of 4 and I have no idea what Kumon class is!

  11. Dave September 23, 2016 at 8:22 pm #

    Test – you misunderstand the origins and purpose of Scouting. Its founder, Sir Robert Baden-Powell (B-P), was indeed a highly decorated and famous British general, but his purpose in developing the Scout movement was not to feed well-prepared boys into the army. Instead, he aimed to make them better citizens who might also be prepared and able to defend the Empire by finding a better way to educate them. He’d seen first-hand the dismal results of teaching methods in the UK and elsewhere, and ultimately developed a workable solution.

    The form that Scout groups took was almost an accident, stemming from a book on military scouting and training methods written by B-P and published in 1899. B-P himself said on many occasions that the military-like elements of Scouting weren’t the key to its success. Indeed, he took steps to make sure it became as demilitarized as possible, especially after WW1. He wanted it to be a world-peace promoting movement. Scouting succeeds because of the “patrol method” that groups kids into small gangs and gives them scaled-down adult responsibilities in a “safe” learning environment. (Scouting in the US hung on to it’s more military aspects well into the 1960s.)

    At his core, B-P was far more than a soldier. He was a talented artist, prolific writer, actor, and operatic singer, and a brilliant educator who invented and documented what we now call “experiential learning.” He was the first to demonstrate that a specific system of teaching skills hands-on in small groups produced vastly superior results. He changed the way educators in the UK and around the world taught almost overnight.The book (Aids to Scouting) describing his revolutionary teaching methods was directly responsible for the birth of the Scout movement because teachers and kids alike saw in it the possibilities for great fun and adventure while learning efficiently and effectively.

  12. Donald September 24, 2016 at 2:48 am #

    I joke with my kids all the time. One of my jokes is when I tell them that they screwed up my retirement plan! They were suppose to become a major league baseball pitcher so they can support me in retirement. : )

  13. Katie G September 24, 2016 at 6:48 am #

    Anna- love it!

  14. hineata September 24, 2016 at 4:54 pm #

    I have a book reproduction from 1878 entitled ‘Don’ts for Mothers’ and other actual Victorian books that seem to espouse similar and sometimes polar opposite opinions to said.

    I am thinking of writing my own book, ‘All your parenting ideas are crap; come listen to mine! ‘ – it will be available on Amazon when I get enough pure gall, and lose enough self-awareness, to actually write it.

  15. Donna September 25, 2016 at 10:21 am #

    Again, back to this insistence that the only reason parents should do anything at any given time is to affect their children’s future. My child is involved in several after school activities for no other reason than she currently likes the activities. She takes riding lessons because she likes to ride horses, not because I expect her to be a horse trainer. She runs track because she enjoys running and not because I expect her to one day win an Olympic gold medal. She participated on the school math team because she was invited to do so and wanted to do it, not because I expect her to be the next Stephen Hawking. She is, as I type, camping with Girl Scouts because she likes camping and the Girl Scouts, not because I want her to be an outdoor enthusiast or professional cookie salesperson. She has tried and gotten bored with many other activities in the past and I expect that she might give up these activities one day too. Or they may be life-long hobbies. Or they may end up being a spring board into a career. Who the heck knows. She is only 10 with many years ahead of her to decide who she wants to be. There will probably even be a few reiterations of who she wants to be once she is an adult.

    And my child would rather do these activities than play frisbee in the park with me. She enjoys playing frisbee in the park with me, but it is not what she wants to do every free minute without any ability to pursue activities which interest her, but are of no interest to me. This insistence that children must only engage in free play seems as much of an attempt to manufacture the perfect kid as the things that this article is ripping.

  16. EricS September 27, 2016 at 4:55 pm #

    It’s basically about many parents living vicariously through their children. They want them to have the life they didn’t. Or if they’re privileged, they want them to have the same opportunities and comfort they grew up with. In my opinion, we provide for our children’s basic needs (food, shelter, clothing, and schooling). We teach them about right and wrong, integrity and compassion. Everything else is up to them. And we take a backseat watching them, and being ready for when they need some guidance. We should never do things for our kids so that they never feel pain, loss, or disappointment. In fact, they should be experiencing these basic life trials. They need to learn how to cope with them. Our lives, shouldn’t be our children’s. They are individuals, that will have different views as they get older. Different personalities. Even though they may learn from us, it doesn’t mean they are us. And we shouldn’t make it so. As long as they are good people, and smart in their decisions, confident, and not easily swayed by others, I feel confident in how my kids will be when they are out in the real world.

  17. James Pollock September 30, 2016 at 2:14 am #

    “I am thinking of writing my own book, ‘All your parenting ideas are crap; come listen to mine! ‘”

    There’s a quote that goes something like this:

    Before I had children, I had six theories on proper child-rearing. Now I have six children, and no theories.