(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 @LindaFlanagan2.
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.