Raising kids has changed dramatically over the last century. Children once acted as helpful additions to the family farm or as caretakers of the homestead and younger children. In more recent times, kids were simply little people who were meant to explore the world around them, alone, from sun-up to sunset. Today “parenting” is a full time job replete with a strict schedule and a dozen extracurricular activities, rigid play dates, teams of specialists, and a library full of books about the best techniques. Alison Gopnik wants to change the way we view parenting in this country. The word parenting “is not actually a verb” Gopnik challenges in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, and too much emphasis on the actions of parents is stifling our kids’ abilities to grow up as healthy, self-sufficient individuals.
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Parent Without Parenting
Gopnik’s central argument in this book is the notion that modern parents (particularly affluent ones) are approaching child-rearing in a way that is potentially damaging to children. “Parenting” Gopnik, treats children as work, not love, and it places undue pressures on parents to “do it right.” The metaphor of the book’s title sums this up: rather than imagining raising children as being a carpenter, a person who chisels and shapes who a child becomes, Gopnik encourages parents to think of raising children as being like gardeners. You plant the seeds, you set the conditions for success (proper nutrients and water, a place to grow), and then you stand back a watch what emerges from the soil. No amount of standing over or shouting or nagging will cause those flowers to grow taller or more colorful—the plants will simply become who they were meant to be. The goal of a good gardener is to provide a safe space and let nature take its course, not to “create” a flower through sheer will or desire.
Gopnik is a developmental psychologist and she uses studies and the results of learning experiments to make her points in this book. By decreasing parental involvement, Gopnik shows how we allow our children to learn from their mistakes, make better decisions, and use their imaginations. This notion is refreshingly counter to much of what parents are being fed these days from the so-called experts. Gopnik hopes that the metaphor of carpenter and gardener will be applied freely, both for the relief of miserable parents who believe they are failing at their “job” and for the children, who really need space and love much more than guidance.