Gardeners and Carpenters

An interview with psychologist and author Alison Gopnik in the August 22 issue of Macleans magazine is worth the read.

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley.

She is an internationally recognized leader in the study of children’s learning and development and was the first to argue that children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. She was one of the founders of the study of “theory of mind”, illuminating how children come to understand the minds of others, and she formulated the “theory theory”, the idea that children learn in the same way that scientists do. In other words, they formulate a theory and then test it to see if it works.

Caring deeply about our children is part of what makes us human. Yet the thing we call “parenting” is a surprisingly new invention. In the past thirty years, the concept of parenting and the multibillion-dollar industry surrounding it have transformed child care into obsessive, controlling, goal-oriented labor intended to create a particular kind of child and thereby a particular kind of adult. In The Gardener and the Carpenter, the pioneering developmental psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik argues that the familiar twenty-first-century picture of parents and children is profoundly wrong – it’s not just based on bad science, it’s also bad for kids and parents.

Drawing on the study of human evolution and on her own cutting-edge scientific research into how children learn, Gopnik shows that although caring for children is immensely important, the goal shouldn’t be to shape them so they turn out a certain way. Children are designed to be messy and unpredictable, playful and imaginative, and very different both from their parents and from one another. The variability and flexibility of childhood allow them to innovate, create, and survive in an unpredictable world. “Parenting” won’t make children learn – rather, caring parents let children learn by creating a secure, loving environment.

– from the front jacket flap, “The Gardener and the Carpenter”, Alison Gopnik 2016

Gopnik uses the carpenter as a metaphor for the 21st century parent. The carpenter knows from the outset what he wants to create; he has a plan. Using the tools at his disposal, he whittles and joins and sometimes hammers. The end product is his. If there are faults with it, they lie in his execution of the work.

The gardener, on the other hand, plants the seed and has no idea what will grow. But he gives the seed the best chance he can. He waters as necessary. He culls the weeds that come up around the plant. He keeps an eye out for pests. His job is to watch over the plant as it grows, but he has little control over what the adult plant will look like. It may look nothing like the picture on the seed package.

A carpenter actively participate in the creation of his project. When it is done, he gets to keep it. A gardener on the other hand oversees the process, but possession is temporary.

A person could play with the analogy for a very long time, finding much to think about.

 The concept of parenting as a verb is interesting and relatively new. As Gobnik says in her interview in Macleans, we don’t ‘child’ our parents or ‘wife’ our husbands or ‘husband’ our wives. So why do we ‘parent’ our children?

If you would like to learn more about Gopnik’s theory, read the Maclean’s article. Better yet, read the book.

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