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Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children

A longtime friend of mine sent me a text recommending Alison Gopnik's new book, The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children after seeing Gopnik speak about it recently. What she didn't know is that I am one of Gopnik's biggest fans, and I have a huge academic crush on her. I present her work to my students in my early childhood classes, and The Scientist in the Crib is one my all-time favorite books. I'm rereading it right now, actually. 

Gopnik writes this book from the perspective of being a grandmother and an academic researcher. She opens her book by discussing "parenting" as it has become over the last 50 years -- a verb, a job, something that we are required to do if we have a child. The thrust of her book is that we have become a society that parents as carpenters rather than as gardeners. Carpentry is done with a blueprint as a guide, and the result is something that involves specific processes and a specific outcome. Gardening, on the other hand, implies guidance and trimming while giving the contents a time to grow and define themselves. In carpentry, if you get a different outcome than you planned, you have not achieved your goal. In gardening, there is not outcome in mind, only the process and the acceptance of the beauty of the unexpected outcome.

I loved this book for so many reasons, not the least of which is that Gopnik presents developmental research so clearly and plainly that just about anyone can read this book and have a sense of the essence of what developmental psychology can show us. I love what I do, which is mostly teaching teachers about child and adolescent development, and I found that this book was so eloquent about the history and the understanding of where children come from and how they develop as they do. What I hope that people take away from this book is the understanding that how you parent won't make as big of a difference in what your child will become as much as just simply loving your children will. Her thesis that parenting is not a job, but rather an act of love, is profound and so simple that it gets lost in the Mommy Wars. You won't get your kid to Harvard because you use flashcards with him at age two.

Slow down, everyone, and love the process. It's hard, especially with middle class parents, to tell them to slow their roll. I've commented on here in previous posts that I'm a wool blend parent, and a lot of that has to do with the access to research that I have. I understand, for example, that my values matter, but loud obnoxious toys don't. Talking to my son matters, but talking television doesn't. Laughing with my son matters, pushing him to learn his numbers at six months doesn't. My husband and I laugh because my goal is for my son to be average, and I joke that only an educational psychologist says that about her child. I have no desire to be a carpenter with my child, and it has made me a better parent. I was particularly taken with Gopnik's introduction, and I spent a great deal of time after reading it thinking on this idea of parenting as a verb, as a job. How ridiculous it is, really, that we as (mostly) women base our self-worth on how our children turn out. We are actually depending on someone else's autonomous decisions to inform us of whether or not we did our jobs. That is utterly and completely absurd. As Gopnik says in this book, we raise our children to be who they are through our love and our guidance, but they will be who they will be.

Children learn naturally and on their own, and no amount of pushing them to be geniuses at age three will do the trick. I joke around with my friends that my parenting advice book is going to be called "CTFO: A Parenting Guide For The Rest of Us." I loved this book, and not just because I love Gopnik. I loved it because it took this research that is so full of insight and made it available to the masses. The question is, who will listen? I hope more of us, as we seek to find balance in parenting and people. I will say this loud and clear: Parenting is not my job -- it's something I do out of love. It's not my job to see that my child becomes a genius or does anything specific in his life other than, and these are required in my house, that he be kind and respectful of all humans. 

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