Synopsis: The Gardener and the Carpenter

What the new science of child development tells us about the relationship between parents and children by Alison Gopnik

In her introduction, Gopnik asks the type of question we, as parents, are used to hearing as soon as our children become toddlers and are able to articulate all that they wish to know about the world. “WHY?” However, Gopnik’s question is aimed at the concept of becoming a parent and the goal directed verb “to parent”. ‘Parenting’ seems to be something parents feel they ‘should’ do, whilst the author argues against this prescriptive parenting picture: “it’s the wrong way to understand how parents and children actually think and act, and it’s equally wrong as a vision of how they should think and act.”

Gopnik is of the view that the answer to why we become parents is not only personal or biological but it is social and political. To be a parent is to be part of a profound and unique human relationship, to engage in a particular kind of love. “Loving children doesn’t give them a destination; it gives them sustenance for the journey.” A journey during which Gopnik suggests the key to love in practice is doing things together.

A poignant metaphor running through the book compares the parenting model to being a carpenter, whereas caring for children is regarded as tending to a garden. “When we garden, we create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish. It takes hard labour and the sweat of our brows…and as any gardener knows, our specific plans are always thwarted.”  We are reminded that our role as a parent is not to try to transform our children into smart or successful adults, instead we should focus on supporting them to become robust and adaptable and resilient, better able to cope with the inevitable, unpredictable changes that face them in the future.

So how do we do this? Gopnik asserts that as each generation passes on information to the next, there will be a qualitative advance in the kinds of things the next generation can do. The differences between worlds in which we and our children and our parents before us grow up in provides “a mess..a good mess” allowing us all to thrive in a staggering array of constantly changing environments. Gopnik therefore argues that it is “futile and self-defeating” to try to shape our children in the image of our own ideals.

In a chapter titled “the evolution of love” we are invited to consider the unconditional commitment we show to our children, the purpose behind the duration of childhood and how the act of caring itself creates the bond with a child. Gopnik considers this emotion to be in tension with the parenting picture since it is our child, not just any child, who retains the exclusive focus of our commitment and love.

The parenting picture implies that we can and should consciously control a child’s learning yet this is contrary to the way in which the author believes children can and should learn. Children are not passively shaped by others, “they actively interpret and try to understand both what people do and why they do it. And they combine that information…with the information that comes from their own experiences.”

Two of the key forms of social learning include:

  • Observational learning – children learn by watching and imitating people around them. Research tells us that learning physically changes our brains and children use initiation to figure out how something works, only imitating intentional actions.
  • Learning from testimony – children learn by listening to what other people say about how the world works. They learn about the real world and also the unreal world – the world of fiction, religion, myth and magic, a counterfactual world: a world of possibilities, where potential consequences follow from potential premises rather than from realities.

All children learn from listening and looking and are persistent in seeking out the information they want and need. If the response to a ‘why’ question is inadequate then a child will ask another question or the same question, only seeking to elaborate or differentiate when a more informative answer has been obtained.

As a parent we need to ‘let’ our child learn rather than teach them. Gopnik believes we can do this through the act of play, allowing children to have fun and experiment. She discusses the theory of Bayesianism (named after theologian Reverend Thomas Bayes) who thought learning to be akin to scientific progress. “We consider a range of different hypotheses, different pictures of how the world might work” just as children do experiments and make observations and are regarded as “getting into everything.” Gopnik compares this process to pretending where you start with a premise you believe to be false and then figure out what the consequences of that false premise would be. She asserts that counterfactual thinking is crucial for learning, “we need to believe that what we think now could be wrong, and to imagine how the world might be different.”

Gopnik tell us that experiments show “teaching is a double-edged sword” meaning that the act of teaching seems to discourage children from discovering the possibilities and children can be more eager to imitate a teacher rather than discover things themselves. By contrast, the gift of play teaches us how to deal with the unexpected.  The author draws together her assertions by contending that there is “a parallel between the contemporary dilemmas of parenting and the equally ferocious dilemmas of schooling.” From a scientific perspective, learning is not about test scores, it is about tracking the reality of the world through ‘discovery learning’, exploring as a type of evolutionary task. However, by the time a child reaches school age, they are encouraged to exploit and embark upon ‘mastery learning’, taking what they already know and making it second nature.

The book’s final chapter “the value of children” reminds us that “caring for children is an absolutely fundamental, profoundly valuable part of the human project. But it isn’t carpentry, it isn’t a goal directed enterprise aimed at shaping a child into a particular kind of adult. Instead, being a parent is like making a garden. It’s about providing a rich, stable, safe environment that allows many different kinds of flowers to bloom.”

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