What Kind of Parent are You?

Principals Pen Wednesday, 25 Aug 2021

‘Parenting’ is a relatively new concept. It’s an idea that is believed to have originated in the 1970’s and, since that time, has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

In her book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, leading child psychologist, Alison Gopnik, writes that the parenting industry is responsible for transforming child care into a controlling and goal-oriented venture, which views children as entities that can be shaped into desirable adults. She explains that this evolution goes against everything science knows about what children need and how they learn and grow, resulting in highly anxious children and stressed parents. She lays out the science relating to caring for human beings and shows two ways to approach being a parent and its consequences. She writes that children are designed to be ‘messy and unpredictable, playful and imaginative - and to be very different both from their parents and from each other.’

International affairs reporter, Sasha Ingber, writes of Gopnik’s book:

There are two kinds of parents in modern America, says Alison Gopnik in her recent book, The Gardener and the Carpenter.

The ‘carpenter’ thinks that his or her child can be moulded. ‘The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you're going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult,’ she says.

The ‘gardener,’ on the other hand, is less concerned about controlling who the child will become and instead provides a protected space to explore. The style is all about ‘creating a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem.’

Gopnik, a psychology and philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says that many parents are carpenters, but they should really be cultivating that garden. She spent decades researching children's development and found that parents often focus too much on who their children will be as adults. The harm in that approach, she says, is that parents and their offspring may become anxious, tense or unhappy.

‘We're so concerned about how these children are going to turn out that we're unwilling to give them the autonomy that they need to be able to take risks and go out and explore the world,’ she says.

Ironically, the less that mothers and fathers worry about outcomes, she says, the better their children may fare in life.

In her interview with Hidden Brain, Alison Gopnik talks about the historical changes of caring for children, long childhoods, the anxiety and fear of today’s adolescents, and risk-averse parenting culture. She’s asked to comment on well-adjusted vs successful children, and she speaks of parent intuition vs the demands of today’s culture. She also talks about how too much instruction can negatively impact children’s exploration, while also drawing attention to the skills children need in the post-industrial era and ways schools can support student learning through an apprenticeship approach.

Gopnik’s thoughts run deep and challenge many concepts that are so embedded in today’s culture that we have been conditioned to think they are ‘normal’ and good. I commend the book and interview to you as precious food for thought.

- Jane Mueller, Principal