Alongside the political rhetoric about patriotism, trustworthiness, and competence at the recent Republican and Democratic conventions was an interesting parallel theme: parenting. Both events prominently featured the adult children of the presidential candidates. They were there to help humanize their parents but also to serve as a testament to their parenting skills. The message? Raising successful, confident, well-spoken offspring is an achievement that reflects well on a presidential contender.
It raises the question: What exactly is the role of parents in shaping their children?
In her latest book, “The Gardener and the Carpenter,’’ Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at the University of California Berkeley, calls into question the modern notion that good parents can mold their children into successful adults. It’s a rebuke to the idea of “parenting” as a skill that needs to be practiced, cultivated, and, by implication, judged by others.
Parenting — a term that emerged in the middle of the 20th century and became common in the 1970s — is “a terrible invention,” she says. Parenthood is not a verb, but a relationship defined by a particular kind of love. “We can aspire to love better without thinking of love as a kind of work,” she says.
Gopnik isn’t claiming that parents don’t have a profound effect on their children. She’s taking aim at a specific anxiety, fed by popular culture and how-to books, that takes a goal-oriented approach to shaping children — a view she calls carpenter parenting. She says that a parent should be more like a gardener — providing children with “a rich, stable, safe environment — an environment in which variation, innovation, and novelty can blossom.”
No other animal spends so much time caring for its young; a long, helpless childhood is one of the defining features of humanity. From an evolutionary point of view, Gopnik argues, the purpose of childhood is to learn. The extended protected time of childhood is ultimately what allows humans to be an intelligent, flexible, and innovative species.
But the purpose of parenthood is not to teach — at least, not in the way we think of teaching as imparting information in a controlled way. Here she turns to developmental psychology, including her own research. Young children observe and imitate adults, but rather than merely parroting, they’re trying to understand adults’s intentions and make inferences about how the world works. Their brains are naturally imaginative and creative. Young children are more likely to explore new possibilities rather than exploit existing knowledge the way adults do. Parents, she believes, merely need to encourage observation, play, problem-solving, and exploration, and let kids’s brains do the rest.
She calls into question an increasingly test-focused education system, which expects even young children to memorize information rather than explore and create. Schools also lag in another important aspect of learning — mastering skills — by failing to give older kids and adolescents apprenticeship opportunities.
Gopnik writes with an approachable style and straightforward language, dipping frequently into personal stories. It’s no coincidence that this book follows her becoming a grandmother. The doting anecdotes scattered throughout the book about her grandchildren seem removed from the typical stresses and fears of parenthood. In some ways, Gopnik is advocating a more grandparent-like attitude toward raising children: more love and presence, less guilt.
The book doesn’t delve much into sociology research that might shed light on how parenting affects economic prosperity or other outcomes. The vision of a chaotic and innovative childhood sounds wonderful, but parents today face a hypercompetitive world in which they feel pressure to move their kids along predetermined paths of success, lest they fall behind. Gardener parenting may be better for kids in general, but to parents worried about their particular child, embracing unpredictability may take more convincing.
One of the most profound observations comes when Gopnik struggles, as many parents and grandparents do, with children using smartphones and other screen-based technologies. New technologies, from books to telegrams, have always provoked fear — and with good reason: They do change our brains. But children are not supposed to become like their parents; they learn from them to create something new. Each generation is different from the ones before. And that, Gopnik suggests, is the whole point of being human.
Courtney Humphries is a science writer in Boston.