Why parenting is a terrible invention

Launching our Best of The Parents Website series, we republish our review of a book that has shaken up thinking about what it is to be a parent.

In coming weeks, we will have published 500 articles on The Parents Website, and to mark the milestone, we’re launching a series of some of the highlights. The articles we’ve selected for Best of The Parents Website are a combination of the most popular, as well as thought-provoking pieces we think stand out.

In this first article, we look at the book The Gardener and the Carpenter, which shatters some of the myths about being a ‘good’ parent.

By Shane Green

A curious thing happened to mothers and fathers in the late 20th Century, notes Alison Gopnik. It was called parenting.

Until then, there were simply, well, mothers and fathers. Both words are as old as English itself, says Gopnik, and ‘parent’ emerged about the 14th Century.

But ‘parenting’? That term first surfaced in the United States of America in 1958, and only became common in the 1970s.

It’s based on the idea that there is a technique, a way to create a particular kind of adult.

Parenting, declares Gopnik in her new book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, is a terrible invention.

‘It hasn’t improved the lives of children and parents, and in some ways it’s arguably made them worse,’ she continues. ‘For middle class parents, trying to shape their children into worthy adults becomes the source of endless anxiety and guilt coupled with frustration.

‘And for their children, parenting leads to an oppressive cloud of hovering expectations.’

Required reading for parents

The book by Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, is being hailed as a welcome breath of fresh air in the angst-ridden discussion about how to be a good parent.

It was nominated as a Book of the Year by the United Kingdom’s Financial Times, which said it was required reading for anyone who is, or is thinking about, becoming a parent.

Gopnik challenges the fundamental idea that if parents practice the right techniques, they can make a substantial difference to the way their children turn out.

Rather, she makes the case for a loving, supportive environment for children, who learn naturally through exploration. Parents need to loosen up and, rather than make children learn, let them learn. ‘Memo to Parents: Back Off, and Children Learn More’ was the headline on The New York Times review.

The book’s title is the analogy the author uses to make her case.

In the parenting model, a parent is like a carpenter – shaping the material you are working with into a final product.

But the gardener creates a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish. It takes hard work, and sometimes plans are thwarted: a poppy flowers neon orange rather than pale pink.

‘Caring for children is like tending a garden, and being a parent is like being a gardener,’ Gopnik says.

The contribution from Gopnik comes at an interesting moment in the discussion about being a parent, reflected in the coverage of the issue of ‘helicopter parenting’.

The Parents Website covered the issue in an interview with clinical psychologist, Judith Locke, who wrote The Bonsai Child, her term for a child who is over nurtured.

The book argues that ‘overparenting’ is preventing children from developing the skills and resilience they need in life.

Alison Gopnik notes that being a good parent won’t transform children into smart or happy or successful adults. But it can help create a new generation that is robust, adaptable and resilient.

‘Gardening is risky and often heartbreaking,’ she writes. ‘Every gardener knows the pain of watching that most promising of sprouts whither unexpectedly.

‘But the only garden that didn’t have those risks, that wasn’t attended with that pain, would be one made of Astroturf studded with plastic daisies.’

About the book

The Gardener and the Carpenter is published in Australia by Penguin Random House.

This article was first published on The Parents Website in February 2017.

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