Tending the Garden

Picture via Getty Images


So a few minutes ago, I finished a great conversation with Jonathan Haidt about his new book, The Anxious Generation, for The Remnant. While prepping, I tend to stock up on water purification tablets because I think traveling with large amounts of bottled water is too cumbersome. But that’s not important right now. 

While prepping for the podcast, I learned about a book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, by developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik. 

I’ll summarize Haidt’s summary of her argument. Apparently, the word “parenting” really only emerged in the 1950s, and didn’t become popular until the 1970s. “For nearly all of human history,” Haidt writes, “people grew up in environments where they observed many people caring for many children. There was plenty of local wisdom and no need for parenting experts.” 

He continues:

But in the 1970s, family life changed. Families grew smaller and more mobile; people spent more time working and going to school; parenthood was delayed, often into the 30s. New parents lost access to local wisdom and began to rely more on experts. As they did so, they found it easy to approach parenthood with the mindset that had led them to success in school and work: If I can just find the right training, I can do the job well, and I’ll produce a superior product. 

Gopnik says that parents began to think like carpenters who have a clear idea in mind of what they are trying to achieve. They look carefully at the materials they have to work with, and it is their job to assemble those materials into a finished product that can be judged by everyone against clear standards: Are the right angles perfect? Does the door work? Gopnik notes that “messiness and variability are a carpenter’s enemies; precision and control are her allies. Measure twice, cut once.” Gopnik says that a better way to think about child rearing is as a gardener. Your job is to “create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish.” It takes some work, but you don’t have to be a perfectionist. Weed the garden, water it, and then step back and the plants will do their thing, unpredictably and often with delightful surprises.

He then quotes Gopnik directly. She writes:

Our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to tell children how to play; it’s to give them the toys. … We can’t make children learn, but we can let them learn.

I’m not a big pull-quote guy; I’m more of a pulled-pork guy. But I think at least some readers—and listeners—will understand why I liked this so much. 

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