All Commentary
Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Case against “Parenting”

Young children learn by watching, listening, and manipulating objects.

Alison Gopnik is a renowned developmental psychologist whose research has revealed much about the amazing learning and reasoning capacities of young children, and she may be the leading interpreter of such research to the general public. She is one of the best science writers I know of. In her most recent book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, released just a few days ago, she describes the results of many clever experiments that help us understand how young children learn by watching others, listening to others, and manipulating objects in systematic ways in their play. 

A persistent theme emerging from such research, as Gopnik explains, is that children learn not by passively absorbing information, but by actively engaging their social and physical environments and drawing logical inferences based on what they see, hear, and in other ways experience. Gopnik contends that children learn a great deal from other people, including from their parents, not because the others are deliberately teaching them but because those others are doing and talking about interesting things, which children are innately motivated to try to understand and incorporate into their own growing worldviews.

Sometimes Teaching Inhibits Learning

We adults can help them best not by teaching.

Indeed, Gopnik describes research showing that deliberate teaching can, at least sometimes, reduce the amount that children learn about an object because the teaching tends to inhibit them from exploring the object themselves and thereby prevents them from learning any more about it than what the teacher had pointed out. The research reveals, to a far greater extent than most people would expect, that young children are quite sophisticated little scientists who bring their already acquired knowledge and theories to bear, in logical ways, as they explore the world around them to acquire new, more advanced understandings.

We adults can help them best not by teaching, but by making sure that they have adequate social and physical environments and time and space in which to explore. The more that young children are integrated into the real world of other children and adults, the more they will learn about that world and discover their places in it.

Of course, if we take this approach and let children learn in their own natural ways, we are giving up the illusion that we can control what they learn and can shape them into being the particular kinds of persons that we might want them to be. We are, instead, trusting children to shape themselves. And this leads to the main point of the book.

Gopnik is not only a researcher and author but is also the mother of three grown sons and proud grandmother to a little boy named Augie. Her book is founded on research about how children learn, but her message is directed to parents. In a nutshell, her message to parents is this: Stop parenting. Does that sound paradoxical?

Nouns and Verbs

Parent, according to Gopnik, is a wonderful noun, referring to a partner in a particular kind of relationship; but it’s a terrible verb when used, as it so often is, to refer to what is perceived as a particular kind of work. Here are some of Gopnik’s words about this awful verb.

“’Parent’ is not actually a verb, not a form of work, and it isn’t and shouldn’t be directed toward the goal of sculpting a child into a particular kind of adult (p 8) …. We recognize the difference between work and other relationships, other kinds of love. To be a wife is not to engage in ‘wifing,’ to be a friend is not to ‘friend,’ even on Facebook, and we don’t ‘child’ our mothers and fathers (p 9)”.

“To be a parent—to care for a child—is to be part of a profound and unique human relationship, to engage in a particular kind of love (p 9). … Love doesn’t have goals or blueprints, but it does have a purpose. The purpose of love is not to change the people we love, but to give them what they need to thrive. Love’s purpose is not to shape our beloved’s destiny, but to help them shape their own. It isn’t to show them the way, but to help them find a path for themselves, even if the path they take isn’t one we would choose for ourselves, or even one we would choose for them. … Loving children doesn’t give them a destination; it gives them sustenance for the journey (p 10).”

The word ‘parenting,’ now so ubiquitous, first emerged in America in 1958 and became common only in the 1970s (p 21). . … But, in fact, parenting is a terrible invention. It hasn’t improved the lives of children and parents, and in some ways it’s arguably made them worse. 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 (p 24). … The rise of parenting has accompanied the decline of the street, the public playground, the neighborhood, even recess (p 36).”

The title of the book — The Gardener and the Carpenter — comes from two possible ways of thinking about the role of parents with respect to children’s development. Here, again, in Gopnik’s words:

“In the parenting model, being a parent is like being a carpenter. You should pay some attention to the kind of material you are working with, and it may have some influence on what you try to do. But essentially your job is to shape that material into a final product that will fit the scheme you had in mind to begin with. And you can assess how good a job you’ve done by looking at the finished product. Are the doors true? Are the chairs steady? Messiness and variability are the carpenter’s enemies; precision and control are her allies. Measure twice, cut once (p 18)

“When we garden, on the other hand, we create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish. … And as any gardener knows, our specific plans are always thwarted. The poppy comes up neon orange instead of pale pink, the rose that was supposed to climb the fence stubbornly remains a foot from the ground, black spot and rust and aphids can never be defeated. … And yet the compensation is that our greatest horticultural triumphs and joys also come when the garden escapes our control, when the weedy Queen Anne’s lace unexpectedly showed up in just the right place in front of the dark yew tree, when the forgotten daffodil travels to the other side of the garden and bursts out among the blue forget-me-nots, when the grapevine that was supposed to stay demurely hitched to the arbor runs scarlet riot through the trees. … Unlike a good chair, a good garden is constantly changing, as it adapts to the changing circumstances of weather and the seasons. And in the long run, that kind of varied, flexible, complex, dynamic system will be more robust and adaptable than the most carefully tended hothouse bloom (p 18-19)

“So 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. …. We can’t make children learn, but we can let them learn (p 20).”

Although she doesn’t say it explicitly, it seems clear that Gopnik would be fine with the verb “to parent” if it meant something like “to garden.”

How Does This Translate to Education?

Those who have read my book Free to Learn know that I agree completely with Gopnik in essentially all she says about children’s learning and the appropriate role of parents. Indeed, her research and some of the other research she describes is included in the evidence I present in my book. I do, however, have one big complaint about Gopnik’s book. Gopnik fails to acknowledge that the carpenter model, with all its problems, applies doubly, or triply, or way, way more than triply, to our system of schooling. I wish she would point the finger more squarely at schooling, which is largely the product of and fostered by academic institutions such as Berkeley, where she works (and Boston College, where I work), rather than at parents.

The only solution, without giving up on the gardener model and watching my wildflower wither, was to take him out of school. In fact, as I have argued elsewhere (though not with these terms), the carpenter model of schooling is what has largely driven the carpenter model of parenting. It is very hard to be a gardener parent while sending your child to a carpenter school, and all public schools today are in the carpenter mode. Your children keep getting tested to see how they measure up, according to the standard model for all children that the schooling system has set. And if they don’t meet the standards, you get called in by the school authorities who do their best to make you feel that it is your responsibility to make your child conform and meet the measures that all the children are supposed to meet.

Your child wants to explore one day away from school — like that beautiful grapevine that wants to run riot through the trees — and if this happens several times you will be accused of negligence and may even be threatened with having your child taken away because of the truancy laws. You continuously hear propaganda about how your child’s future employability depends on getting high marks in school, doing all the right extracurriculars, and getting into a prestigious college — propaganda that places like Berkeley (and even Boston College) profit from mightily. So, how can parents maintain a gardener mentality in the face of all this pressure from the carpenters?

I was a gardener as a parent until my son started school, and then, when he started school, there was such a discrepancy between the schoolish restrictions on his life and my belief that he needed freedom to grow that I was afraid he would be crushed in the conflict. The only solution, without giving up on the gardener model and watching my wildflower wither, was to take him out of school.

Fortunately, we discovered the Sudbury Valley School, a radically alternative democratic school that operates in perfect accord with everything that Gopnik says about how children learn and develop. It is truly a garden where children and teenagers can play and explore in their own chosen ways and become their own, beautiful, varied, ever-changing selves. It’s a school that’s been around for almost 50 years; it’s one of the most fully studied schools in existence; its model has been successfully replicated by many other schools throughout the world; and yet its existence is almost never acknowledged by people in academia, even by people who believe that children learn best when they are free to explore and play in their own ways.

Being Able to Pass Tests Doesn’t Mean You Learned Anything

Much of my research, summarized in Free to Learn and in previous essays in this blog as well as in academic articles, has been about the ways that young people learn and develop when they are truly free to control their own education, as they are designed by nature to do. As part of that research, I’ve followed graduates of Sudbury Valley and grown “unschoolers” (people who were homeschooled by a method in which they had charge of their own education). Such research, about what happens when children really do grow up free to chart their own days and destinies, in a safe and nurturing environment, is the natural real-world complement to the kinds of laboratory research that Gopnik discusses.

Gopnik clearly acknowledges that school is a problem. She writes about how schools teach children to be good at school — good at tests — but not much else. At one point she says, 

By the time they arrive in our classes, many Berkeley undergraduates are absolute Matajuros of test-taking. It’s no wonder we’re gravely disappointed—and they’re resentfully surprised—when we ask them to actually be apprentice scientists or scholars instead. Skilled adults continue to face difficult challenges, of course, but passing exams isn’t one of them. Being the best test-taker in the world isn’t much help for discovering either new truths about that world or new ways of thriving in it (p 190).”

But Gopnik does not acknowledge the scope of the problem and says nothing about how our carpenter schools interfere with parents’ attempts to be gardeners at home. She offers no suggestion about what to do about schools and no acknowledgment that thousands of families are, successfully, raising their children in the gardener mode by removing them from standard schools. In fact, near the beginning of the book (p 6), she says, “I believed—and still do—that good public schools are best for all children.” 

Every public school, by law, is in the carpenter mode; none of them are gardens.

That, I’m sure, is a politically correct thing to say and makes the establishment think, “She’s OK,” but it contradicts everything else she says in this book. Where are these “good public schools” she is talking about? The ones that are usually called “good” are those that churn out the highest test scores and place the greatest pressures on kids. All public schools these days are judged, and the teachers are judged, by children’s test scores. Every public school, by law, is in the carpenter mode; none of them are gardens.

OK, I’m a little frustrated and I guess I’m showing it. There are so many smart and good-willed people in academia who, like Gopnik, seem to get it, but who then fail to come to the logical conclusion and fail even to look at the real-world evidence that their ideas beg them to examine. The evidence has been out there for a long time that it is possible to develop learning spaces where children and teenagers can learn naturally; and the evidence has been out there for a long time that children and teenagers develop beautifully, in highly varied ways, like flowers in a garden, in those spaces; and the evidence has been out there for a long time that such learning spaces are far less expensive and less trouble to operate than are standard schools, precisely because they work with children’s nature rather than against it. And yet academia continues to blind itself to that evidence. Why?

Reprinted from Psychology Today

  • Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor at Boston College, is the author of Free to Learn (Basic Books, 2013) and Psychology (Worth Publishers, a college textbook now in its 7th edition).  He has conducted and published research in comparative, evolutionary, developmental, and educational psychology. He did his undergraduate study at Columbia University and earned a Ph.D. in biological sciences at Rockefeller University. His current research and writing focus primarily on children's natural ways of learning and the life-long value of play. His own play includes not only his research and writing, but also long-distance bicycling, kayaking, back-woods skiing, and vegetable gardening.