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How to Grow Good Kids

In her new book, UC Berkeley Professor Alison Gopnik liberates parents from the craze of “must-dos” and shows them how to create a safe, rich environment for growth.


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Courtesy of Picador

Parenting is in danger of becoming a chore. For many, it has become a burden made less bearable by the endless dos and don’ts from parenting blogs, books, and an army of contradictory experts. What’s more, anxious parents are so busy controlling their children and shaping them into straight-A students, they’re in danger of missing the joy of having kids in the first place. In her new book, The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children, Alison Gopnik, a psychology and philosophy professor at UC Berkeley, sets out to liberate and inspire parents by reassuring them that there doesn’t have to be a prescription for parenting at all. Diablo talked to Gopnik about the role of parents in shaping their children, the importance of play, and the type of environment that allows kids to truly thrive. 

Q: Your book argues that modern parents too often act like carpenters and not enough like gardeners. Can you explain the carpenter versus gardener approach to parenting? 
A: Parents are led to believe that if they just read the right books, get the right apps, and know enough, then they can shape their children to turn out the way they want—like how a carpenter can figure out what his plans are, do the right things, and end up with a chair that is the shape of the chair that he originally had planned. But this parenting concept has actually made life worse for children and parents. A better model for being a parent is more like being a gardener. If you’re a California gardener like me, nothing ever works the way you want. There’s always that unexpected thing, both good and bad. Creating a prospering garden is to create an ecosystem that has enough variability and unpredictability so that it can respond in a resilient way when things around it change.

Q: How can we create that environment, or “garden,” where kids can thrive? 
A: The gardener parent provides a safe, rich environment for whoever their child turns out to be. You provide them with love and attention, and then they just do what they’re going to do. Does this mean that you never do anything and just let your children run free? No. You convey the values, ideas, and skills that are important to you by doing the things that are important to you and including your children in them. Children learn by being part of life activities that parents are doing anyway, like cooking, gardening, or taking care of children.

Q: What should parents worry about less? 
A: All those parenting questions like, do you let kids cry it out, do you sleep train them, do you put them in the stroller facing front or back, do you sleep with them in the same bed? The empirical evidence is that none of those things makes much difference in the long run.

Q: What’s most surprising to parents about how kids learn? 
A: How much children learn from their own spontaneous observation and play. Much more than they learn from instruction from the adults around them. We don’t have to make children learn. You’re better off letting your children be, letting them invent their own games, and giving them some down time. In the past, one of the things that older children very naturally did was to invent games. They learned how to organize themselves, put together a coherent group of people, and negotiate. Those kinds of abilities are really important. Nowadays, we have children in organized sports because we think it’s good for them, but what it means is that children are never getting a chance to make up the rules or organize themselves without a parent or coach telling them what to do. That’s a good example in which we have children playing but, at the same time, we are undermining the very point of play by trying to control it too much.
  We’re beginning to have more of a sense of how much play does for even the youngest children. But how do children find the time to play when they are spending all this time going to school and being in structured activities? Many teachers have the intuition that their preschoolers should be playing but are under a lot of pressure from parents and policy-makers to make preschool more academic. There are only so many hours in the day, so if you’re doing reading drills, you’re not doing imaginary play.

Q: How can we make our schools better? 
A: For most of human history, we didn’t have schools. The way school-age children learned was through processes and apprenticeships, through trying to do things with an adult who was really helpful and could negotiate what it was that [the kids] were doing. School-age children are still learning best when they can be that kind of an apprentice. But our schools don’t provide very many opportunities for exploration, play, and novelty, and they don’t provide many opportunities for becoming a skilled apprentice, either.

Q: Is there any merit in kids’ messiness? 
A: Although it’s frustrating when you’re trying to get out of the house in the morning, messiness and unpredictability actually have advantages for doing things, like learning in an unpredictable and variable type of world. There’s a lot of emphasis on getting our children to have better control and more executive function, and in the long run, that is good for them, but while they’re still children, that lack of control might actually be a benefit. 

Q: How important is failure for a child?
A: We want our children to succeed, but in a sense, if there isn’t a possibility that your children will fail, then you haven’t succeeded as a parent. The [goal of parenting] is to give children the autonomy to make their own decisions. Each generation gets a chance to explore new options and try things that no previous generation has tried. It isn’t risk taking unless there is a possibility of failure. Even if we could accomplish this end of shaping our children to come out a particular way, we would have destroyed the whole point of having children as a result of doing so. alisongopnik.com

 

 

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