Alison Gopnik’s Advice to Parents: Stop Parenting

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Alison Gopnik’s latest book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, differs from most parenting books in two important ways. For one thing, Gopnik rejects the word parenting, which she associates with the conventional idea that children are molded or built rather than grown. The second is that a great number of individuals, from siblings to grandparents, contribute to the caring and loving of a child; this book honors that shared network of child-rearing, which stretches far beyond parents.

Gopnik’s emphasis on these two points provides a framework for exploring love, development, evolution and theory of mind. The book marries Gopnik’s research at the University of California, Berkeley, where she runs a lab and teaches psychology, with her personal experiences as a mother and grandmother.

When it comes to child-rearing, imaginativeimages-2 play is important for both child and parent. Take a stroll to a neighborhood corner store on your own and you might be tempted to listen to music or text friends in order to stave off boredom. But have you ever done that walk with a young child? Dandelions beg to be wished upon; houses tell fantastical stories about the people (or perhaps dinosaurs) living inside of them. We aren’t just shaping children into the kind of people we wish they would become, Gopnik argues; they shape us as well.

Gopnik urges all adults, not just parents, to think of themselves less like carpenters and more like gardeners. A carpenter sets out with a specific plan in mind, and at the end of the day success or failure is clear. A gardener, however, provides a safe, nourishing environment where plants can grow. The gardener doesn’t know exactly what will grow, or when.

This mind-set informs Gopnik’s research at Berkeley, where she conducts experiments to illuminate theory of mind. What do children understand about the minds of others? It’s an academic question that bridges psychology and philosophy, and Gopnik explores it through experiments conducted in her laboratory. These experiments embody elements of joy and play—a huge challenge in a laboratory setting.

When Gopnik wants to test children on their understanding of counterfactuals (asking what happens if a true premise is false—that is, if a implies b, but a is false), she does so with the aid of a machine she playfully calls a blicket, and blocks called zandos. She also introduces a stuffed monkey (appropriately named Monkey) who is about to celebrate a birthday, and tells the children that the blicket will play “Happy Birthday” when a zando is placed correctly on top of it.

The experiment begins with counterfactuals—what if the block wasn’t a zando?—and then becomes ever more complex, uncovering information about how children elaborate upon what they have pretended, and how they are able to sort out hypothetical situations. In a moving detail, Gopnik notes that when she removed the “Birthday”-singing blicket from the room, some of the children “presented Monkey with elaborately wrapped invisible pretend presents.” It’s this joyful attention to detail, along with Gopnik’s well-constructed experiments and deep understanding of theory of mind, that makes The Gardener and the Carpenter both touching and informative.

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t have the same strength when it moves from early childhood into teenage years. Gopnik claims erroneously that “contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they’ll have to perform as grownups.” This is incorrect, as children and teenagers spend a lot of time communicating and playing on electronic devices like tablets and phones, which they will be expected to complete tasks with as adults. In the same paragraph, Gopnik states, “contemporary adolescents often don’t do much of anything beyond going to school.” Again her observation is off. According to U.S. News & World Report, 55 percent of high school students play a sport—and the percentage is steadily increasing. (It is true, however, that on average fewer teens are working.)

Still, the book accomplishes something very difficult: Honoring the complexities of relationships between children and the people who care for them. In discouraging the reader from thinking in terms of parenting, Gopnik reminds us that we don’t use the words spousing or friending to describe our other relationships. She urges our understanding of “caregiving as a form of love.” As I read, I couldn’t help but think of the gifts the children gave Monkey, and those that children have given me over the years: drawings; a little necklace with a dog on it; flowers; and, of course, many elaborately-wrapped, invisible birthday presents.

Feature photo: Stephen Lam/The Chronicle