Questioning “parenting”

Perhaps no work on the concept of “parenting” has influenced me as a “parent”more than that of Alison Gopnik. Gopnik is a professor of philosophy and psychology at UC Berkeley and internationally recognized for her research on the learning and development of children. She is the author of four books, the most recent of which, The Gardener and the Carpenter, rocked my “parenting” world and has been particularly influential as I consider how best to prepare my children for a future with climate change – and if I can even do so.

In The Gardener and the Carpenter, Gopnik shines a critical light on the concept and current model of “parenting” and finds both seriously at odds with how children actually learn and develop.

The historical development of “parenting”

The term “parenting” – and the accompanying associations – first emerged in America in 1958 and didn’t become common until 1970’s. Previously, we grew up steeped in traditions of caring for the young, learning from our own parents and other caregivers all around us.

As families became smaller and more isolated and as people started having children later and later in life, two things happened. First, we often found ourselves stepping into parenthood without our immediate family around us and were less entrenched in cultures of caregiving. The second was that we now often become parents after years spent on schooling that prepared us to “be” a certain career. Consequently, it makes sense that we would approach the act of becoming a parent similarly. We started looking for books and models that would teach us how to be a parent. And a plethora of parenting books and models rose to meet that demand.

It also makes sense that we would approach the work of being a parent with a goal-oriented attitude, operating under the belief that our purpose is to shape our children, as school shaped us for our careers. And it is with this understanding, foundational to all “parenting” guides and models, that Gopnik takes particular exception. As she demonstrates through a dive into the way in which humans have evolved and the way children develop and learn, an understanding of the parent-children relationship in which parents should act in particular ways to directly produce a certain type of child is directly at odds with human evolution and child development.

Furthermore, this view of parenting has been extremely ineffective, to boot. The concept that we are somehow able to shape our children into a particular type of adult has been a source of endless stress for many parents. And the United States, the country where the concept arose and in which parents spend billions of dollars on parenting advice and help, has the highest rates of infant mortality and child poverty in the developing world (Gopnik, A. (2016) The gardener and the carpenter: what the new science of child development tells us about the relationship between parents and children. New York: Farrar, Stras & Giroux. p. 24).

Gardeners, not carpenters

While “parenting” as we currently understand it is not a beneficial model, the relationship between mothers and fathers and children, between all adults and the children in their lives, is of critical importance. Within these relationships, such key human abilities as learning, invention, innovation, tradition, culture and morality develop. But the way in which these things evolve through the course of parent-child or caregiver-child relationships is not aligned with how we now conceptualize “parenting”. Parents do not shape their children like a sculptor and a piece of clay – or a carpenter assembling a building. Instead, they provide a space (like a gardener preparing the soil) in which the next generation produces innovative ways of both understanding and acting.

The four paradoxes

Parents and other caregivers also work alongside children to navigate what Gopnik has identified as four key paradoxes of the caregiver-child relationship. These are the two paradoxes of love and the two paradoxes of learning.

The paradoxes of love are dependence and independence (children come into the world entirely dependent on the adults in their lives and must develop towards independence) and specific love and universal love (we love our children specifically but must also act for the good and welfare of all children).

The paradoxes of learning are play and work (initially, we learn through play but must eventually commit to work – hopefully with the same passion and delight!) and tradition and innovation (we teach the traditions and knowledge that have been passed to us to young people but must also provide them with space to innovate and find their own knowledge).

Parents (and all caregivers) matter – it’s just a matter of “how”

Gopnik’s work isn’t saying that we don’t matter. It’s illuminating how we matter. We matter because we provide the space in which today’s youth become people. In that space, they learn, explore, discover and innovate. The type of people they become shapes the world in which they live. And the type of space in which they develop is of critical important for who they become. We’ve been focusing on the details when what matters most is the space.

Why does the space matter? To understand what Gopnik is saying, it helps to understand a bit about what makes human development unique and how children learn.

Humans have the ability to evolve faster than many other species because we can try out different pictures of what the world looks like and can even try to make different worlds – through technology and tools or through political and social arrangements. We can toss what does not work and embrace that which leads to thriving. To do this, we must explore and assess the world around us and the information we receive. We must also face the tension between taking time to generate systems that will be the most effective in the future and focusing on efficiency and productivity in the present. Computer science calls this the tension between exploration and exploitation.

Here’s the thing. As Gopnik explains, grownups, as a whole, are particularly well-suited for efficiency. We process the world through already generated knowledge and experience and can make decisions and act quickly. Children, on the other hand, are particularly well-suited for exploration. Driven by curiosity and a desire to learn and with less filters already in place, their brains are more flexible and they are designed to innovate, explore and imagine while older brains are designed to protect and get things done. We protect so that the younger generations can explore and innovate.

Furthermore, the wide variety of people leads to even more innovation. We love our children unconditionally, regardless of their unique characteristics, and this allows them to grow into the unique person they are. This variety in people supports innovation.

How we learn

Critical to this process is learning. And human beings have evolved to have the longest phase of immaturity and a corresponding greatest ability to learn and greatest level of parental involvement. Childhood is for learning. And this learning happens in a specific way.

Scientific studies show that children learn through two particular forms of social learning, and that these avenues of social learning are actually more powerful than the learning that takes place in formal school settings. They are more fundamental, sophisticated, happen earlier and have deeper evolutionary links. These forms of learning have lasted across history and cultures. The two key forms of social learning are learning through looking (or observational learning) and learning through listening (or testimonial learning). Starting at birth, young people are engaged in both methods of learning with their caregivers.

Learning from observation means, of course, that children learn from watching what we do. Through observing what we do and how we behave, children draw conclusions about how to approach life, how to treat other people and much, much more. This isn’t to say they will turn out exactly as we do, but our actions are their earliest, strongest guide.

Studies have found that children may be even better suited than adults in observing what people do and why they do it and combining this information in sophisticated ways with learning from their own experience (Gopnik, A. 102-103). They are sponges for both the physics of the world and the psychology and sociology of people and communities around them.

Studies have also demonstrated that children are especially good – often better than adults – at considering unlikely and new possibilities (Gopnik, A. 104). Grown-ups filter observational learning through their preexisting knowledge about the world. Again, we see here the tension between exploitation and exploration, with adults particularly suited to exploit (act with efficiency) and children particularly suited to explore.

Learning by listening, or testimonial learning, is uniquely human. This is how we learn about things that happen far away or happened long ago. And it is the only way to obtain fictional, religious or mythological knowledge.

Learning through listening is complex. We must determine who to trust and look for meaning in gesture, syntax, choice of words and more. And children are able to do all of this at a very early age.

So, in regards to learning, the role of parents is not so much to teach children specific information as it is to let them learn and support that learning – and to be mindful that children are watching everything we do, listening to everything we say, and drawing new conclusions from both. Part of our task it to trust that children will find the information they need and will do with it what they need to do, in other words, we must step aside and honor innovation. Our work is to be a stable and reliable resource for learning. We can help this process by developing a fundamental relationship of trust. And we can provide children with the opportunity to intimately observe and talk with many different types of people.

Play is also essential to learning. Through play, children not only learn, they learn how to learn, driven to investigate by their curiosity. Providing young people with unstructured space in which to play and investigate is therefore essential. Children are very sensitive to being “taught” – when they perceive that they are being taught with a specific goal in-mind, this perception shuts down their curiosity to explore other options and they will focus on mimicking only what is “taught” (Gopnik, A. 174). In these situations, in other words, they are eager to imitate, not explore.

This is not to say we have no role when it comes to learning through play. We can help deepen play in some cases, by asking questions, playing along, or providing fuel for exploration in other ways. In these instances, we are not building knowledge for the children, we are building scaffolding for learning and self-directed knowledge. And it is always beneficial when we provide safe, secure environments for play to flourish.

“Parenting” and Climate Change

So, being a parent isn’t about creating a specific kind of person. Instead, it’s about allowing and supporting the process of a new kind of human being developing in this world. These new humans will create new, unique human life.

What does this mean for our role as parents of young people in a time of climate change? As you may have noticed, much of what has come out of my thinking, research and experience on the topic relates directly to the space that is created for the youth of today. Whether at school, at home, or in the community, having more unstructured time, more time in nature, taking time to really hold meaningful conversations with our children that show we value their ideas, fostering creativity and community – these all shape the space in which young people develop.

As Gopnik highlights, trust is a key ingredient in creating a space that fosters learning. And trust is something I think about a lot as it relates to being a parent in a time of climate change. I want to navigate the topic with my children in a way that builds trust. This is complicated and, for me, means speaking honestly with my children about climate change, in an age-appropriate manner. It means honestly assessing the impact of my actions and choices on a daily basis as well as bringing awareness to what I am modeling in how I spend my time, money and energy.

Gopniks work on the tensions between exploitation and exploration and tradition and innovation is specifically exciting when it comes to climate change. The fact that young people will find new ways of understanding and being is critical to our ability to face climate change. We are already seeing that young people are grasping the challenge at hand and conceptualizing solutions differently from older generations. It is so important that younger generations have a seat at any table where either mitigation or adaptation is discussed, not only as a matter of justice, but also because young generations will be able to offer understanding and ideas that we – from our viewpoint on the generational spectrum – cannot.

In a general sense, incorporating Gopnik’s work into how I show up as a parent has been hugely liberating and especially so when I think about preparing my children for a future with climate change. Through deepening my understanding of the biological and evolutionary role of parents and how the parent-child relationship best works, I find myself embracing my role as the carrier of culture and the creator of a safe space. And I am better able to celebrate my children’s messy, exuberant exploration as they integrate the old with the new and develop their own way of understanding and being in the world. I keep working for a better future, aware that I am serving as a model as I do so. At the same time, I remind myself to loosen my attachment to what my children will be like, because in their ability to grow into something unique lies their ability to interact with the world of the future in a way that is wholly new, and likely better suited to that world than anything I could directly teach.

The final passages of The Gardener and the Carpenter speak so beautifully to the long-view of the parent-child relationship, and I include them here for parting inspiration:

“The dance through time between parents and children, the past and the future, is a deep part of human nature, perhaps the deepest part. It has its tragic side. Human beings have the capacity to see ourselves in a long historical perspective. We do this in a more scientific way now, but we have always been aware of our ancestors and progenitors, and the ghosts and spirits of those who have gone before.

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is one of the most vivid and compelling images of our relationship with the past. As we move forward in time we leave behind the ghosts of our own departed loves. All the efforts we make to look back and keep them with us – memory, storytelling, photographs, and videos – just serve to drive them further away into the uncapturable past. We watch helplessly as the shades of our grandparents and parents, our own youthful selves, even the beautiful and beloved faces of our young children, fade away down the long slope of the past.

But to be a parent is also to experience a kind of Orpheus effect in reverse. We parents, and grandparents even more, have to watch our beloved children glide irretrievably into the future we can never reach ourselves. It’s a simple fact that I won’t see [my grandson] Augie’s life after forty, and that I can’t even begin to guess what that life will be like. But there’s another side to this. I won’t be here but he will, and so a part of me will be, too. In the end, the human story of parents and children is surely more hopeful than sad. Our parents give us the past, and we hand on the future to our children.”

(Gopnik, A. 253-254)
Categories: Parents, Children & Climate


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