Gardening vs. Carpentry

What are we doing when we care for and educate children? The most common answer from parents and teachers might be “just trying to get through the day!” If we back up a step, though, what do we hope to achieve? Are there particular goals, outcomes, or dreams that we have in mind?

In The Gardener and the Carpenter, Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik takes on these big questions and concludes that we’re doing it all wrong. Our expectations for children are at once too ambitious and too limiting.

For Gopnik, the sickness at the heart of modern American child raising is summed up in the word “parenting.” A term hardly used before the 1970s, it invokes a self-conscious, goal-directed approach to developing “the right kind of child, who in turn will become the right kind of adult.” The parenting model has launched a lucrative industry of how-to books, rigorous preschool programs, and prenatal music playlists.

This Google Ngram shows the word’s rapid ascendance:

To illustrate the problem with “parenting,” Gopnik invokes the two different kinds of people in her title. For a carpenter, the idea is to build exactly what you planned to build:

In the parenting model, being a parent is like being a carpenter . . . . Essentially your job is to shape . . . material into a final product that will fit the scheme you had in mind to begin with . . . . Messiness and variability are a carpenter’s enemies; precision and control are her allies.

In contrast, the gardener tries to establish the conditions for a fruitful but ultimately unpredictable result:

When we garden, . . . we create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish . . . . And as any gardener knows, our specific plans are always thwarted . . . . Yet the compensation is that our greatest horticultural triumphs and joys also come when the garden escapes our control.

We appreciate the precision of the carpenter in its place, but Gopnik sees children more as plants in a garden than as boards in a workshop. The role of parents and teachers is to create the environments for children to thrive in their own ways, not to cut them into a prescribed shape.

The outcome-oriented carpentry model can’t work because children do not learn primarily through deliberate instruction. The psychology experiments that take up much of the book show how they grasp complicated concepts by observing, imitating, and playfully experimenting rather than by following directions.

Gopnik finds a lot of (metaphorical) carpentry in schools as well as families. “Schooling” is another modern invention that echoes “parenting” in its impetus “to shape a child into a particular kind of adult.” Yet despite many lofty, or anxious, statements by educators, “what schools do best is teach children how to go to school.”

In the margins of the regimented, goal-directed school system lie more appealing alternatives. “Recess, an institution increasingly under pressure, may be far more significant and challenging for school-age children than classroom activities or the organized games and sports of after-school programs,” Gopnik suggests. The book also advocates for more use of apprenticeship, noting that the apprentice method is more common in the lesser realms of sport and the arts than in core subjects:

Imagine if we taught baseball the way we teach science. Until they were twelve, children would read about baseball technique and history, and occasionally hear inspirational stories of the great baseball players. They would fill out quizzes about baseball rules. College undergraduates might be allowed under strict supervision, to reproduce famous historic baseball games. But only in the second or third year of graduate school, would they, at last, actually get to play a game.

If this is overdrawn in its details, it describes in principle the carpentry ethic that infuses much of formal education.

Narrowly directed “parenting” and “schooling” can’t succeed. And here’s the key: we wouldn’t want them to succeed. The gardening approach is important not only for the mental health of children but for the future health of society. We can’t imagine the future, so our goals and visions for our children are inevitably too restricted. Children are the carriers of tradition, but they also hold the seeds of innovation. That innovation arises, for Gopnik, from what looks to adults like chaos:

Children are incontrovertibly and undeniably messy . . . . Scientists have other words for mess: variability, stochasticity, noise, entropy, randomness. A long tradition, going back to the Greek rationalist philosophers, sees these forces of disorder as the enemies of knowledge, progress, and civilization. But another tradition, going back to the nineteenth-century Romantics, sees disorder as the wellspring of freedom, innovation, and creativity.

New science provides some ammunition for the Romantic view. From brains to babies to robots to scientists, mess has merits. A system that shifts and varies, even randomly, can adapt to a changing world in a more intelligent and flexible way.

We want the illusion of control, to cut the boards to an exact length and dovetail them perfectly. Children don’t work that way; they save us from ourselves by coming up with new ways to approach their parents’ problems. In a fast-changing world, they are our best hope, if we can give them the space to grow.

Alison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship between Parents and Children

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