Raising Kids like a Gardener: Dr. Alison Gopnik & the New Science of Child Development

In May, Shankar Vedantam of NPR’s Hidden Brain interviewed Dr. Alison Gopnik, a professor at UC Berkeley, about her book “The Gardener and The Carpenter” and her studies of children’s development. We’ve summarized the interview for you below, and if you want more, you can read or listen to the whole thing at this link.

Dr. Alison Gopnik, Psychology and Philosophy Professor

Dr. Gopnik is an expert on cognitive development and causal learning, especially in young children. She has worked to apply mathematical models to the way that children learn and behave, and has examined the similarities between the scientific method and the way that young children learn. Her most recent book explores her new analogy of two different ways of raising kids, like a gardener or like a carpenter. Simply put, a carpenter is someone who values clear plans, designs, and control over materials; they follow specific directions and expect specific outcomes. A gardener is someone who is comfortable with change and uncertainty as part of the process; they may plan their garden and help it thrive, but they don’t expect to control the weather or to know which plants will truly flourish. Gopnik uses this metaphor to explore two ways that people approach parenting.

Where did parenting come from?

The word parenting didn’t take off the the US until the 1970s, and it’s the only relationship that we describe as being goal-directed. “After all, we don’t wife our husbands or child our parents. What we say is that those are relationships. I am a child, or I am a wife.” The fact that we are describing raising children as something with a set of goals is unique to our other relationships. And the idea of parenting and having these goals arrived at a point in human history where families had changed.

“[For] most of human history, by the time you are ready to have children yourself, you’d had lots of practical experience in caring for children. [In the late 20th century], for the first time, people were having children who hadn’t had much experience of caring for children but had lots of experience going to school and working.”

This shift led to the rise of a new way of raising children, the kind of parenting that Gopnik compares to being a carpenter.

The Carpenter

Parents that act like carpenters look for best practices and proven methods that result in the most successful child possible. Parents who have been able to succeed in other parts of their life through careful study and education are applying the same strategy to raising their kids. “[The] idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you’re going to shape your child into a particular kind of adult.” This idea feeds into the idea that if you do everything according to the rules, you’ll be able to make your child as successful and happy as possible.

According to Gopnik, this is not only stressful for the parents and children, but it doesn’t account for the fact that people are different, and that what works for one child might not work with another. “Children come out in all sorts of unexpected ways,” she says. “That’s the whole point.” The other problem with raising your kid with this carpentry model is that kids don’t have as much freedom to take risks, explore, and be autonomous. Gopnik points out that there are benefits to this shift away from risk-taking; lower rates of drug use and teen pregnancy are examples. But on the flip side, kids who don’t take risks might not have enough experience with failure to be able to innovate and create because risk-taking and failure are integral parts of those processes. Having opportunities to “practice” failure can also support resilience and lead to lower levels of anxiety.

The Gardener

On the other hand, parents that are acting more like gardeners are expecting the unexpected. They’re “providing a protected space in which unexpected things can happen” and allowing for things to not go according to plan, recognizing that sometimes the things that you don’t plan for turn out to be better than what you envisioned in the first place. The focus is less on reaching a very specific outcome and more on letting your child grow in an environment that supports their happiness and success.

While people might say that being a gardener is the ideal way to raise a kid, Vedantam points out that “our world rewards people who can do very specific things and do them very well.” Sometimes there are more visible rewards for being a carpenter kind of parent. Letting your child figure out what interests them, Vedantam says, might mean that they pursue their dream too late, pointing out that ice skaters, ballet dancers, and musicians are typically only at the top of their field if they started training at a very early age. This is also supported by the idea that, in order for children to succeed in their future careers, they need to have higher levels of very specific academic skills to access jobs that won’t be replaced by robots. But Gopnik points out that the ideas of specialization and narrowly focused skill sets aren’t as future-proof as we might be led to believe.

Playing: Gardeners and Carpenters

Gopnik mentions a study about the type of learning that happens when we teach like carpenters as opposed to gardeners. 2 groups of 4-year-olds were given a complex toy that could do all kinds of things. One group was simply handed the toy with no explanation, while the other group was shown one of the things that the toy could do. The group that had been shown one of the ways that the toy could “work” mimicked what they had seen the adult do, and usually only did that. The children who didn’t get the directions explored the toy and discovered many of the different ways that it could “work”. The children in the group where the adults acted more like gardeners actually learned more about the toy through playful exploration than the children who received specific instruction.

It turns out that this focus on exploration and experimentation is now part of the way that scientists are teaching robots. Giving a robot a chance to explore an environment and “just kind of dance around in this kind of weird, funny way without actually trying to do anything in particular” makes it more resilient and more able to figure out how to do a specific task. Robots that were taught just to do the specific task without the play first might master that task, but they can’t adjust if the conditions or their abilities change. In a world where conditions are constantly changing and the abilities of technology and people are in flux, teaching skills like resilience, problem solving, and experimentation might be more important than skills like coding or programming.

Teaching: Gardeners and Carpenters

Gopnik also discussed the ways that we pass on knowledge, and how our current educational system might be less effective than we might think.

“Imagine we taught baseball the same way that we teach science currently. What we would do is we would have children read books about baseball rules. When they got to high school, we would let them reproduce famous baseball plays of the past, and it wouldn’t be until graduate school that they would actually ever get to play the game. And that’s pretty much the way that we teach science. It’s not until graduate school that you actually ever get a chance to do science as opposed to reading about science or reconstructing science.”

Without the space to experiment, Gopnik points out that we’re not actually teaching students the kinds of skills that they will need to thrive. It’s a very different set of 21st Century skills that will be critical to the future of work. What the carpenter model doesn’t help us with is a key skill that humans are better at than any other creature.

“What we’re very good at is improvising and finding new ways of thinking about the world around us. Here’s a new problem. I don’t know how to handle it. What would I do?”

Since learning how to be innovative and creative are going to be some of the most important skills, it might be time for us to try some different ways of parenting and teaching. Because as Gopnik points out, “sometimes you do better by not trying specifically to get to those outcomes and instead not worrying about outcomes at all.” By creating more “gardens” for kids and adults to learn and grow in, we might actually get to bigger and better ideas than we could have with the most careful carpenter’s plans alone.

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