“Parenting” Is the Most Important Job We’ll Ever Do – And Here’s How We’re Failing

Developmental Cognitive Psychologist

Like most things these days, parenting ain’t what it used to be. Even the word “parenting” is a relatively new verb, first appearing in 1958 and gaining mass popularity from the 1970s onwards. Today, Amazon stocks 60,000 titles on the subject.

The methods of modern parenting are focused on promoting certain behaviors, ensuring outcomes, and teaching lessons that will produce a particular kind of child who becomes a particular kind of adult: polite, office trained, financially secure, and yeah happy. But when you compare that to our evolutionary history of caregiving, it seems an astonishingly rigid system.

Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has a metaphor for this – carpenters VS. gardeners. “If you're a gardener, the way I am, one of the things you know as a gardener is that nothing ever works out the way that you originally planned. And terrible things happen and also marvelous things happen in gardens that weren't the things that you were originally thinking about.”

Rather than focus on producing one type of show-winning specific flower, caregiving is about creating an entire ecosystem, one with variability, flexibility and robustness so that if circumstances change something will still grow. “What childhood is about is providing a period of exploration of possibility for human beings so that we can change in the light of changes in our environment. Childhood is about change, and caregiving is about providing a safe, protected, nurturing, stable environment in which that kind of exploration can take place. That's a very different picture than the parenting 'carpentry' kind of picture [where you build the model child].”

Ask yourself what weathers a storm better: a wooden chair or a tree? One can sway with the wind, the other is broken to pieces by its own resistance.

Gopnik attributes the 20th century distortion of caregiving into parenting to global mobility and social evolution. For most of human history, we learned to take care of children by watching the people around us. Families were bigger, cities were smaller, villages shared responsibility, and there were a range of caregivers from grandparents to cousins to siblings, so people were exposed to caregiving from young age. “The strange thing that happened at the end of the 20th century was that as families got smaller, as people got more mobile, as people waited to have children until an older and older age we had this situation, sort of an unprecedented [shift] in human history where people were having children but had never taken care of a child before.” 40-year-olds who have spent a lot of time in school and at work essentially project manage their children, completely out of tune with natural caregiving, and found themselves at the mercy of high expectations (internal and external) for their to be better – but better than who? Better that what? Gopnik asks. “It isn't just that the [current] parenting model isn't the natural model, it's also just not a very productive model. It hasn't helped parents or children to thrive. It's led to a great deal of anxiety and guilt on a part of parents and a great deal of sort of hovering expectations for children that really aren't necessary and in fact may even be counterproductive if we still want children to innovate and create.”

Alison Gopnik's most recent book is The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Alison Gopnik: Once we started thinking about the role that parents and children play in human evolution one of the things that became very apparent is that that role was very different from the prevailing role in our current culture about parents. So in our current culture there's something called parenting and that very words, that verb only first appeared in 1958. And if you look at the Google Ngram it's sores up in the 1970s. And that word comes with a picture and that picture is that what caregivers do is shape or mole the child to come out a particular way. So your job as a caregiver is to do a bunch of things, acquire a bunch of expertise that will lead to a particular kind of child, which will lead to a particular kind of adult. And then somehow if you just get the right expertise you can create a better child who will create a better adult. Now exactly what that better means is a little unclear. I think parents whisper under their breath better like better than the kid next-door. But anyway, there's some picture, which I think of as the carpenter picture of caregiving, which is that you're going to shape this child into a particular kind of adult. And that picture, which goes with that word parenting, really is very recent. It really only developed at the end of the 20th century. So that picture is the picture that's become prominent in our discussions about caregiving, but it's very, very different from the picture that comes from thinking about caregiving in an evolutionary context and it's also very differently from the picture that comes from the studies that we've done in my life and others about how children actually learn.

Another way of thinking about what caregiving is about is that rather than having a bunch of procedures that let us shape a child to come out a particular way, what we do when we're taking care of children is to provide a kind of nurturing context, an environment in which lots of variability, lots of different things can happen. If you're a gardener, the way I am, one of the things you know as a gardener is that nothing ever works out the way that you originally planned. And terrible things happen and also marvelous things happen in garden that weren't the things that you were originally thinking about. But there's actually a deeper reason for that. And the deeper reason for that is that being a gardener is to create a kind of ecosystem. What you really want to do is create a system with enough variability and possibility, flexibility, robustness so that when the weather changes or the season changes the garden as a whole will be available to adjust to that kind of change. And when you think about the evolutionary function of childhood that's really what childhood is about. What childhood is about is providing a period of exploration of possibility for human beings so that we can change in the light of changes in our environment. Childhood is about change and caregiving is about providing a safe protected nurturing stable environment in which that kind of exploration can take place. That's a very different picture than the parenting carpentry kind of picture.

Another kind of metaphor that you could use is think about a monoculture like one of those giant farms where all they do is grow the same kind of potato. In a way that parenting picture is saying that we should think about caregiving taking care of children as being kind of like creating the very best potato. And we know that that's not a good formula for robustness. We know that that's not a good formula for dealing with change or variability. So the gardener picture is more like creating a meadow where there's many, many different kinds of flowers, many different ways of developing and that variety of possibility is what allows the garden to flourish or the meadow to flourish even when things change. And that's the evolutionary picture about children and parents and their relationship. And that's the picture that comes out of our empirical studies of children's learning. It's very different form the parenting picture.

For most of human history the way that we learned how to be parents, the way that we learned how to take care of children was by watching the other people around us. So that same evolutionary development that gave us this much broader range of caregivers, fathers or grandparents and friends and cousins, also meant that when we were growing up ourselves we were taking care of children from the time we were very young. One of the things we know is that siblings provide a lot of caregiving for human beings. And we were watching lots of other people take care of children. The strange thing that happened at the end of the 20th century was that as families got smaller, as people got more mobile, as people waited to have children until an older and older age we had this situation sort of unprecedented in human history where people were having children who had never taken care of a child before. And that's become even more true over the past 20 years let's say the beginning of the 21st-century so that even teenage babysitters have sort of disappeared from the scene for at least for middle-class and upper middle class children. So we have 40-year-olds who have spent a lot of time going to school and working and not spent any time at all taking care of children. So it's not too surprising that when they sit down to have a child they think this is a variety of work, this is something that I can get expertise about the same way that I got expertise at passing my exams or I got expertise in achieving my workout goals.

So this strange sociology of raising children in the late 20th century lead to this kind of strange and I think distorted picture of what caregiving is about. And, you know, of course there's lots of things that we evolved to do that we've had to change and revise, changing the way that we do things is also part of human nature. But it isn't just that the parenting model isn't the natural model, it's also just not a very productive model. It hasn't helped parents or children to thrive. It's led to a great deal of anxiety and guilt on a part of parents and a great deal of sort of hovering expectations for children that really aren't necessary and in fact may even be counterproductive if we still want children to innovate and create. And in fact, at this particular moment in our history, this post industrial moment, abilities like imagination, creativity, diversity, those things are more important than ever before. The irony is that the way that we evolve naturally actually seems to be a better way of encouraging those abilities than the particular picture that we get from the schooling of the last hundred years or so.

We don't really know very much about how specific kinds of early experience shape adult outcomes. One of the things that we know is that early experience is important because we know that, for instance, children who are impoverished, children who are neglected have all sorts of difficulties and problems as adults. And we can even trace some of the physiological origins of that in things like cortisol levels or stress. So we know that early experience is important. But the kinds of variance in conscious parenting methods that middle-class parents stress about like does this stroller face front or does this stroller face back or do you start feeding solid food when the kids are six months old or when they're a year or when they're three months old? Do you co-sleep or do you sleep train children? All those things that become sources of enormous stress as far as we can tell don't make very much difference in the long run. And in fact, again, this is part of the difference between the carpenter and the gardener model, if you think about caregiving as being a way of encouraging diversity it kind of makes sense that you wouldn't see strong correlations between what specific parents do and then how those children come out specifically as adults. And that's kind of the empirical picture.

So I don't necessarily think that children who are coming out of this parenting model are going to have some terrible deficit that's going to be distinct from other children, but one thing that I do think for sure is that during the process of caregiving the model is making people miserable. And children are resilient, children will come out, the next generation of children will come out the way that they're going to come out, but in the meantime there's a lot of unnecessary stress and misery that's happening both for parents and for children that is unnecessary, that isn't actually having the outcomes that we think. And it seems to me plausible that some features of children are related to this particular kind of attitude towards caregiving. So it seems as if, at least anecdotally, I don't think we have any data about this but at least anecdotally it seems that we have this strange thing with children who are very privileged who have been very well taken care of and are terribly fearful, are terribly afraid that something bad is going to happen to them. And that's the kind of combination you might expect from this kind of very controlling parenting model.

As I say I don't think we have very clear evidence for those relationships, but at least it seems anecdotally plausible that that might happen. But I don't think that's the biggest problem. I think the biggest problem is that life is being made miserable for parents and for children in ways that are just not necessary.