Alison Gopnik
Professor of Psychology, UC Berkeley

How a Developmental Psychologist Raises Her Children

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Alison Gopnik insists that her experience studying the development of children’s minds did nothing to help her raise her own children.

Alison Gopnik

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. She received her BA from McGill University and her PhD. from Oxford University. Her honors include a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada University Research Fellowship, an Osher Visiting Scientist Fellowship at the Exploratorium, a Center for the Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences Fellowship, and a Moore Fellowship at the California Institute of Technology. She is an internationally recognized leader in the study of children’s learning and development and was the first to argue that children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. She was one of the founders of the study of "theory of mind", illuminating how children come to understand the minds of others, and she formulated the "theory theory", the idea that children’s learn in the same way that scientists do.

She is the author of over 100 articles and several books including "Words, thoughts and theories" (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff), MIT Press, 1997, "The Scientist in the Crib" (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl) William Morrow, 1999, and the just published "The Philosophical Baby; What children’s minds tell us about love, truth and the meaning of life" Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009. "The Scientist in the Crib" was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, was translated into 20 languages and was enthusiastically reviewed in Science, The New Yorker, the Washington Post and The New York Review of Books (among others). She has also written for Science, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, New Scientist, and Slate.

She has spoken extensively on children’s minds including keynote speeches to political organizations such as the World Economic Forum and the Organization for Economic Development, children’s advocacy organizations including Parents as Teachers and Zero to Three, museums including The Exploratorium, The Chicago Children’s Museum, and the Bay Area Discovery Museum, and science organizations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The American Psychological Association, the Association of Psychological Science, and the American Philosophical Association. She has also appeared on Charlie Rose, Nova, and many NPR radio programs. She has three sons and lives in Berkeley, California.



Question: Did your psychology experience help you raise your own children?

Alison Gopnik: Well I have three who are now completely grown up: 30, 29, and 21. My baby is six foot three and 225 pounds and has a shaved head, and piercings and tattoos and he's completely adorable, completely. He's the really, really sweet adorable one. Nothing that I learned as a developmental psychologist was at all informative in terms of raising my own babies because raising children is like swimming or rowing. It's an on-line scale. It's not something that you can do based on theoretical analysis and in fact probably just like swimming. If you do too much theoretical analysis, you're not going to be able to do it as well. So on the other hand, my children certainly taught me a lot about philosophy and psychology. So being with my children and paying attention to them was an enormously informative to me about what was interesting that was going on that I could find out about. But [my work was] absolutely no help at all—they came out fine but [it was] no help at all in terms of actually raising them.

Question: Did you feel a unique pressure to raise your kids well?

Alison Gopnik: I think I felt just the same pressure that all the rest of us middle-class parents in the 20th century feel, which is it's a little tricky because one of the things I'd like to do in my next book is explain both philosophically and psychologically why that is so foolish, the way that there is this very bizarre phenomenon, parenting, which has never existed in history before. The idea that there is this thing that you can learn how to do, which is “to parent”, if you just get enough experts and technology to do it. For most of human history, you just were a parent. It's like imagining learning how to – “boyfriending”, right? That is just a relationship you're in, but that's what [it is] like. In spite of the fact that I told myself that, I am just as susceptible to how are they coming out, are they good, are they now, is it my fault, as everybody else is. As I say, now they're fine so I can take credit for all the good things.

Recorded on: October 8, 2009