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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

More from the Big Idea for Saturday, March 31 2012

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How a Developmental Psychol...

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