The word parenting, as a verb, has only been around since 1958. Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik examines when caregiving became the art of hovering, and the pitfalls and anxiety of trying to shape children instead of raise them.
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.