Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik has done more than just 'think of the children', she wrote a book – and it rules favorably for free play and the end of scholastic parenting.
You can structure a child’s day so they’re learning and being nourished by lessons that will skill them up for life, but the moment you take a breather and clock off might just be the moment your child learns the most.
In her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, Alison Gopnik (developmental psychologist and Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley) expresses the idea that children are naturally hard-wired to learn and experiment with their surrounds, and that parents don’t need to take a purposefully scholastic approach. Left to their own devices, children "are like pint-sized scientists testing theories," Gopnik has written. In her book, Gopnik tests some theories of her own and gathers evolutionary data to show that those big decisions parents stress over – like co-sleeping or letting a baby cry, doing flash card intelligence exercises or letting them build wonky cities in the sandpit – have very little measurable effect on a child’s future. The fact is that children are incredibly perceptive and are learning all the time – whether a parent is in teaching mode or not. It might just be our unconscious habits and behaviors that have the biggest impact on them.
Gopnik recalls the village environment children were raised in for most of human history, where all they had was mud, livestock and relatives. She thinks we could benefit from re-creating a modern village for society’s most junior members, and suggests people can do this by having a number of supportive adults available (but not focused directly on the child), making play-time and a stimulating environment abundant, and to remove the mindset that raising kids is a kind of job. Many working parents probably feel that they have two jobs, making a living and bringing up kids, but Gopnik stresses that the latter is a relationship, not a job and keeping that in mind could be an important shift that improves the lives and reduces the stress of both parents and children.
Gopnik cites cooking as an example of something that children naturally love to be involved in and is also good for them. It is an important activity that adults need to get done, and that kids are allowed to help in, and it is functional rather than an artificial learning opportunity.
"It's interesting, we don't ‘wive’ our husbands and we don't ‘friend’ our friends and we don't ‘child’ our parents," remarks Gopnik, so perhaps the focus needs to steer away from ‘parenting’ as a verb, to just being a parent. We all work on our relationships with spouses, relatives and friends by putting time and energy into them, but we don’t check in on their progress or approach those relationships with a shaping, outcome focus. If we give children more freedom, they might thrive on their own terms and in their own way and become more independent.
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.