Gopnik musters all this evidence in an attempt to persuade parents and educators to stop trying to mold children into adults with some desirable mix of characteristics, the way a carpenter might build a cabinet from a set of plans. Instead, we adults should model ourselves on gardeners, who create a nurturing ecosystem for children to flourish, but accept our limited ability to control or even predict the outcome of. Rather than viewing parenting as an activity or skill to be mastered, adults should simply be parents.
As she did in previous books The Philosophical Baby and The Scientist in the Crib, Gopnik combines her work in philosophy and psychology to explain cognitive science and delve into broader life questions related to child raising and the future of our species. I talked to Gopnik about child development, ideal learning environments, and the impact of technological change. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis: Your book challenges the notion of parenting as an activity with a goal and makes the case for a very different view of the parent’s role. What’s wrong with the mainstream conversation about what makes a good parent?
Alison Gopnik: The prevailing picture just doesn’t fit what we know from science about how parents and children relate to each other. In addition to that, it’s made things miserable for parents and children.
It’s interesting that the very word “parenting” is so recent. It only showed up as a word in 1960 and became common in the 1970s, even though, of course, the words “mother” and “father” and “parent” have been around for as long as English has. The rise of that particular word came with the rise of a particular cultural picture of being a parent: that your job as a parent is to get expertise, information and tips that will help you shape children.
There’s not very much evidence that any of the intentional minor variations in what you do as a parent make much difference in how children turn out in the long run. What ends up happening is parents are so preoccupied with this hopeless task of shaping their children to come out a particular way that their relationships with children at the moment become clouded over with guilt and anxiety and worry and the need for expertise. Of course, children feel some of that hovering anxiety as well.
Lewis: I understand your argument that tactical choices, such as letting a baby cry it out or co-sleeping, may not make a huge difference in the child’s outcomes. But on the other hand, there is powerful evidence that our attention and care and responsiveness to children make a huge difference in their development. Can you help reconcile that paradox about the importance of parents and yet the limits of parents’ power?
Gopnik: I think this is the most interesting thing in the book. You might think from what I just said, “Okay, well, being a parent doesn’t matter.” That goes against lots of evidence that parents are absolutely crucial. In the most simple, straightforward way, human children would die if they didn’t have parents to take care of them. Having a parent, someone who’s committed to you, loves you, takes care of you, and provides you with a rich environment—all that is really important and necessary. That unconditional commitment to a child provides a framework and environment that allows children to develop in all kinds of ways, ways we couldn’t ever have predicted.