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The Brood: Why the modern concept of 'parenting' may be deeply flawed

In her book
In her book "The Gardener and the Carpenter," developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik explains why the work of raising children should be more like gardening, and less like carpentry.
Meg J / Flickr Creative Commons

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When we raise our kids, we try our best to make sure they turn out happy and healthy.

We want them to be smart, ethical, kind people. Because, after all, their future is a reflection of how well we've raised them, right?

Maybe not. 

What if we've been going about this whole "parenting" business the wrong way?

It's a fascinating idea explored in a book called "The Gardener and the Carpenter," by Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California,  Berkeley.

Interview highlights:

On the current dominant picture of relations between parents and children in the U.S.— the 'carpenter model'

The picture is that being a parent is a kind of work. So the idea is that you have some kind of goals or plans or outcomes. You want your children to grow up to be a happy, healthy, smart adult. And if you just get the right techniques, if you just read the right books and do the right things, you can get the skill to make your children come out the way that you want, in the same way that a carpenter becomes skilled and then can take a bunch of pieces of wood and then make a chair as a result.

Why the 'carpenter model' of parenting is flawed

If you actually look at the science of relations between parents and children... there's not much evidence that the kinds of small differences in parenting techniques that parents obsess about make very much difference in the long run. Even though there's lots of evidence that being a parent, caring for a child, providing a safe, protected environment, is important in the long run. But it's important in a different way. So the picture that comes out of the science is that what being a parent is all about is providing a protected, safe, rich environment in which many different kinds of children can flourish and many different kinds of children can do many different kinds of unexpected things. 

On the idea behind the 'gardening model' of parenting

What you really want to do when you create a garden is to create a flexible, varied, dynamic ecosystem that can respond to changing conditions. So just as in the case of being a parent, even if you could shape your garden so that every single flower looked exactly the way that you wanted to, you would have defeated the whole purpose of having a garden. And in fact, one of the things we've discovered in biology is that monocultures, when we really do just say we're going to have one kind of plant and we're going to feed it and fertilize it and put pesticides on it until it comes out to be the best possible plant that it can, one of things we know is that those systems are very fragile... and you're much better off having a system that's unpredictable, that's complex, that's varied. That's a much more robust, flexible system than I think the monoculture that goes with the parenting system.

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue media player above.

On Thursday January 26th, Alison Gopnik will be appearing in conversation with Alex Cohen at the Central LA Public Library for their series ALOUD. Click here to find out more.