Meet the parenting expert who thinks parenting is a terrible invention

Last updated: 06-12-2020

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Meet the parenting expert who thinks parenting is a terrible invention

Children behave in mysterious ways. Think of the quick shifts of attention, followed by the sudden absorption in a passing insect, or a dust particle, just when you’re in a rush to get out the door. Or think of the pretend play that seems to go on just a bit too long.

To many adults, all this can be mind-boggling. But not to developmental psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik, who has dedicated her career to studying the brains of babies and young children to understand how humans acquire knowledge in the first place. To her, children’s behaviour makes complete sense. 

As the head of the Cognitive Development and Learning Lab at the University of California at Berkeley, Gopnik has learnt to love a good paradox. In addition to scientific publications, she writes books and columns for the general public, in which she addresses the many contradictions and tensions inherent in childhood – and, by extension, parenthood – without ever offering to resolve them. 

In fact, Gopnik believes that those tensions are precisely the point. Her work is devoted to explaining, in accessible and lucid prose, why those elements that can make caring for babies and infants such an exasperating endeavour – their incredible dependence, their seemingly utter inability to focus, their messiness – are not bugs, but the most important features of childhood.

Earlier generations of developmental psychologists, from Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget, considered infants and children as underdeveloped or even irrational little creatures – and you could argue that lots of parents have at times believed that too.

But Gopnik’s research shows that small children behave extremely reasonably – as long as you keep the purpose of childhood in mind.

We’ve both been enamoured with Gopnik’s work since we first came across it. She speaks simultaneously to the thinkers andthe parents in us, is critical of a number of persistent ideas about parenting and the industry that has sprung up around it, writes in a fascinating way about the importance of play – a topic that Irene has been writing about recently – and about the bond between different generations – which Lynn has delved into. Since we wanted to hear more about her ideas, we wrote to her in early April asking for an interview. She quickly agreed to one but added that we had to be patient: the semester was almost over, and she was still tied up with the last few steps – which seemed more preoccupying than ever because all of it had to happen over Zoom.

It was late May when we spoke to her, logging on from Naples, Amsterdam and Berkeley. Sitting comfortably on a leather armchair in her study room, with a well-stocked bookcase in the background and frames on the wall, Gopnik mused about writing an op-ed to assuage her younger colleagues, many of whom were trying to homeschool their children and work from home at the same time.

“Cognitive developmentalists have found,” the op-ed would say, “that if you tell your children to go outside and play, give them a bag of goldfish crackers, and then shut the door, this leads to great improvements in their cognitive control, their conceptual understanding and their abilities to explore.” 

It was only half in jest, Gopnik said, laughing: “I think I’d do lots of parents a great service and I even suspect it sort of true.”

It would also suit her style. She’s an expert on child development who refuses to offer parents any practical advice – yet reading her work can be among the most liberating and consoling experiences a parent might have. One very useful example for parents: an infant throwing their cup on the floor, time after time after time, becomes a lot easier to handle when you know they’re figuring something out about the laws of gravity, rather than trying to annoy you. 

Thinking and writing about parents and children, Gopnik said at the beginning of our interview, is usually done in one of two ways: instrumentally – “here are five tips to help you homeschool your child” – or as wry, personal anecdote – “now I’m going to tell you how homeschooling didn’t happen in my house, and This article, for example, is a case in point. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-ff860dfa-b672-4f5b-a952-f91d0d01b086" > my kids are all running around like wild animals”. This article, for example, is a case in point.  

“Just imagine,” she added, “if the only stories featured in the economics section of the newspaper were along the lines of ‘here’s what you need to know about your personal budget’ or ‘here’s why I’m so bad at balancing my budget’. We would never think that gave us the full picture of what economics is all about.” She sounded amused and dead serious at the same time – it’s precisely that combination of lightness and seriousness that characterises her writing as well.

The relationships between parents and children, the comparison suggested, involve a great deal more than practical tips and idiosyncratic experiences – and yet we’ve relegated discussions of those relationships to the lifestyle sections. It’s as if we’re unable to see them for what they are: among the most profound and fundamental relationships any of us will ever be part of.

Gopnik, then, would like us all to speak both more deeply and more widely about parents, children, and any other set of intergenerational relationships. One concept is crucial in that respect, and it kept coming back throughout our interview as well: “life history”. The idea is that natural selection has led every organism to have its own, You can read more about Life History Theory on this Science Direct Portal. ScienceDirect: Life History Theory – an overview. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-f0f676d4-97e4-4f60-9160-2104345cd18a" > specific life cycle. Instead of thinking of children as underdeveloped adults (and of the elderly as retirees with little added value to society), we need to understand that every stage in the life cycle has its own purpose. 

In early childhood, that purpose is exploration. And it starts surprisingly early. In her book The Philosophical Baby (2009), Gopnik describes experiments that showing that even very young children can distinguish between fact and fiction, have a moral compass, make inferences about the world, and For example, children start pretending when they are just a year old. While previous generations of developmental scientists believed that children at that age were unable to distinguish between reality and make-believe, this turns out not to be the case. This is a study carried out by Daphna Buchsbaum, a researcher at Gopnik's lab, to test how far children can pretend. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-12a5ae30-e160-4530-a19a-9c331503153d" > form theories about the nature of reality.

When we grow up, our purpose shifts to exploitation: taking what we’ve learned as children, and using that to achieve our goals. (And as we move further along in adulthood and into old age, our roles change yet again; we become teachers, mediators, bearers of historical knowledge.)  

Another purpose of adulthood is to help and protect children as they go about their business of exploring. A toddler who is completely mesmerised by a beetle can only follow its path if there’s an adult around who keeps the child from running under a bicycle. Discovering how gravity works by repeatedly throwing a cup on to the floor only works if someone, most likely the adult in charge, picks it up for you over and over again.

“What the science tells us is that there’s a reason for the way our lives unfold, from the time we’re born up through childhood, adolescence, adulthood and older age. Those stages of life all have different functions from a scientific and evolutionary perspective,” says Gopnik. 

“My heart is with the crazy, poetic, exploratory children; but they couldn’t function unless you had a whole lot of people who were doing the hard work that we do as adults,” Gopnik says.

But, Gopnik points out, at the moment, in many societies around the world, we’re doing a poor job of allowing each stage of life to fulfil its purpose. For example, small children are often forced to adjust to educational systems that don’t fit their learning styles. Meanwhile, large portions of the elderly population aren’t using their powers as storytellers and caregivers, vital for passing on information to the next generation. And then there are pervasive ideas about parenting that are far from beneficial for children.

In her most recent book, The Gardener and the Carpenter(2016), Gopnik shifts her focus to parents as well as children, explaining why many of the things middle-class parents in industrialised societies try to do to help their children develop are completely misguided. 

“Parenting”, the idea that parents can shape their children the way a carpenter might turn a bar of wood into a chair leg, is a distinctly US invention. The Merriam-Webster dictionary records the first use of the word in 1918 in the sense of raising a child. Later, the word "parenting" became associated with different styles that parents use to obtain certain outcomes over others. Here is a good overview of different types of modern parenting. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-0ce6ee37-a687-4250-8303-aa5ced82973c" > It’s a recent invention, too: before the twentieth century, “to parent” didn’t exist as a verb. You either werea parent or you weren’t, and if you were one, you might try to “raise” your children to survive, more or less gently, into adulthood. There is, of course, a very long tradition of thought around how best to do that. But in recent years, “parenting” has come to mean something that you might “succeed” at (and so you might fail at it, as well).

Parenting, Gopnik writes in The Gardener and the Carpenter, is a goal-directed verb, describing goal-directed behaviour, where the goal is “turning your child into a better or happier or more successful adult – better than they would be otherwise”.  And while the term is often enough used to describe what it is that parents do, it’s also increasingly used to descrbe what parents shoulddo.

Around the world, parenting entails a set of prescriptions (“limit your children’s screen time!” “Take them to baby yoga to promote focus and attention!”) and a set of supplemental behaviours (parents dragging their kids to after-school classes, extracurricular activities, standardised tests in kindergarten, and so on). Most of all, parenting comes as a promise, writes Gopnik: the promise “that there is some set of techniques, some particular expertise” that would help parents achieve their goal of shaping their children’s lives.

That promise is false as well as harmful, but fewer and fewer parents seem to know that. In fact, if the excessive supply of “how to” parenting guide books and newspaper articles make one thing clear, it’s that parents are hungry for practical tips that read like clear-cut recipes. And while Gopnik acknowledges that a lot of these books “simply give practical advice about being a parent” – about helping children sleep, say, or eat –  “many more promise that if parents just practise the right techniques, they can make a substantial difference in the way their child turns out.” This promise, Gopnik argues, is an empty one – and undesirable, too.

All parents can do for children is offer them a rich, safe, varied environment in which they can explore and become whoever it is they were meant to become. Gopnik suggests that parents should act like gardeners rather than carpenters: carpenters have their eye on the finished product (a table, say, or a chair), while gardeners plant seeds and care for them with only a vague, and ever-receding, endpoint in mind. 

If parenting is such a bad idea, why did it become a thing in the first place? “Becoming a parent,” Gopnik said when we asked her, “is not something that you can learn from reading books, any more than being a hydrologist will help you become good at surfing, or understanding physics will make you a good tennis-player. It’s more like an apprenticeship, in that you learn by doing, and you learn by doing it alongside experts who have been doing it for a long time.” 

So did studying children’s development make becoming a parent easier for Gopnik, we wanted to know? Not exactly, she said.

“What did help was the fact that I was the oldest of six siblings, and so grew up caring for babies and small children. But we no longer have good mechanisms for doing that kind of apprenticeship: families are smaller and different generations have become much more separated. Children are in schools, parents are away at work, and grandparents are in an assisted-living facility even further out.” 

“What’s also contributed to the rise of parenting, especially in the United States, is this growing anxiety regarding meritocracy. With greater economic inequality comes a rising fear of falling out of the middle class. Everybody knows that the formula for staying in the middle class is: education and knowledge and information.”

That’s why so many parents want to make sure their children turn into excellent students: "A lot of the craziness around parenting has that economic situation as a backdrop. It’s lousy for parents and it’s lousy for kids, but if you look at it from an economic perspective, it’s In a book that came out last year, economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zillibotti demonstrate that measures of economic inequality influence the ways parents parent; in countries with high inequality, parents tend to be more authoritarian and intensive, whilst in countries with greater social and economic equality, the dominant parenting style tends to be more relaxed. Find out more about the book Love, Money, and Parenting here. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-7ce630b7-a4b7-4614-a7b8-cc285f302429" > not irrational."

But while it might seem rational to try and turn your child into an optimally fit participant in society in the short run, in the long run it’s a very bad idea. Gopnik thinks opting for variety is a good evolutionary strategy. After all, once circumstances change, having only goal-oriented, focussed, grade-A students who become leaders might no longer be of much use. Our species might then benefit more from having a good crop of In his theory of emerging adulthood, psychology professor Jeffrey Arnett argues that over the past few decades young adults are no longer following the traditional path to adulthood, marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, getting married, and having a child. While this is due to a variety of factors and changes across cultures, it could also be determined by a need for higher variability in a more flexible job market. This piece in the New York Times provides a good overview of this argument. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-1fca9347-3442-4391-9f28-1bfcc1dd821a" > creative, adventurous, and open-minded members who can come up with solutions to whatever new problems we are facing. Our species depends on diversity, and uniformity would ultimately mean our downfall. 

Besides, both parents and children stand to become very frustrated in the process of parenting. Parents because they realise that getting your baby to adhere to a schedule or your preschooler to learn the alphabet is not as easy as the guide books suggest; and young children because they’re not allowed to do what their brains are most equipped to do – which is wander about in ways that are as variable, aimless, exploratory and playful as they are ultimately useful.

The separation of the generations that has made parenthood less intuitive and more fraught for many people, Gopnik says, is also a loss in another sense. Here’s why: While primates go from infancy (where they depend on their carers for feeding) directly to juvenile growth (where they become independent but aren’t sexually mature yet), humans go through a long childhood in between. Biological anthropologist Barry Bogin describes this as the period when the youngster still depends on older people for feeding and protection, typically until the age of at least seven. See Bogin's paper here. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-d9c0bf7c-4e51-43d2-855f-7e71122060a6" > human children are dependent on adults for an exceptionally long time, which means that raising them is a lot of work – too much work for one or two adults alone. Our ancestors solved this by distributing that work among several people: biological parents, but also uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, neighbours and grandparents. This still happens in many modern cultures, as well as in traditional hunter and gatherer tribes. And in industrialised societies, too, the care of children is partly outsourced to nannies, playgroups and schools, as well as to helpful grandparents.

But for the most part in those societies, the nuclear family now reigns supreme. As a consequence, parents – Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of human sciences and psychology at Ohio State University, researches the sharing of parenting between mothers and fathers. Her research shows that many fathers are more involved in childcare, but mothers still do more. In this article she writes more about her findings. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-infocard-contents-e086079d-c369-4ea9-9735-278eb9834486" > and mothers more than fathers – are a lot more on their own, especially during their children’s preschool years. Depending on the country there may be more or less help available, but it is less organic than our species has traditionally been used to, leaving the parent feeling ultimately responsible at all times. The result: tired, overextended, and overwhelmed parents – and children who are exposed to a much narrower range of caretakers and models than they otherwise might have been. 

This is a shame. The practice of “cooperative breeding” that are so characteristic of humans has played an important role in our evolution, Gopnik said during our conversation. Certain social skills, such as being good at reading others and communicating with many different people, evolved because of this social set-up, and eventually contributed to our evolution as a uniquely social and This evolutionary process is explained in detail in Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others (2011). " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-7c8b8d5c-6834-457e-85f3-ad2d6e4918ca" > cooperative species.  This evolutionary process is explained in detail in Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others (2011).

But that is not the only advantage of “cooperative breeding”, Gopnik added: “There’s the cliché about how ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ – but the science really shows that cliché is right. And it’s not just that it takes that many people, but it takes that many people all doing different things. In these forager communities, you’ve got a dozen people who are involved in taking care of the child; some teach them practical skills, others tell stories that give children information about how the world works. And that helps obviously because it’s just a lot of work to take care of a child, but also, children are exposed to all these different kinds of models for how different people could be, to the various forms that human relationships can take.” 

“The Dr. Michael Ungar writes about the important of people around us when it comes to the challenges we face, and how individual growth depends very little on us single individuals. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-e956e71e-e980-43af-b956-7e160ee5797f" > literature about resilience Dr. Michael Ungar writes about the important of people around us when it comes to the challenges we face, and how individual growth depends very little on us single individuals. has a lot to say about the importance of such variability. We know that, say, kids who were abused are more likely to have problems. But then some kids grow up in terrible circumstances and they turn out OK. Sometimes they grow up to be leaders or heroes. So what sets them apart? It turns out that the crucial factor is having somebodyin your life who acts as a model, showing you a way to behave that’s different from the way your parents are behaving.” 

Just as it takes a variety or role models and adults for children to learn, it also takes a variety of ways of learning.Take the development of a moral compass, a sense of right and wrong. It’s hard to simply tella child what’s the right thing to do in all circumstances. If it were any easier, “ethics” would be a prescriptive course, rather than a realm of philosophy.

As Gopnik put it during our interview: “Caregiving is a way that we teach ethics. When we take care of another human, especially a child, we give them a chance to develop a set of values, a sense of what is and isn’t important.” It is by caring for a creature that is not autonomous that parents can express their morality, and it is in being cared for that children learn about right and wrong, and the many grey areas in between. 

So children learn in all kinds of ways: by Here is a piece about the importance of unstructured play in learning. " aria-expanded="false" aria-controls="contentitem-sidenote-contents-3d1af143-292b-441e-adfa-41c99a16756a" > playing Here is a piece about the importance of unstructured play in learning. and listening, by observing adults and being taught, by being cared for. But, Gopnik said, not only are children in many societies exposed to a fairly limited group of caregivers; the education system has also become much more uniform than it ever was – and than it ideally should be. This analysis is valid for many industrialised countries, although the US is probably leading this trend.

Take kindergarten, she said: that used to be all about exploration and unstructured play, but is becoming much more like school. Toddlers are now also given standardised tests, and “learning objectives” have been introduced at the level of pre-school. “I have three grandchildren, all of whom or being homeschooled right now. And you’d think, at least with a four year old you could say, you don’t have to worry too much about homeschooling. But even he’s got a list of things he’s supposed to do, too.” She shook her head at the thought of it.

This doesn’t stop at kindergarten, Gopnik writes in The Gardener and the Carpenter. While apprenticeships used to be a perfectly fine alternative to sitting at a desk in school, those tracks have largely disappeared. 

The abstract, theoretical learning that goes on in schools, the results of which are measured through standardised tests, works perfectly fine for some children, but not for others – variability is the first casualty of standardisation.

It also leads to what we might call a monoculture of people – adults who were all trained in one way but not in many others, as if our strength as a society, our resilience as a species, didn’t depend on variety, on many ways of thinking, acting, and problem solving. 

What’s more, Gopnik argues, this specific kind of learning doesn’t prepare children very well for the world outside school – where questions may have more than one answer, problems more than one solution, and no one is going to give you a grade for repeating what your teacher told you.

This is also a world, it goes without saying, in which becoming a parent can be learned only by doing it – not by studying for it. 

It might seem paradoxical, or counterintuitive at least, for a distinguished professor of philosophy and psychology to argue for more apprenticeship and less abstract learning, to call on schools as well as parents to rely less on theoretical expertise and more on simply letting their children be. Then again, her own research has shown that we learn by doing – as children and also, especially, as parents. 

Understanding the minds of babies and children – knowing that they benefit from a variety of caregivers, examples, learning styles and opportunities – will not make parents better at parenting. If anything, it will make them worse at sculpting their children into a certain vision, a certain ideal.

But of course, that is precisely the point, because being bad at carpentry might be just what we need to become more caring, more forgiving, and more mindful gardeners.


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