January 17, 2019

The Only Parenting Book You Need to Read

“My oldest daughter turns 10 this month. I say this with disbelief, as I am under the mistaken impression that I am still new to parenthood—and that I have ample time to improve at it. I’m still eagerly awaiting the moment when I stop second-guessing the millions of decisions we make every day, which may or may not influence the people she and her younger sister become.

But when I get worried, I try to remember Alison Gopnik’s advice in The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children. In my opinion, it’s the only parenting book I really need because it uses science to put me in my place.

Gopnik is a professor of psychology and an affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s got a mean way with metaphors, and her main idea is that we should raise our children like gardeners, creating the right conditions for our children to grow and bloom, rather than sculpting them—acting like carpenters who attempt to shape and create their children with a desired outcome in mind. Carpenters often try to build replicas of themselves. Gardening involves a bit more humility: it acknowledges that you can’t make a shy child become outgoing, anymore than you make a loud one shut up. But you still can play huge role in supporting the shy one to become more comfortable in groups, or teaching the loud one how to create space for others.

A gardener, Gopnik writes, “works to create fertile soil that can sustain a whole ecosystem of different plants with different strengths and beauties—and with different weaknesses and difficulties.” We can create the conditions to help our kids thrive, but we can’t create the kids who will meet our definition of success.”

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