A new book about parenting styles asks parents: Are you a “carpenter” or a “gardener? And which style is best for raising kids?

In her book “The Gardener and the Carpenter,” Alison Gopnik, a psychology and philosophy professor at University of California – Berkeley, says many parents today view their children as entities they can mold into a specific image — they act like carpenters.  You can hear her interviewed on a podcast on the NPR radio show Hidden Brain. 

She says, however, that good parenting is more like being a gardener than a carpenter. 

Even the verb “parenting” itself implies a goal-directed and task-oriented project. 

Parents today seem to apply their experience of going to school or working on their children — as if applying a manualized approach to childrearing would work. It leads to an anxiety of “doing parenting right,” which I see in the tense, guilt-ridden parents who feel they are failing their children if they don’t sign them up for endless rounds of dance classes or robotics teams. 

The carpenter approach makes both parenting and childhood anxiety-ridden, because if children “fail” in some way by not getting good grades, not making the travel baseball team, or just acting out in very normal ways, parents feel their “project” will not live up to their expectations. 

Because I emphasize relationships and attachment bonding in family therapy, I especially liked Gopnik’s emphasis to “be a parent” rather than look at parenting as a task. She says to think of the relationship first — “I am a parent to my child.” I often stress in parenting education to pause and consider discipline scenarios from this perspective: “Is this conflict worth risking harming my relationship with my child?” In other words, is this demand that she clean her room or whatever worth disrupting the bond between you and your child. Not to say you should cave in on expecting compliance with normal chores, etc., but is arguing about it at this moment and in this harsh way the best choice? 

A carpenter style of parenting also makes for over-involved and over-protective “helicopter“ parents. These parents keep kids from taking risks for fear it might come out wrong. If parents don’t give children autonomy to expose them to new situations and take risks, kids don’t learn to be resilient in the face of failure. 

The result is that children will be more anxious and less risk-taking, certainly not skills that will serve them in the world. Kids need fearless play to explore and learn, which leads to being able to respond flexibly.

Gopnik believes that part of the trend toward “carpenter” parents is that the demands of the modern world expect expertise in niche topics and academic success, so that parents become competitive. Kids start ballet lessons at age 3 and piano lessons at age 5. They begin worrying about college applications and careers in 7th grade. 

Yet all the research on emotional and psychological resilience, as well as on problem solving and creativity, show that a broad base of learning and an ability to adjust to new situations and be flexible is the best way forward. 

Instead of trying to construct a child into a “successful” adult, consider parenting to be more like gardening. Many elements of gardening are uncontrollable — the rain, the temperature, the deer eating your crops. Gardeners do the best they can to provide good conditions and they hope for the best, but the plants really just grow themselves. A gardener does not construct a tomato plant or birch tree.

I was not raised by carpenter parents, but by gardeners (literally as well, since we had a three-acre mini farm with fruit trees, honeybees, and numerous vegetables.) 

I was allowed to explore my environment physically, through free-range play without adult supervision for hours at a time. I read voraciously, completed 4-H projects from sewing to cooking, was athletically active, and we travelled as a family extensively. In college my curriculum was largely liberal arts and humanities. I worked starting in middle school and often worked two jobs during and after college. In my first career as a journalist and freelance writer I was exposed to an amazing range of topics, people, and environments, from corporations to non-profits to art studios. When I went through periods of self-exploration, I tried out screenwriting and teaching golf, among other careers. I moved, reinvented myself several times, and took all kinds of risks.

Certainly, this did not prepare me for a niche career as a brain surgeon or robotics engineer, but I can say it was excellent training for my second career as a psychologist. My breadth of life experience serves me every day when I work with clients. Even my hobbies have made me well adjusted and well-rounded and have made me a better psychologist: meditation, yoga, running, and, yes, gardening. 

In some ways I look at all those life experiences as “play.” I always supported myself financially and lived responsibly, but I let my curiosity, open-mindedness, and desire for learning drive me forward, rather than a specific goal, such as “be a brain surgeon.” And in the end I landed exactly where I was supposed to be. Being a clinical psychologist is the perfect fit for me and I can think of no other job that I should be doing right now. 

I believe this experience and attitude has also enabled me to formulate what is a very broad perspective on human behavior, which I write about in my book Self-Acceptance Psychology. Without a encompassing view on life and living, I don’t believe these insights would have come to me. 

So, parents: Stop worrying about outcomes. Be gardeners who allow children to grow naturally, rather than being forced and molded into a specific outcome. Especially today when most of us live long lives and now have multiple careers — let your child explore and learn at her own pace. Not everyone needs to follow a traditional path of academic success starting at a young age. 

I am reminded of a favorite saying that applies to parenting:  

“The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.” — Alexandra K. Trenfor

…be kind to yourself

You may also enjoy: 

Helicopter Parenting Does More Harm Than Good

Helicopter Parenting: Why Are You Doing It?

Parents Must Be the Umbrella


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