Book Review: The Gardener and the Carpenter

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Oxford University educated developmental psychologist Dr. Alison Gopnik brings us an excellent parenting book in The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children. In the field of childhood learning and development, Dr. Gopnik is a respected voice and frequent author. The Gardener and The Carpenter is her latest effort.


“Drawing on the study of human evolution and on her own cutting-edge scientific research into how children learn, Gopnik shows that although caring for children is immensely important, the goal shouldn’t be to shape them so they turn out a certain way. Children are designed to be messy and unpredictable, playful and imaginative, and very different both from their parents and from one another. The variability and flexibility of childhood allow them to innovate, create, and survive in an unpredictable world. “Parenting” won’t make children learn – rather, caring parents let children learn by creating a secure, loving environment.”

– Jacket Flap, The Gardener and the Carpenter

Dr. Gopnik provides clear and research based parenting strategies for the parent of the new millennium. Common pitfalls are explored and perhaps the main takeaway from the book is this: while we seek to provide a safe, structured environment for our children in which the can grow physically, socially, mentally, and emotionally, we need to step back and let our kids be kids. Oddly, I am going to quote the conclusion of this book right here at the beginning of this review:[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][blockquote cite=”Dr. Alison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter”]”Being a parent isn’t worthwhile because it will lead to some particular outcome in the future, because it will create a particular kind of valuable adult. Instead, being a parent allows a new kind of human being to come into the world, both literally and figuratively. Each new child is entirely unprecedented and unique – the result of a new complicated combination of genes and experience, culture and luck.”[/blockquote][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]This mindset reminds me of the motto of Paul McCartney’s grammar school in Liverpool – Not for ourselves, but for the whole world were we born. It’s a beautiful sentiment, but the pressure! The title of the New York Times review captures this concept beautifully: Memo to Parents: Back Off, and Children Learn More. 

One area Dr. Gopnik addresses is a truth all parents know – kids are messy. It’s just a universal truth. Human children are not born into the world ready to clean up after themselves. And while we try our best as parents to bring order to disorder, Dr. Gopnik reminds us that our 19th century forebears had a different view than the ancient Greeks when it came to chaos and disorder (so did Willy Wonka – a little nonsense now and then…). Disorder and chaos can be the catalyst for “innovation and creativity.”[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][blockquote cite=”Dr. Alison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter”]”Mess has merits.”[/blockquote][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

Learning Through Looking

Through this chapter title, Dr. Gopnik reminds us that our kids are always learning, even when we aren’t actively teaching them. They are opportunistic and indiscriminate when it comes to subject or content. Everything is fair game for the developing mind. The extended period of learning afforded by our way of life is a huge benefit. Through this journey, Gopnik states “children are equipped with particularly powerful devices for learning both from their own experiences and from other people.”

As it turns out, Dr. Gopnik suggests that children may be better than adults [in certain situations) at synthesis – putting it all together – processing what they see other do and attempting to understand why they do what the child observes. The natural conclusion being this: allow for a variety of experiences – it will have a positive impact on your child’s development.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][blockquote cite=”Dr. Alison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter”]”In some ways, at least, your children may actually know more about you than you do yourself”[/blockquote][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The title of this book, and it’s allegorical implications, perfectly relay what is found inside. Two basic, overarching modes of parenting are presented. Throughout the book, Dr. Gopnik makes a strong case for the gardener – providing a nurturing, loving, tended space in which our children can grow in the sun, experience the world around them, and become the unique individual their magical assortment of genes and cultural trellis encourages them to be. It’s a beautiful framework, with fewer codified instructions, something on which the carpenter relies heavily. It’s somewhat of a paradox, and Gopnik deals with several at the outset of the book. Rather than thinking of things like “free range,” other named philosophies, and overly concerning ourselves with outcomes, we focus on love. We focus on providing a framework in which our kids can discover who they are and we worry less about who they are going to be. Focus on the now and the later takes care of itself.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Dr. Gopnik has several other books on child development, including The Philosophical Baby and The Scientist in the Crib. You may watch her TEDTalk, titled “What Do Babies Think?”, here.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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