As a Parent, are you a Carpenter or a Gardener?

Alan Gottlieb, Compositive Staff

This episode of the “Hidden Brain” podcast explores what it means to parent like a carpenter or a gardener and how that affects growing children.

Next time you’re driving your kids somewhere, or out for as run, invest 30 minutes in listening to the podcast embedded on this page.

It’s an episode of “Hidden Brain,” in which psychology and philosophy professor Alison Gopnik discusses the ideas behind her parenting book, “The Gardener and the Carpenter.” 

Here’s the basic premise: A carpenter drafts plans carefully and then follows them to a “t” to get the finished product he desires. A gardener understands that a lot of unpredictable stuff will happen in his garden: bugs, blights, but also wonderful cross-pollinations. Carpenters tightly control what they do. Gardeners understand that there are so many variables that you will drive yourself crazy if you don’t let go to some extent. Surprises can make gardening frustrating, but they’re also what make the hobby ultimately rewarding.

On the parenting front, a great deal of societal pressure exists to raise children in the carpenter style. Tightly controlled schedules. Lots of enriching activities that are highly structured. The prevailing parenting philosophy today hews closer to the carpenter model than the gardener. The idea is that if you as a parent do everything right, you can shape the kind of person your child becomes.

The science of child development, however, suggests that successful parenting is a lot more like being a gardener, Gopnik says. The goal should be developing what she calls a “deep ecosystem where wonderful things can happen, and that reacts to the environment in unpredictable ways.

The idea is to “Provide a protected space where unexpected things can happen rather than shaping a child to come out to be a particular kind of desirable adult,” she tells podcast host Shankar Vedantam.

In fact, Gopnik, even the word ‘parenting’ is relatively new – the transformation of a noun into an adjective. ‘Parenting’ suggests “a goal-oriented activity aimed at a particular outcome,” when being a parent is actually a relationship with one’s child.  

While being a carpenter-style parent might accelerate a precocious child’s trajectory toward being, say, an Olympic figure-skater, it’s also fraught with peril, Gopnik says. “It makes the process of being a parent “difficult and tense and stressful in ways that are unnecessary” – for both kids and parents.

Children need to learn to become autonomous beings, ca[able of functioning in an unpredictable world. Carpenter parents might reduce risks and push children toward success, but simultaneously can create anxiety and stress that are ultimately unhealthy and counterproductive.

It’s not surprising that our culture has evolved to produce carpenter parents, Gopnik says. For most of human history, children were raised by villages, so older children grew accustomed to bearing some responsibility for caring for younger children. Adolescents and young adults today to be more focused on structured activities, including school, and eventually careers, and then d to have less exposure to child-rearing practices. So it’s not surprising that today’s new parents look at parenting as a series of tasks, much like going to school or work. 

Read moreTo Raise Successful Kids, Let Them Fail. 

Associated Domains

Learn more about the Compositive education model

Learn More Today!