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 day when I stop second-guessing the millions of decisions I make every day, which may or may not influence who 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 anyone really needs.
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.
Gopnik also dislikes the use of “parent” as a verb. “To parent,” she notes, suggests that it’s a job, and the “right kind of parenting will produce the right kind of child, who will in turn become the right kind of adult.”
Instead, she says, we should think about being parents. “To care for a child is to be part of a profound and unique human relationship, to engage in a particular kind of love,” she writes. “Work is central to human life; we couldn’t do without it. But as Freud and Elvis both remarked, perhaps apocryphally at least, work and love are both things that make life worthwhile.”
The first time I read Gopnik’s book, when my kids were quite young, I found it annoying. She spends reams of pages explaining just how important the early years are—as she did in her previous book, The Scientist in the Crib, what with maximum neural connections, critical synapse pruning, and gene expression triggered by experience. At the same time, she was telling me to just tend some soil. YOU TEND TO THE SOIL, I thought. I HAVE BRAIN CELLS TO BUILD.
A decade later, I get what she is talking about. My children’s personalities are much more evident, and they’re each developing in their own way. One daughter is ceaselessly kind, easily hurt, and eager to grow up fast. She never stops dancing. The other is fascinated by the intricate workings of the world, with a keen eye and an appetite for structure, design, and detail. She has a hot temper and a quick wit. They are both pathologically competitive. Did we make them this way, or were they always so? Both, of course, but my suspicion is we have less control over our children’s characters than I realized.
That’s sort of Gopnik’s point. The more we learn about evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychology, and childhood development, the more certain we can be that how we are with are children matters much more than what we do with them. We know for sure that kids need a few things from us: love, of course, a sense of values, and time and attention—as much as we can spare. They need to play a lot, without purpose. They need to be messy and to mess up (it’s how they learn). Beyond that, all our flashcards and Mandarin and worrying over getting kids into the right preschool or preparing them for college applications often does more damage than good. There’s no perfect formula for raising an adult. But if we love our kids in a big way, it usually shows.
Okay, one book and one essay
Gopnik is not the only person to make this argument. I read, and re-read, Anna Quindlin’s beautiful essay “All My Babies Are Gone Now” every year, crying every single time. She is way ahead of me in the parenting game, reflecting on her grown-up kids and how they became the adults they did. She considers all the how-to books she read:
“What those books taught me, finally, and what the women on the playground taught me, and the well-meaning relations – what they taught me, was that they couldn’t really teach me very much at all. Raising children is presented at first as a true-false test, then becomes multiple choice, until finally, far along, you realize that it is an endless essay. No one knows anything.”
It’s both comforting and disturbing to think we will never be experts at parenting. Just when you think you’ve got a problem solved, a new one pops up in its place. Shouting and cursing usually backfire, but sometimes, some unexpected outrage can get the job done. Consider my youngest daughter, who spent the first three years of her life refusing to brush her teeth. Every night felt like a battle with a very small tyrant. One night, after explaining again that it was my job to protect her and her teeth, I gave up in exasperation and threw her small toothbrush down the toilet. Miraculously, after three years of cajoling, creating games, offering bribes, and even crying, the toilet incident somehow worked: She started to brush her teeth. (I later learned that she has an abnormal sensitivity to certain flavors and textures, which is why she hated brushing her teeth so much, and which sort of made me hate myself for being so impatient. These are not proud parenting moments. And yet.)
I think a lot about why Quindlin’s essay makes me so emotional. Sure, it’s a relief that no one knows anything. But the essay is also a stark reminder that we are our children’s guardians and protectors, not their puppeteers—and not their carpenters, furiously chipping away at some nondescript mass. She writes:
“Even today, I’m not sure what worked and what didn’t, what was me and what was simply life. When they were very small, I suppose I thought someday they would become who they were because of what I’d done. Now I suspect they simply grew into their true selves because they demanded in a thousand ways that I back off and let them be.”
What she can see so clearly from the vantage point of her children’s adulthood is that we only get one shot at this. It feels like there will never be a day when we will wake up without a small body in the bed, folded, draped and tucked into one of us. But we wake up one morning and there are none. On even on the most annoying and irritating of days, the ending feels imminent, and more than a little bit heartbreaking.
Gopnik has done some incredible work with infants and children in her lab, and is among a group of scientists who are uncovering what happens in a baby’s brain as early as the first few months of life. If you want to know that stuff, it’s in the book too. It’s almost as if she needs to tell you just how important this period is in order to then absolve you of needing to do more than love your kids fiercely and keep them close—while teaching them, everyday, to need you less.
I expect my family still has some of the hardest years in front of us. That tiny tyrant has—not surprisingly—turned into a fiercely independent child; her sister, meanwhile, wears every emotion in HD. They will change in a million ways, but maybe also stay a bit the same. Whatever the case, I am more confident that we are well-enough equipped to help them.
My mother-in-law often says that when kids are small, your arms hurt, but when they are big, your heart hurts. My bravado on the cusp of the preteen years is probably just as mislaid as my anxiety was when they were babies. But if I am having a fleeting moment of feeling it might all be okay, let me have it. Surely, like their childhoods, it too will pass.