If permission to stop parenting sounds like the solution to surviving the rest of the summer holidays, then Alison Gopnik is your saviour. The US psychology professor and grandmother of three thinks too much “parenting” risks ruining your relationship with your children. It is also churning out a generation of young adults afraid to take risks.
What’s more, all that fussing and fretting over the daily minutiae is pointless: it won’t affect how your children turn out. Decades of research into how kids develop means that Gopnik can back up her claims; this is no mere backlash against overbearing “helicopter” parents.
Gopnik isn’t absolving parents of all responsibilities; children still need looking after. But parents should stop trying to “shape” their offspring into particular types of adults. “That is a doomed project and maybe even counterproductive,” she says via Skype from her home in Berkeley, northern California.
In her 2016 book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, Gopnik launches a manifesto “against parenting”, a noun she points out first emerged only in 1958, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. “Parenting is a terrible invention. It hasn’t improved the lives of children and parents, and in some ways it’s arguably made them worse. It’s made relationships more intense, particularly in this latest generation of parents and children. The time that they are together is much more fraught and unhappy and guilt-ridden than it should be.”
She thinks older, middle-class mothers and father have turned parenting into an occupation to match the jobs they did before having children. This makes them hungry for results they can measure, like the degrees they notched up while studying.
“One reason why the parenting phenomenon emerged in the twentieth century was because really for the first time in history people were off trying to be parents on their own who had never taken care of children but who had gone to school and worked, so therefore they think, 'OK, this is like another class I take at school.’”
Cue frustration when babies and small children turn out to be unpredictable. “You don’t know what your children are going to be like, and you can’t control what you’re going to be like as a parent. That’s kind of terrifying in a world where we are used to knowing how things are going to turn out.”
And yet, children are the last thing we should be trying to control. Gopnik, who is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, where she runs a cognitive science laboratory, has pored over the science and struggled to find any empirical evidence to suggest parents should bother. “All those tiny differences in parenting that parents obsess over – co-sleeping versus letting the baby cry it out, putting the stroller frontward or backwards, exactly how much homework children do – the data show that none of that makes any difference in how the children turn out in the long run.”
In short, parents should stop worrying. “Leaving them alone is not a bad idea. We know children will innovate. When they organise a game, like football, then it’s not just that they’re learning how to play football, but are also learning who is a leader, who is a follower, how to divide people up. If they are in a sports league, all that stuff is being done for them.”
And if they lack enough space or available friends to play football, well that doesn’t matter either because it’s good for individual children to be bored, or pick up a book. She believes in the power of play, something she worries today’s over-scheduled offspring miss out on. “There often just isn’t time left over for going out in the world and playing and exploring.”
The same logic applies to very young kids, or “preschoolers” as they’re dubbed in America, who learn by observing. Parents should “slow down” whatever they’re doing to let little ones join in, be it cooking, grocery shopping, or simply tidying up. The trick is getting kids interested in what you’re interested in as an adult “rather than always thinking there is some special parenting thing you should be doing, which is usually some form of schooling when interacting with your children”.
In an ironic twist, the race to educate, which is what most “parenting” boils down to, was sparked by Gopnik and her developmental psychology peers. The last 30+ years have seen an “amazing revolution” in how much we understand about babies and young children. “We’ve discovered that they both know more and learn more than we thought possible,” she adds, citing her first book, The Scientist in the Crib. The upshot was unexpected: lessons started younger. “We saw more and more pressure among middle-class parents to behave in a more and more pedagogical way with their preschool children.”
The “gardener” and the “carpenter” in Gopnik’s book title describe how she thinks parents should approach bringing up their children. Rather than try and shape them into a certain kind of adult, the way a carpenter might shape a chair, parents should think of their kids like a plant in a cottage garden or meadow, free to grow how they like. What they should not be is “hothoused” – manipulated in the way gardeners might force orchids in a greenhouse. “If you imagine a hothouse orchid, it might be saying, 'I’m the most beautiful orchid on the block!’, but I think it’s more likely to be saying, 'Oh no, did someone leave the window open? Did I get watered today? Oh no! Life is terrifying and I feel so fragile!’”
She thinks over-parenting is creating a generation afraid to stand on its own. “It comes with the territory to complain about the next generation, but I do think it’s interesting that the particular failure of millennials is that they seem to be fearful. Our boomer generation was just the opposite; we were so ridiculously arrogant that we were willing to take all sorts of risks. [Being fearful] isn’t what we’d think would be characteristic of young people.”
She “muddled” through bringing up her own kids – three boys, now men, “all very different from each other and me”. One has an artisanal food business; one is in finance; and one is a carpenter. In fact, muddling through and hoping for the best is as close as she comes to offering any parenting advice, laughing when I attempt to press her.
“It’s been funny because when I tell people, 'There isn’t any formula,’ they say, 'But how do you manage to parent without any formula? Tell me what the formula is for not having a formula!’”
She adds: “It isn’t that I don’t sit there thinking 'If I’d done something differently, maybe if I’d sent them to a different school…’ I’m not immune to that. It’s very natural as a parent, particularly if you’ve grown up in this culture. But if you can have a sense that that’s not where the main focus of your attention should be, and that the texture of everyday life with children is a place where you could focus your attention, that would be more satisfying for all concerned.”