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Photo Credit: PIxabey

Gardener or Carpenter?

Alison Gopnik, one of the most eminent developmental psychologists, uses a wonderful analogy in the book ‘The Gardener and the Carpenter’ to illuminate the role of a parent. She opines that there are two broad categories of parents –


Parents who hold a vision for their child and believe that it is their responsibility to bring it to life by providing the right stimuli, enrolling children in the right schools and after-school classes and doing ‘right things’ as parents. This is much like a carpenter who has an image of the final product in mind when he picks a block of wood, chisels it into shape to give life to that vision and then compares the finished product with the vision to assess how good a job he has done.


These are parents who believe that their child comes with unique traits and personality and their role as a parent is to provide optimal conditions for their nurturance and growth. There is a lot that is beyond their control. Much like a gardener who sows the seeds but knows that the outcome depends on many factors beyond his own skill and hard work like soil condition, weather and pests.

Much like this analogy, Gopnik reveals other fundamental flaws in modern parenting. My top takeaways for you.

‘Parenting’ Vs. ‘being a parent’:

Right at the outset, Gopnik makes a powerful distinction between ‘parenting ‘and ‘being a parent’ . ‘To parent’ is a goal directed verb; it describes a job, a kind of work. The goal is to somehow turn your child into a better or happier or more successful adult- better than they would otherwise be. The right kind of parenting will produce the right kind of child, who in turn will become the right kind of adult. She is emphatic that this notion of prescriptive parenting that has been propagated through a multi-billion-dollar industry dedicated to ‘parenting’ is fundamentally flawed. Working to achieve a particular outcome is the right model for carpenters or writers or businessmen but not for a parent.

On the other hand, ‘to be a parent’ — to care for a child — is to be part of a profound and unique relationship, to engage in a particular kind of love. Except that love is never simple; it is complex and paradoxical. And parents need to evolve in their roles as children grow from being completely dependent on them for all their needs to becoming autonomous as they grow into adolescence and adulthood. It is a difficult journey to undertake but a fulfilling one if approached as a gardener.

Child’s school performance in not your yardstick for parental success:

We live in a world where schooling is the key to many kinds of successes. No wonder parenting inevitably becomes focused on ensuring that your children succeed in school. As schools and parents join hands to prepare children for success in the world they will inhabit as adults, it is important to remember that being the best test taker in the world is not much help for discovering either new truths about the world or new ways of thriving in it. Also, it is not a measure of your success as a parent. This is especially pertinent for parents whose children are so called ‘average’ students or not great test takers for a variety of reasons — dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, ADHD, anxiety or pure and simple non conformism. There is an important and recurrent reminder in the book that mastery of scholastic skills like reading writing and arithmetic is not an end in itself, it is a means to making new discoveries and as parents we need to support that process. So it is important to not get overly obsessed with short term test scores.

Very little of the learning that children experience comes from deliberate teaching :

This is a very hard one to digest as a parent or a teacher because a large part of our lives revolve around teaching and passing on lessons that children can use in their later lives. Children come wired to learn through environment, experiences, experimentation. From birth, babies are especially sensitive to information that they get from other people, specially caregivers. However, they are not passively shaped by others; they actively interpret and try to understand both what people do and why they do it. Giving children the chance to intimately observe what many different people and engage with them meaningfully is the best way to help them learn. The key is to practice doing things together- whether it is working, taking a walk together, or baking a cake and let the magic of shared experience take care of the learning.

Let Children Play:

There is solid scientific justification for ‘play’ being the primary mode of learning for children’ and just because we are converging towards a society where play is being squeezed out of our lives is not reason enough to ignore this critical finding. Children start to pretend play when they are just one year old, and it reaches its zenith when they are four. Pretend play is related to a distinctive human ability of hypothetical or counterfactual thinking- the ability to consider alternative ways that the world might be. And that in turn is central to our powerful human learning abilities. Besides that, it is a satisfying good in itself — a source of joy, laughter and fun for parents as well as children.

While some of the themes explored in the book are powerful, the book structure and editing leaves a lot be desired. At times it can be difficult to piece together the central message from disorganized blend of anecdotes, research findings and references which are powerful ideas in themselves but do not weave a coherent story. However, if you have the patience to sieve through sometimes seemingly disconnected ideas, then you will be rewarded with a poignant perspective on childhood which forces you to analyse your role as a parent and helps build a more fulfilling relationship with your child.


This article was originally published on Pooja’s Medium profile and has been re-posted here with her permission.

Pooja Goyal

Pooja is an acclaimed educator working to transform early childhood education through application of neuroscience research to learning in the early years. She is the founder of Intellitots Learning (acquired by Founding Years) which is known for its ground breaking work in the field of early childhood education and care. Pooja is an angel investor and a mentor to many start ups, business leaders and educators.


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