How do we think about our children?

 The Carpenter and the Gardener: Metaphor matters

It is instructive to imagine education and parenthood as one of these professions.

All parents know that having kids changes us in many ways; not just in the obvious things, but also in the profound assumptions we have of the world, and indeed of ourselves.  About the world, psychologist Alison Gopnick captures parental worries well when she writes  The day before you were born always looks like Eden, and the day after your children were born always looks like Mad Max, but it’s really on self-image that she is most interesting (Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun addresses the same ideas).

Gopnik starts by observing that to be a wife is not to engage in wifing; to be a friend is not to friend (Facebook notwithstanding); not do we child our parents…. but as parents we expect to parent our childen (there is a joke in there somewhere about husbandry, but I’ll steer clear).  So what was once simply a way of being, a thing that happened to us, has become a form of work.  Gopnik’s concern is that this work has come to be modelled on more formal types of work – with goals, objectives, KPIs and assessment measures.  Planned, executed and analysed with carefully gradated degrees of success and (social and academic) failure .  I think she’s write to lament; children and parents are all the poorer for this.

Gopnik’s book – The Gardener and the Carpenter uses two professions to explore this issue about the parent-child relationship.  She argues that to seek to parent a child  – that is, to see parenting as an activity, rather than a state – is to behave like a carpenter, chiselling away at something to achieve a particular end-goal – in this case, a certain kind of person. A carpenter starts with a plan to transform a block of wood into a chair; and as long as the plan is followed, the carpenter will get the outcome he or she wants.  The gardener, on the other hand, takes a different approach.  Gopnik argues that when we garden we do not believe we are the ones who single-handedly create the cabbages or the roses.  Rather, we toil to create the conditions in which plants have the best chance of flourishing. The gardener knows that plans will often be thwarted – the poppy comes up neon orange instead of pale pink … black spot and rust and aphids can never be defeated  – but still finds beauty in unexpected outcomes.  If parents are like gardeners, the aim is to create a protected space in which children can become themselves, rather than trying to mould them.

It would be a mistake to see this as the familiar conservative-liberal axis; the key point is whether to direct shaping the material or let it flower naturally.  Gopnik’s metaphor highlights something that all parents will recognise; the dilemma between knowing what (we think) is best for our kids, and letting them be themselves.  Recent books such as Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom – which was essentially a cultural argument in support of an extreme version of the carpenter – generated a huge response, both positive and negative.   And rightly so; the two visions here are not abstract ideas but central pillars in our vision of ourselves and our families.

Schools tend not to explicitly aligned themselves around carpentry or gardening, but it’s usually not hard to tell which is the dominant vision in a school culture.  Gopnik rightly notes that education is simply caring for children, broadly conceived and this highlights the issue: Is the care about carefully following the plan or carefully creating the conditions? In his essay on Modern Education and the Classics TS Eliot argues that… to think about the aims of Education is also to think about fundamental ends and purposes as human beings …to know what we want in general, we must derive our theory of education from our philosophy of Life and I think he’s absolutely correct.  So what do we want for our children?

My own personal view here is the unremarkable one that the best place to be is probably somewhere between the two extremes; that it may vary from child to child, and will certainly vary by age.  Pragmatically speaking, in the long-run, it may not matter; and no matter how hard we work to shape our children, to pass on our values, our kids will transform them into something else – institutions and values and norms fit for their own time.  For better or worse, regardless of our wishes, our children will be their own people just as we are our own people, and not pale reflection of our parents.  To me, this practical observation is as compelling as the moral point in favour of the gardener.

Elliot, TS (1936) Modern Education and the Classics in Essays, Ancient and Modern: London: Faber and Faber.

Gopnik, A (2016) The Carpenter and The Gardener


By Nicholas Alchin | Twitter @nicholas_alchin

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