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The Gardener vs. The Carpenter: Parenting in the 21st Century

Updated: Dec 4, 2019


We've been doing it since the beginning of humanity. Or have we?

The concept of parenting has really only existed since the 1970's. It was when "experts" like myself realized they could make some money off something that pretty much everyone was already doing. We could monetize one of the most vulnerable aspects of human life. The shame of being a bad parent or even worse.... being perceived as a bad parent.

Think about it. I don't "brother" my sister. I don't "husband" my wife. The word "parent" denotes a relationship, not a verb or a task. Before the experts introduced this word into our vocabulary we loved, cared for, disciplined, and guided. But we didn't call it "parenting".

So what's the big deal?

Alison Gopnik wrote a book called "The Gardener and the Carpenter" which, full disclosure, I haven't yet read. But I did listen to an interview with her done by the NPR show "Hidden Brain," which I highly recommend. She contends that before the parenting revolution more parents treated their relationship and interactions with their children as a gardener. You provide the most fertile and nutrient rich environment possible, you water, you provide sunshine, you feed, you pluck weeds, and maybe you prune and then you let the plant grow. Nowadays we "parent" like carpenters. We measure and cut, and sculpt and mold. We "build" children to what we want them to be. They enter this sport and learn this musical instrument, we demand certain levels of achievement and push them to post-secondary. None of which are bad but the parent is the architect, removing responsibility for development and growth from the child herself.

Maybe I'm just being picky with my words but I wonder what difference it makes using the word parent as a verb? I wonder if whether the dynamic between parent and child would change if we moved away from "parenting" like a carpenter and towards nurturing like a gardener.

This isn't to say I think we should throw out all rules and expectations. A gardener often needs to be very strict with boundaries and guidelines in order to increase the likelihood of a flourishing garden. Children need structure and rules but they also need the opportunity to practice and implement those rules by themselves. You can't force a plant to grow. You can't build a stronger tomato (don't show this to genetic food engineers).

Maybe having children is more like having a garden and less like having a workshop with projects.

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