Are you a gardener or a carpenter?
From a book review of The Gardener and the Carpenter
Caring deeply about our children is part of what makes us human. Yet the thing we call “parenting” is a surprisingly new invention. In the past thirty years, the concept of parenting and the multibillion-dollar industry surrounding it have transformed child care into obsessive, controlling, and goal-oriented labour intended to create a particular kind of child and therefore a particular kind of adult.
In The Gardener and the Carpenter, the pioneering developmental psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley, argues that the familiar twenty-first-century picture of parents and children is profoundly wrong—it’s not just based on bad science, it’s bad for kids and parents, too.
Drawing on the study of human evolution and her own scientific research into how children learn, Dr Gopnik shows that although caring for children is profoundly important, it is not a matter of shaping them to turn out a particular way. Children are designed to be messy and unpredictable, playful and imaginative—and to be very different both from their parents and from each other.
Perhaps the best metaphor of all for understanding our distinctive relationship to children is an old one. Caring for children is like tending a garden, and being a parent is like being a gardener.
In the 'parenting model', being a parent is like being a carpenter. You should pay some attention to the kind of material you are working with, and it may have some influence on what you try to do. But essentially your job is to shape that material into a final product that will fit the scheme you had in mind to begin with. And you can assess how good a job you’ve done by looking at the finished product. Are the doors true? Are the chairs steady? Messiness and variability are a carpenter’s enemies; precision and control are her allies. Measure twice, cut once.
When we garden, on the other hand, we create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish. It takes hard labour and the sweat of our brows, with a lot of exhausted digging and wallowing in manure. And as any gardener knows, our specific plans are always thwarted. The poppy comes up neon orange instead of pale pink, the rose that was supposed to climb the fence stubbornly remains a foot from the ground, black spot and rust and aphids can never be defeated. And yet the compensation is that our greatest horticultural triumphs and joys also come when the garden escapes our control and flowers turn up in unexpected places.
But consider a meadow or a hedgerow or a cottage garden. The glory of a meadow is its messiness—the different grasses and flowers may flourish or perish as circumstances alter, and there is no guarantee that any individual plant will become the tallest, or fairest, or most long-blooming. The good gardener 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, too. Unlike a good chair, a good garden is constantly changing, as it adapts to the changing circumstances of the weather and the seasons. And in the long run, that kind of varied, flexible, complex, dynamic system will be more robust and adaptable.
Being a good parent won’t transform children into smart or happy or successful adults. But it can help create a new generation that is robust and adaptable and resilient, better able to deal with the inevitable, unpredictable changes that face them in the future.
So our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a a garden of love and care - a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Give them the toys and pick the toys up again after the kids are done. We can’t make children learn, but we can let them learn.
Of course, this reflects on our view of God as Abba, Father. Is he in your mind a gardener as in John 15, "I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener." or is he a carpenter - shaping you into a final, precision product that will fit the scheme he had in mind to begin with?
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