HiddenBrainIt wasn’t my intent to always get the thoughts for my posts from podcasts, but it does seem to be a bit of the norm.  One podcast that I do really like is, “Hidden Brain” from NPR.  In episode on December 11th titled, “The Carpenter Vs. The Gardener: Two Models Of Modern Parenting” the podcast host is discussing the topic of a book (available for free here) written by the guest, Alison Gopnik.  Dr Gopnik is a psychology and philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley.


In the book Dr. Gopnik describes two ends of a spectrum on parenting methodologies.  At one end is the “Gardeners” that are more about creating an environment (soil) that allows kids (plants) to grow however they will grow.  On the other end is the “carpenter” parent that wants to build/prescribe the child the way they think would be best.  To me this latter sounds like a helicopter parent with a 20+ year roadmap for their child.

Dr. Gopnik embraces the Gardner approach to raising kids.

You never know what is going to happen in the garden.  The things that you plant fail and sometimes wonderful things happen you didn’t plan.  Being a gardener is creating a rich nurturing but diverse ecosystem where many different things can happen.   A system that can respond in unpredictable ways.

She also warns about the impact of being a Carpenter parent.

If you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you are going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult.

Parenting like a carpenter.  The main harm is that it makes the process, the life of being a parent, anxious and difficult and tense and unhappy in all sorts of ways that are unnecessary.  It makes it [anxious] for parents and for children.

It isn’t that carpenters “make” bad kids necessarily.  In fact my dad was a bit of a Carpenter parent.  His main tool was his belt (note, this was back in the 60’s and early 70’s).  I think I turned out reasonably well.  Most of the therapists I have seen seem to agree 🙂  Joking aside, my father was much more of the Gardener type – which was good given the significant personality variance in the rather large brood he had.

I have seen some attempts at carpenter parenting that really backfired and caused the child to rebel.  A minor example of this was a friend of mine that I had known for a few decades suddenly sat down one day and started (somewhat) playing the piano.  I asked him if he had taken lessons and he said he had.  He then thought for just a moment and told how many years, months, and days since his last lesson which was also the last time he ever touched a keyboard until that day several decades later.  I asked how he knew the exact amount of time and he replied that his mom forced him to take lessons from the time he was 5.  He said he hated every single lesson.  His mother said once he was 10 years old he could stop.  So on his 10th birthday he stopped.  He said his mother didn’t like music, but thought it would make him more “upper class” if he played the piano.  I am sure there are more serious cases where the carpenter model ended up creating the exact opposite of what the parent desired.

Dr. Gopnik goes on and comments

The rise of carpenter parents have helped create kids that are a bit safer, taking less risks, fewer are getting pregnant, fewer use drugs, but they achieve more.  But they also have high levels of anxiety and fear.

“[Parents are] so concerned that the child come out that you are not giving the child freedom to take risks, explore, and be autonomous.  It isn’t risk taking if there isn’t a chance it could go wrong.”

That is another aspect of the current [carpenter] parenting culture that problematic.  We are so concerned about how these children are going to turn out that we are unwilling to give them the autonomy that they need to be able to take risks and go out and explore the world.”

I think we can see some of this showing up in the church’s missionaries.  I have heard many reports that the number of kids returning early from missions due to anxiety has ramped up (other factors are also contributing such as the lower age requirement and the intense social and family pressures to go on a mission).

At about 20 minutes into the podcast she mentions an interesting experiment that has been replicated that supports her advocating for the Gardener model.  In the experiment,  young children are introduced to a toy that can do several actions.  In one control group the children are told that the toy can do a specific action and the other group isn’t told anything.  Both groups the children are given time to explore the toy.  Those that are told about single action the toy can do are much less likely to explore and find all the actions the toy can do.  So explaining a little bit can limit the exploration by the child.  That makes me wonder if I have sometimes been too prescriptive in my definition of how the world works when talking with my children.

I DO NOT have the whole parenting thing figured out, but this did make me think a bit about how raised my kids.  Did I lean too heavy on the checklist?

I also think about how the church and church culture do push a bit of the carpenter’s checklist (Primary, mutual, Eagle Scout / YW in Excellence, seminary, mission, BYU, marriage, kids).  Most of these are quite good steps.

  • Does relying so heavily on “a single narrow path” not work quite as well for some people that the path is a bad fit?
  • Even those are “OK” with the path, are they being limited on learning even more?
  • Any other parenting advice come to mind from this analogy from Dr. Gopnik?