Child development: A cognitive case for un‑parenting

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
536,
Pages:
27–28
Date published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/536027a
Published online

Josie Glausiusz relishes Alison Gopnik's study on how child-rearing demands the embrace of messy realities.

The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children

Alison Gopnik Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 2016. ISBN: 9780374229702

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Detail Parenting/Alamy Stock Photo

Children learn well from undirected play.

An Amazon trawl for “parenting books” last month offered up 186,262 results. Titles included Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson's The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind (Delacorte, 2011), Elaine Glickman's Your Kid's a Brat and It's All Your Fault (TarcherPerigee, 2016) and Have a New Kid by Friday by Kevin Leman (Revell, 2012). This is less genre than tsunami.

Yet, as Alison Gopnik notes in her deeply researched book The Gardener and the Carpenter, the word parenting became common only in the 1970s, rising in popularity as traditional sources of wisdom about child-rearing — large extended families, for example — fell away. Gopnik, a developmental psychologist (or as she describes herself, “a bubbe at Berkeley, a grandmother who runs a cognitive science laboratory”), argues that the message of this massive modern industry is misguided.

It assumes that the 'right' parenting techniques or expertise will sculpt your child into a successful adult. But using a scheme to shape material into a product is the modus operandi of a carpenter, whose job it is to make the chair steady or the door true. There is very little empirical evidence, Gopnik says, that “small variations” in what parents do (such as whether they sleep-train) “have reliable and predictable long-term effects on who those children become”. Raising and caring for children is more like tending a garden: it involves “a lot of exhausted digging and wallowing in manure” to create a safe, nurturing space in which innovation, adaptability and resilience can thrive. Her approach focuses on helping children to find their own way, even if it isn't one you'd choose for them. The lengthy childhood of our species gives kids ample opportunity to explore, exploit and experiment before they are turned out into an unpredictable world.

In Gopnik's not-parenting approach, the rampant disorder of genetic variation (or, to use her technical term, “mess”) becomes a wellspring for creativity, contributing to the wide range of children's temperaments and abilities. Some children are risk-takers; others are timid; some are highly focused (an advantage in a test-obsessed school system) or natural hunters (“constantly on the alert for even subtle changes in the environment”). Throughout history, she argues, that mix has bred resilience in societies faced with challenges, such as early nomads' constant need to confront new environments. People with more conservative temperaments, for example, ensure some security for the risk-takers.

Gopnik reveals how the parenting model can affect how children explore. She describes a wide range of experiments showing that children learn less through “conscious and deliberate teaching” than through watching, listening and imitating. Among the K'iche' Maya people of Guatemala, even very young children with little formal schooling can master difficult and dangerous adult skills — such as using a machete — by watching adults engaging in these tasks in slow and exaggerated fashion. In one of Gopnik's own experiments using a “blicket detector” (a box that lights up and plays music when a certain combination of blocks is placed on it) four- and five-year-olds worked out that unusual combinations rather than individual blocks did the trick — and younger kids were more skilled than older ones at finding unlikely options.

She also cites a number of studies on play, which is so crucial to human development that children engaged in it even in Nazi concentration camps. Research on dolphins, crows and foxes reveals how playing at hunting, digging and fighting develops the skills the animals need as adults. Through play, young rats produce chemicals called cholinergic transmitters, implicated in plasticity in 'social' areas of the brain. Rats deprived of play when young can defend, attack or approach others as adults, but fail to know “when to do what”, she notes. Most human parents, Gopnik writes, “have a vague sense that play is a Good Thing”. But as an aim of parenting, play is paradoxical, she claims, because it is essentially goalless. Elizabeth Bonawitz, a researcher in computational cognitive development, found that when adults instructed children on how to play with a squeaking toy, the children imitated them. When left to their own devices, the children were more likely to try different actions until they had discovered everything the toy could do.

“Gopnik can be scathing in her censure of the modern educational system.”

Gopnik can be scathing in her censure of the modern educational system, which increasingly stresses high-stakes testing. That trend, she notes, parallels the rise in diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which in the United States particularly is often treated with drugs that can have serious side effects, including addiction. More palpable, however, is her devotion to the subjects of her research, including her grandchildren Augie and Georgie, her “true muses”, whose antics pepper her text.

Those antics remind me of my own delightfully disorderly, creative five-year-old twins and their in-the-now mischief and affection. As Gopnik concludes: “The most important rewards of being a parent aren't your children's grades and trophies — or even their graduations and weddings. They come from the moment-by-moment physical and psychological joy of being with this particular child, and in that child's moment-by-moment joy in being with you.”

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