Is It Finally Time to Abandon 'Goal-Oriented' Parenting?
In July. Dr. Alison Gopnick appeared in the Wall Street Journal plugging some thoughts from her soon-to-be-published book The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children.
Gopnick's point is about parenting, but it has direct implications for the teaching world as well. Gopnick argues that modern parents have accepted a goal-oriented view of parenting, that parenting is working toward a particular outcome, in this case, creating a particular human being with a certain set of characteristics and skills. This is parenting as carpentry:
Working to achieve a particular outcome is a good model for many crucial human enterprises. It’s the right model for carpenters or writers or businessmen. You can judge whether you are a good carpenter or writer or CEO by the quality of your chairs, your books or your bottom line. In the “parenting” picture, a parent is a kind of carpenter; the goal, however, is not to produce a particular kind of product, like a chair, but a particular kind of person.
Gopnick says that this leads to the idea that certain techniques, certain developed expertise, will allow parents to create that particular human being. That gives us the corollary that some parents are better more expert, or, as we like to say in the ed biz, more "effective" than others, and that this effectiveness can be judged by the outcome. Did you manufacture the good, well-behaved, accomplished tiny human that was your goal? Congratulations-- you're an excellent carpenter parent.
Gopnick has bad news for folks who pursue this model.
The scientific study of development provides very little support for this picture.
It's not that childhood experiences don't have an effect on human development. And it's not that parenting choices don't matter. They just don't matter, says Gopnick, the way you think they do.
Her argument is an evolutionary one, that the need to be nomadic came with a need to be adaptable, which fit well with a longer-than-usual-in-the-animal-kingdom immaturity for humans. It made it possible for humans to raise a varied and flexible group of young'uns, which in turn meant that whatever happened, whatever turned up, there was someone in each generation that was capable of dealing with it. But, she says, "you can't simultaneously learn about a new environment and act on it effectively."
The evolutionary solution to that trade-off is to give each new human being protectors—people who make sure that children have a chance to thrive, learn and imagine before they have to fend for themselves. Those protectors also pass on the knowledge that previous generations have accumulated.
This reminds me of some of the thinking that comes from chaos and information theory-- that there is an order-creating pattern in the world in which first a wide variety of paths emerge, and then a few emerge as successful, and then they blossom into a thousand paths, and then a few emerge, rinse and repeat ad infinitum. There is a human impulse to believe that we can choose the paths that will emerge ahead of time and then not waste time on all those paths that don't thrive. This may seem sensible, but it's not-- it's like saying, "Well, it turned out that only two innings of that ball game really made a difference in the final score, so next time, let's only play those two innings." The universe doesn't work like that (and humans aren't yet pre-cognitives).
So if we aren't to raise children like carpenters, what does Gopnick suggest?
Well, here comes that R word yet again-- relationship. In fact, she even throws in the L word.
Talking about love, especially the love of parents for their children, may sound sentimental and mushy and simple and obvious. But like all human relationships, our love for our children is at once a part of the everyday texture of our lives and enormously complicated, variable and even paradoxical.
We can work to love better without thinking of love as a kind of work. We might say that we try hard to be a good wife or husband, or that it’s important to us to be a good friend or a better child.
But I wouldn’t evaluate the success of my marriage by measuring whether my husband’s character had improved in the years since we wed. I wouldn’t evaluate the quality of an old friendship by whether my friend was happier or more successful than when we first met. This, however, is the implicit standard of “parenting”—that your qualities as a parent can be, and even should be, judged by the child you create.
That, of course, is exactly where we have arrived in education reform. Now, teaching is not parenting. But the parallels are obvious.
What does Gopnick suggest as an alternative? Well, the title rather gave that away. It's gardening.
As all gardeners know, nothing works out the way we planned. The greatest pleasures and triumphs, as well as disasters, are unexpected. There is a deeper reason behind this.
A good garden, like any good ecosystem, is dynamic, variable and resilient...
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 than the most carefully tended hothouse bloom.
Now Gopnick is clearly in teaching territory. And this next paragraph is not even her finish, but it underlines all that has come before:
As individual parents and as a community, our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it is to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to make a particular kind of child but to provide a protected space of love, safety and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish.
It's not perfect-- by creating a space for children to become dynamic, variable and resilient, we are shaping children's minds. But I get her point-- we're not supposed to be creating children with a set of specific one-size-fits-all made-to-order characteristics. This is perhaps more of a balancing act than Gopnick aknowledges-- do I really want to become the parent of a empathy-impaired sociopath (even if he can run for President)? But it's an interesting argument to consider from someone whose gig is child development and not education specifically. Children are not widgets or coffee tables, and modern ed reform seems to have completely lost sight of that fact. The full book may be worth a look.