Many parents think they can shape their child into a particular kind of adult. Psychologist Alison Gopnik says the science suggests otherwise. She thinks we'd all be better off if we had a different understanding of the relationship between parents and kids.
United States


00:00:00this is hidden brain I'm shocker of a downturn step into the basement of Alex Hamilton's home in Frederick Maryland and you'll notice it has a distinct smell that's what Dustin cigars this is my this is a nice cigar smoking area the wood dust that's from his carpentry projects
00:00:20Alex's basement his workshop he's bill things for every room in this house and outside to coax sets the table I made a shed this picture for a moment a mailbox color coordinated with the house yeah makes the fact that I'm showing my producer in a cone around today
00:00:39he's building something for a beloved family member one of my dogs likes to go with me everywhere so I'm making a bike seat just for her Alex calls himself a retired perfectionist things don't have to be perfect for you to enjoy them that's especially true for another of
00:00:58Alex's hobbies curtains and here he steps outside his house to show us a sausage of a dog scampers off butter beans a good helper Alex walks around his garden pointing out the fruits and vegetables he's planted as a black berries Rockley Brussel sprouts tomatoes sugar baby watermelon artichokes
00:01:22and maybe not artichokes had one artichoke plant I've never had nurtured plant before and there is a rabbit who kept eating it down to the ground in a couple weeks later would grow to be two or three inches tall than the rabbit would come back and hit all
00:01:35the way down the ground so good for him never I still haven't seen when an archer plant looks like this pesky rabbit is one of the very best that distinguishes Alex's gardening from his carpentry when he's in his workshop there are things that he can control the humidity
00:01:50the shape the size the color how smooth the finishes or if you want to leave it rougher rustic but as a gardener he's found he has to let go you can't control the weather you can't control your range you can't control the humidity so there are probably I
00:02:07would say more than half of the variables for gardening you have absolutely no control carpenters draft plans and stick to them gardeners well you have things that creep up on you all the time surprises are what make gardening so frustrating since weeds are really awful those things but
00:02:25surprises are also what may gardening so rewarding all these flowers here started from one flower and they've propagated so and at the end of the summer we had this beautiful flower bed and we didn't have to do anything Alex Hamilton's hobbies are a metaphor for something very different
00:02:45according to psychology professor Alison Gopnik the different philosophies of the carpenter and the gardener plea out every day and how parents interact with the children I think it was kind of natural for people to think this is like going to school and working and if I just if
00:03:01I can just find the right manual or the right secret handbook I'm going to succeed at this task the same way that I succeeded in my classes or I succeeded in my job this week on hidden brain two approaches to being a parent and the consequences and support
00:03:18for this podcast in the following message come from squarespace get your unique domain and create a beautiful website using square spaces award winning templates head to squarespace dot com for free trial and when you're ready to launch use the offer code brain to save ten percent off your
00:03:34first purchase of a website or domain Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and philosophy at the university of California Berkeley she is the author of several books about children's development her most recent book the gardener and the carpenter explores the different ways parents can raise kids and
00:03:52the consequences of those choices Alison welcome to hidden right glad to be here your book is built around an analogy parents behaving like gardeners parents behaving like carpenters unpack those analogies for me well if you look at the prevailing culture of of parents and care giving in the
00:04:13United States even in Europe now it it's a picture that's a lot like the picture you might imagine if you thought about a carpenter and the idea is that if you just do the right things get the right skills read the right books you're going to be able
00:04:25to shape your child into a particular kind of adult and that picture is very different from the kind of picture that comes from the science the picture that comes in science is much more like being a gardener now one thing about being a gardener is you never know
00:04:39what's going to happen in the garden the things that you plan of fail but then wonderful things happen that you haven't actually plant and there's actually a deeper reason for that and the reason is that what being a gardener is all about is creating of rich nurturance but
00:04:54also variable diverse dynamic ecosystem in which many many different things can happen and a system that can respond to the environment in unpredictable kind of ways and I think the science suggests that being a caregiver for human beings is is much more like being a gardener than being
00:05:11a carpenter it's much more about providing a protected space in which unexpected things can happen that it is like shaping a child to come out to be a particular kind of desirable adult I was surprised to read that the tone parenting itself isn't very old went to the
00:05:29term become popular and how did it how did it come to be yeah it's interesting the very word parenting which seems so ubiquitous and taken for granted now is actually quite recent so if you look in a Google and Graham it's only around the nineteen seventies in America
00:05:46that the word first begins to really take off and then there's this kind of exponential increase from the seventies up to the present moment this is focus on the family hosted by psychologist Dr James Dobson the author of such a best selling books on the family as parenting
00:06:01isn't for hours parents listen up to this this could be revolutionary you have to change the way you think about parenting because Amy Chua ignited a firestorm by sharing the surprising details of her strict parenting methods in the book battle hymn of the tiger mother and if you
00:06:17think about it parenting is it is kind of strange word after all we don't wipe our husbands or child our parents what we say is that those are relationships I am a child or I am a wife it's not a kind of goal directed activity that I'm doing
00:06:33that has a particular outcome that I'm trying to achieve and I think being a parent is a much better way of describing what that relationship is all about van parenting and changing a child into something else so it's interesting that that switch in some ways to a verb
00:06:50it changes what we think about the activity as you as you as you say we don't we don't sort of start a friendship saying in three years time I want my friend to become acts and I'm I'm going to raise my friend to to become that person that
00:07:04I that I want him or her to be yeah in fact if you think about something like a friendship of course it's when friends are in bad shape that the friendship counts the most I think there was actually a historical reason why the word appeared in the late
00:07:19twentieth century and the culture that goes along with it which is become more and more intense even in the thirty years since I had my own children and I think that reason is that for the first time in human history people were having children especially in a middle
00:07:33class American people who had not had much experience of caring for children before so one of the things again that comes out of the sciences for as long as we've been human older brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and grandmothers and and the whole village has been
00:07:49involved in caring for children and that meant that for most of human history by the time you are ready to have children yourself you'd had lots of practical experience in caring for children you also watched lots of different people not just your own parents but many other people
00:08:03care for children and what happened in the twentieth century was because families got smaller and people got to be more mobile island people have children at a later age for the first time people were having children who hadn't had much experience of caring for children but had had
00:08:17lots of experience of going to school and working so I think it was kind of natural for people to think oh okay this thing that I'm about to do this is like going to school and working and if I just if I can just find the right manual
00:08:30or the raid secret handbook I'm going to succeed at this task the same way that I succeeded in my classes or I succeeded at my job so I think that historical fact is a lot of the reason why this culture and with it this kind of sense of
00:08:45anxiety and worry and also with this billion dollar parenting industry all started emerging at the end of the twentieth century I listen points out that compared to other primates humans have an especially long childhood we just sort of take it for granted that children need to be taken
00:09:01care of for a long time but that's actually sort of evolutionarily paradoxical and there's an interesting question about why did that happen and one idea at least is that having that long period of childhood gave you this protected period where you could figure out a new environment you
00:09:19could move say from one village to another from one place to another and childhood gave you a chance to master that new environment and I think that a lot of the things that seem kind of strange about children the fact that there simultaneously so creative so imaginative so
00:09:37Exploratorium's so beheaded taking care of themselves kind of fit that picture so it so you would say for example that the the length of childhood that humans experience in some ways perhaps not even lends itself to the to the model of the gardening parent but actually is designed
00:09:54for the model of the gardening parent that's exactly right so even if you could do the carpeting thing even if you could think beforehand here's how I want my child to come out and you know I'm going to engage in this set of procedures that's gonna make that
00:10:10my child come out that way you would have defeated the whole point of childhood by doing that because the whole point of childhood on this view is to be able to bring new ideas new ways of being in the world new ways of understanding the environment to life
00:10:26what do you think the harm is of parents trying to be carpenters well I mean it's a tricky question I think 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
00:10:45are unnecessary and I think it makes it that way for parents and it makes it that way for children note the question about how any kind of behavior on the part of parents influences children in the long run is very very complicated so you know another piece of
00:11:00this evolutionary picture is that every individual child has their own characteristics every parent does there's this complicated interaction between the parents distinctive characteristics in the child so that actually trying to say well if you do this then your child is going to come out like that in the
00:11:18long run that's pretty much of a mug's game and I don't think we have very much evidence for that so I wouldn't want to say well if you're a carpenter than your children are going to come out and have some some terrible crazy feature with children come out
00:11:30in all sorts of unexpected ways that's the whole point it's not just that the carpentry model is making parents and kids stressed this something Allison is noticed about today's adolescents you know in some ways they're doing much better there achieving more they're less likely to take risks they
00:11:46are less likely to to get pregnant or to use drugs but that goes with a kind of anxiety high levels of anxiety high levels of fear and I think you know that is kind of what you would predict from the carpentry story so the carpentry story is one
00:12:03where you are so concerned that the child come out that you're not giving the child the freedom to take risks and explore and and be autonomous and it's not risk taking and less there's some chance that it could really go wrong and I think that's another aspect of
00:12:18the current parenting culture that's that's problematic were so concerned about how these children going to turn out that were unwilling to give them the autonomy that they need to be able to to take risks and go out and explore the world so I'm wondering if some of this
00:12:33has to do with what your goals are as a parent the point that I think you're making is that by creating an environment that children can learn and explore you bill children who perhaps are going to be less anxious more resilient more able to deal with the vagaries
00:12:49of life in front of them and and I and I get that and that does make sense but there's also the case I think our world rewards people who can do very specific things and do them very well cell being every four years the Olympics comes along the
00:13:03winner of the Olympics in nineteen ninety eight in Nagano Japan on the ice now seventeen years of age when I see people who are winning gold medals in the Olympics you know those are usually kids who started ice skating lessons when they were three or you see someone
00:13:18who is joining the you know the orchestra in your town and that someone who's started you know piano lessons when when she was four and and there are these very specific skills that I think are very hard to learn and take an enormous amount of time and dedication
00:13:33and practice and if you don't actually invest the time to do that early it becomes very hard to master the skills later on and even though you might say you know let the child figure out what it is he or she might want to do if a child
00:13:47discovers that she really wants to be an ice skater or a ballet dancer when she's fourteen it's probably too late at that point to really be very good at it and I am wondering if some of the tension here comes from what it is that we're actually aiming
00:13:59for IBM for children who are well adjusted bushes aiming for children who are successful and I wish there wasn't a tension between those two things but I sometimes think that might be well it's interesting you know there's no question that part of the kind of cultural background for
00:14:15for the parenting approach is this sense that parents have of being in a very competitive universe where you know small advantages to their children in terms of their education for example are are going to be absolutely crucial to make sure that the children continue to be in the
00:14:33middle class of the album upper middle class the combination of increasing inequality and increasing relationship between that inequality and things like academic achievement I think puts a great deal of stress on and fear on middle class parents to make sure that their children get into that academic achievement
00:14:50truck when you look at sort of the inequalities in the country what we see is that the wealthy in particular are are able to pass on their privileges to their children in increasingly effective way so if you look at the the kids who are in the Ivy League
00:15:05colleges you know a disproportionate number of them come from families who are in the top five percent of the top one percent of the country and and so it's clear that what these parents are doing whether they're gardeners are carpenters is passing on something to that kids that
00:15:22allows the kids tend to go on and again join that five percent on that one percent and I think it's in some ways I think we send signals to parents that it's good to be a gardener but we will reward your children and all kinds of ways if
00:15:34you behave like a carpenter and and in some ways I think there's a tension here for parents who are torn do I want my child to grow up to be well adjusted and flexible and resilient in which case the gardening model clearly seems to be better what do
00:15:46I want my child to actually be you know as I said successful yeah I think that's exactly right and I think both those messages are there and you know my experience in going around and talking about this book is I think intuitively parents feel that there's something that's
00:16:01crazy about having you know your teenager staying up until two o'clock at night studying for their essay tease and trying to get that little extra edge that's going to get them into the college as opposed to someone else and yet wants that kind of competitive story starts in
00:16:16culture it's very hard to it's very hard to resist right it's very hard to sort of pull yourself out of it and I am genuinely sympathetic I mean I've felt those tensions myself as I say in the book %HESITATION I do think in terms of the larger culture
00:16:32it's again kind of disturbing if what we end up with is this kind of a tiny corner of people on the top who are all just like the people in the previous generation dynamism flexibility of people changing having different developmental trajectories going in different on different because that's
00:16:50something that actually makes the society at large of flourish and I think there's a really interesting tension between sort of the individual incentives to try to especially in the academic context to get children to do the best they possibly account and what you want in on society as
00:17:08a whole that you'd want to have a sense of flexibility in movement and dynamism and of course it's particularly ironic because school was actually designed as part of trying to get people trained for industrial world in a sense goal was designed to make robots in that it gave
00:17:25people skills that now robots are capable of doing and in a post industrial world exactly the skills that we need innovation creativity risk taking are exactly the ones that were not encouraging in this in this very kind of narrow competitive academic parenting culture when we come back we'll
00:17:44talk about the science behind how children learn and how it does can sometimes do more harm than good when it comes to teaching the kids stay with us and support for this podcast and the following message come from the economic development authority of Fairfax county Virginia here is
00:18:04president and CEO Jerry Gordon discussing how businesses can succeed in the county affects county is really a place where people can succeed in businesses can succeed regardless of where they came from regardless of their background all it requires disability perhaps a little bit of luck a great deal
00:18:23of tenacity and you can be successful in Fairfax county more information at Fairfax county ET eight dot org support also comes from Capital One who believes a good credit score can keep your mind at peace you work hard making smart financial decisions at every point keep your credit
00:18:41score strong with the credit why sap from Capitol one with credit wise you can view your trans union credit score and get alerts each time your credit is pulled and when your credit report changes and credit why is free for everyone whether you're a Capital One customer or
00:18:56not so download the free credit wise out today and find a state of credit enlightenment researchers once ran an experiment where an adult presented a kid with a toy and sometimes the adult explicitly showed the kid how the toy worked and sometimes the adult did not what was
00:19:15the toy and what happened so this is work that was done by a list with honor at St and large shows and what they did was they showed the children this kind of complicated thing that could do lots of different things that could squeak had a mirror it
00:19:29had a light and the question was with the children discover all the things that the toy could do and what they found was that if you give a complicated toy like that to a four year old as you might expect that four year olds playing the final things
00:19:40it can do but when the experimentar just changed what they said when they presented the child with a toy where now the experiment to set this is my toy I'm gonna show you how it works and did one thing like squeak this weaker the children were much less
00:19:54likely to explore what they did sort of rationally was sweet this Quakers did what the adult up have demonstrated and suggested to them and we have a number of different results that are like this where children are very very sensitive to quite subtle indicators that someone's being pedagogical
00:20:10that someone's being a teacher and that has some advantages that narrows down the number of options are going to consider but it can also have disadvantages in terms of the range of expression that they're willing to consider too you know of course play itself can be a form
00:20:26of learning and and one way to think about the importance of play if you think about artificial intelligence and how play informs the way we train robots you to talk about this idea in the book how how researchers using play to help robots learn and what does that
00:20:42tell us then about the science of raising kids well it turns out that a very good way of getting out machine system to learn is to give it an early period where it can just play it can just explore can just try out lots and lots of different
00:20:57options and get a lot of information about how the system works so for example they designed a robot that had an early on where it could just kind of danced around in this kind of weird funny way without actually trying to do anything in particular and it turns
00:21:12out that if you gave a robot a chance to just dance around figure out what its limbs could do and then you gave it a specific job like you know go and pick up this piece of cloth the robot was more resilient if it had a chance to
00:21:26play and this is this is one of the interesting things about plant think everyone has kind of the intuition that play is important and valuable but of course if you actually want to have a specific outcome like a particular score on a test you're always going to do
00:21:40better if you don't play if you just have very specific instruction but if you want that knowledge to be resilient you want someone to be able to be flexible to say okay I didn't learn how to do this particular thing but now can I apply what I did
00:21:53to something else then play really seem to play a deep world so for the robots for example the robots who had played you could take off one of their arms or you can tip them over and they would still be able to figure out how to reach for
00:22:08the cloth and that was not true for the robots would just been trained on that particular action and I think that's a good model for the things that play can do in general so you were once in the kitchen with the Aug with your grandson Augie and you
00:22:21what you were whipping egg whites for pancakes and I understand your grandson was imitating you but but not quite doing it the way you were doing it tell me what happened well what is the the one of the great joys of life is cooking with with two and
00:22:37three year olds and they love to cook but of course they're extremely inefficient at the same time so you know what Augie's whipping egg whites the it works and up having a quite fresco all over the walls and he's doing it in a way that is not nearly
00:22:51as efficient as it would be for me to do it myself but it's interesting that if you look across cultures what a caregivers often do is not give their child instructions on what to do but let them participate so let them take on a piece like whipping the
00:23:06eggs I listen and I had mostly focused on how young children learn so I asked her to talk about older children she said that whereas younger children learn well through play and exploration older kids learn best through an apprenticeship they imitate the practice they get critiques but most
00:23:26schools teach in a very different way Allison gave me a thought experiment so imagine we talk baseball the same way that we teach science currently what we would do is we would have children read books about baseball rules when they got to high school we would let them
00:23:41reproduce famous baseball plays of the past and it wouldn't be tell graduate school that they would actually ever get to play the game and that's pretty much the way that we teach science it's not to graduate school you actually ever get a chance to do science as opposed
00:23:55to reading about science at reconstructing science and you know especially with things like virtual reality and and computer environments there's no reason for that to be true children could be actually doing in Korean doing experiments in doing science early on and I think the same thing's true for
00:24:10things like writing for example children learn about writing but the way to write is to write with a good editor to watch someone who's competent writing I think our whole educational system could be oriented towards both exploration but also this kind of apprenticeship system much more effectively I'm
00:24:29wondering if some of the tension between the gardener and the carpenter model comes down to the different things that societies have called on young people to do so they used to be a time when we needed large numbers of people to join the industrial workforce but increasingly I
00:24:44think we are looking to young people to do the kinds of things that are much higher order skills and you know I think the average futurist would tell you that in twenty or thirty years you know college education probably isn't going to cut it because the kinds of
00:24:59skills that someone who's graduated from college can do will probably be done by robots and so at that point you really need people who have much much higher levels of skill and I'm wondering if this is partly the tension between the gardener the carpenter model because you actually
00:25:14need people who don't just simply understand you know how to how to do a bunch of things in a factory but to understand much higher order things that requires a level of specialization and a length of training that is not just going to be acquired through exploration and
00:25:29played actually has to be acquired to sort of systematic intelligent training of a very very long periods of time and it is it possible that the way our society is changing is part of the reason why people are you know drawn to the carpentry model well I think
00:25:45that's the picture that people have but again what the science would tell us is just the opposite so you know if you compare even from an evolutionary perspective you know comparison our closest primate relatives I'm we're not actually as good at doing specialized tasks often as other creatures
00:26:00are what we're very good at is improvising and finding new ways of thinking about the world around us here's a new problem I don't know how to handle it what would I do that's really the scale that we're going to need in the future and the irony is
00:26:15that that's a skill that you can't learn by just trying to learn that particular skill that's a skill that seems to come from a sense of freedom and exploration even another domain so I think I think we may be kind of suckered into thinking well if we want
00:26:30children or adults to succeed in this very unpredictable variable world what we need to do is give them higher and higher and higher levels of very specific academic skills I think you know even if you go down to Silicon Valley near where I am at Berkeley I think
00:26:46they get it so you know famously Google gives their employees a day off to do whatever they want and you know Pixar has play houses as part of their environment so what I think I think the value of that kind of playful exploration is something that people say
00:27:01in the tech world get but I do think its intention with the sense that it this is so important it has to be shaped and you want a particular outcome so the irony is to get two good outcomes sometimes you do better by not trying specifically to get
00:27:14to those outcomes and instead not worrying about outcomes at all and I think that's one of the real deep messages of the science that I'm talking about in the book I was in coplink is a professor of psychology and philosophy at the university of California Berkeley she is
00:27:29the author of several books about children's development and her most recent one is the gardener and the carpenter Allison thank you so much for joining me today on hidden right thank you so much this episode of hidden brain was produced by rain and Cullen a team includes terrible
00:27:46oil Jennifer Schmidt Maggie pen men running clock and parts shop NPR's vice president for programming is underground for more hidden brain you can follow us on Facebook Twitter and Instagram and listen for my stories on your local public radio station if you haven't subscribe to the podcast take
00:28:03a second to do so so you don't miss a single episode I run some heroes today are Susan Stamberg Linda Wertheimer Nina Totenberg and Cokie Roberts it's fitting to thank them in an episode about parenting because around these parts these women are known as NPR's founding mothers day
00:28:21not only helped build a great institution they literally invented what we think off today as public radio hidden rain is part of the legacy I'm shock of it on him and this is NPR hi there this is Rina ko and I am a producer for him brain I'm
00:28:39pretty sure you and I have something in common both NPR we are proud NPR inner it's because when we listen to our favorite podcast radio show learn something new that manages to change the way we see the world so keep discovering and donate to your station to give
00:29:00you can visit donate that NPR dot org slash brain and share why you gave with the hash tag wide public radio well do you know

Transcribed by algorithms. Report Errata
Disclaimer: The podcast and artwork embedded on this page are from NPR, which is the property of its owner and not affiliated with or endorsed by Listen Notes, Inc.


Thank you for helping to keep the podcast database up to date.