Recently I realized, with some surprise, that I’ve begun to think about my children’s lives in terms of years rather than days and hours. A few weeks ago I was awakened in the middle of the night by an emergency related to my job—not by someone’s wet diaper or bad dream or need to nurse. As I fell back into bed and tried to sleep, I thought of summer, and began counting the number of summers remaining with both children at home. Only a few years ago, I’d regularly count the hours remaining in the day before I could reasonably put both children to bed. Every parent I know seems aware of this absurd relationship between time and our children: the hours and days can be so painfully long; the months and years so cruelly short. No one ever seems to believe their child is that old or in that grade already. My own parents wince when I remind them of my age, and I don’t quite believe that my children won’t always live at home and sleep in bunk beds crammed with stuffed animals. Will I be ready to let them go out into the world, and will they be ready to go? What should I be doing now to prepare them for what the unknowable future might hold?
Relax, Alison Gopnik’s The Gardener and the Carpenter seems to suggest. The Berkeley psychologist would have us cease using the verb form of “parent”; it is not a particular kind of work, she argues, but rather a kind of love. One does not engage in “wifing” one’s husband, “friending” one’s friends or even “husbanding” one’s wife. Nor do we, in other relationships, Gopnik says, judge our “success” or “failure” by how happy and successful our spouses or friends are as a result of our love, but we do this in “parenting.” According to Gopnik, we tend to think of parenting as akin to something like carpentry: you start with a particular project in mind and, gathering your materials, you measure and cut and trim and fasten and polish to that end. Instead, she argues, raising children is more like gardening: the focus is less on turning out a specific product and more on creating conditions for botanical life to unfold and flourish according to its own pattern, with the possibility that what emerges will surprise you. This lovely metaphor opens the book and forms its center. Gopnik draws an analogy between her main contention and Michael Pollan’s in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Americans, according to Pollan, are notably unhealthy but obsessed with the idea of eating healthfully (as attested to, in part, by the hundreds of thousands of diet and nutrition books we buy), in part because we’re cut off from our traditions. So too, we are obsessed with raising our kids right (as attested to by the thousands of parenting books with “how to” in the title) yet going about it all wrong.
In his novel Hard Times, Charles Dickens lampoons the same sort of carpenter-minded parents Gopnik takes to task. Thomas Gradgrind wants his own children, and the children in his school, trained in facts; he uses the garden metaphor in quite a different way than does Gopnik—in reference to “facts,” he adjures the schoolmaster he’s hired to “plant nothing else” and “weed out everything else.”
Gradgrind is fanatical in regarding the schoolroom and the home as factories for turning out a certain kind of child; his child-rearing methods lead, unsurprisingly, to ruinous ends. But Gradgrind is hardly a nuanced character. The literary critic Terry Eagleton (seemingly not on the author’s comic wavelength) takes Dickens to task for his crass characterization of utilitarianism as the mere fetishization of facts (“since some of Dickens’ best friends were Utilitarians, it is hard to believe he could not have been aware of this distortion”), and it is simply implausible to imagine a parent choosing to be so entirely insensible to human emotion and experience out of fealty to a philosophical commitment to “facts.” You could argue that this criticism itself betrays a whiff of Gradgrindism. In any case, Gopnik stops short of erecting a comparable strawman—the parent who regards “parenting” as a product-oriented activity—but her use of the carpenter metaphor suggests something closer to the social determinism of Brave New World than anything you might encounter at playgroup or PTA.
Gopnik is at her best when describing the experiments conducted in her Berkeley psychology lab, brilliantly designed tests showing the feats of reasoning of which children—babies, even—are capable. Four-year-olds understand that Batman and SpongeBob aren’t real, but they also understand that Batman can see and talk to Robin (who belongs within the same fictional universe) but not to SpongeBob. That’s a sophisticated bit of reasoning. Another experiment shows the relationship between learning and attachment: if a child is shown an obscure object from a hardware store and is told by a stranger that it’s a “dax,” but by his mother that the object is a “fep,” even children under two years of age will call it a “fep”—not a “dax.” I once overheard a child of two or three counter his mother’s logic with his own. Standing in front of a bakery display of cookies, the mother pointed to the top shelf. “Let’s get you one of those—a little one, little; like you!” To which the child said, pointing to the much larger cookies on the bottom shelf, “I’m big—want one of those.”
It is—or should be—uncontroversial by now that learning is an unstoppable process that needs rather to be encouraged than imposed. Perhaps knowing this will give some parents leave to eschew flash cards for fingerpaint, but even laissez-faire parents who have their children’s best interests at hearts recognize that at some point they need to read, compute, and give up some of their frolicking freedom to concentrate on music, or soccer, or whatever their hearts love. In discussing the effect that the Internet and ubiquitous screens have had on attention spans, Gopnik is unalarmed; the sustained monofocus required by longform reading (and therefore schooling) is unnatural, as much of an innovation as screens themselves. Fine, but I’d prefer that the teachers and musicians and bus drivers and surgeons of the future have no attentional deficits.
It’s comforting to learn from Gopnik that the kids are (probably) going to be all right even if we’re not dragging them to Mandarin lessons at age two. And sure, it would wrong to press them into a mold cast in our own images, but aren’t there things we’d like our children learn? Gopnik suggests that “shaping [children] in our image, or in the image of our current ideals, might actually keep them from adapting to changes in the future.” Evolution, she writes, has always met variability with variability, and children need to be prepared for a possibly different future. This has always been true, but if there is anything more ancient, universal, and—dare I say?—adaptive than imparting our own values to the young of our species, I can’t imagine it. Of course they’ll make their own way in the world, mutatis mutandis. Only a Gradgrind would be troubled by this.
- Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me
- Penguin Press, 2016
- Buy the Book
In perfect contrast to Gradgrind and to Gopnik’s imaginary carpenter-minded parent, Margaux Bergen’s lovely Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Would Have Told Me offers parental wisdom with a remarkably gentle and generous touch. This is not easy to do. I heard of one grandparent who wrote letters to each grandchild upon his or her marriage. Among the principles he shared was the solemn and earnest appeal that his descendants should not regularly purchase fruit juice, it being expensive and of negligible nutritional value. At the other end of the advice spectrum are the bland generalities, the sort of “follow your heart” Polonius pablum that fills graduation cards but is, unlike the grandfather’s grudge against juice, utterly unmemorable. Bergen’s volume is certainly the sort of thing you’d give to a graduate, as I plan to do next May, but it’s also the kind of book that draws the reader in by the sheer force of the author’s voice—calm and sensible and no-nonsense (Bergen is English), with affection; without sentimentality. The writing is grounded in detail without being punctilious; she writes of her morning routine to give you the idea that rising and performing small tasks to “stave off chaos” once again, temporarily, is a healthy practice, not to suggest that you, too, should brew strong tea and unload the dishwasher as soon as you awake.
The book is written in the second person, addressed to her daughter, who is about to leave to begin her first year university studies at Oxford. My sons are still in elementary school, admittedly, but when I imagine myself at this stage—sending children off into the world—it’s hard not to imagine myself as a sniveling mess of anxiety gushing my undying affection along with inanities like “be safe” and “have fun.” Bergen’s book is poised and bracing; her authoritative and friendly attitude is almost more fortifying than the specifics of her advice. She is clear on what things are now her daughter’s responsibilities; she returns several times to the idea that we cannot change or control others. “I think love also means not being too invested in outcomes,” she writes in one section.
She says this with integrity and seriousness while at the same time expressing her sincere hope that her daughter will write timely thank-you notes and develop the sort of good habits that “allow us to dispense with effort.” It takes a masterful writer to describe methods for handling the inevitable (and maddening) paperwork of adulthood in a way that makes it all sound manageable, while offering advice for building a meaningful life that includes plenty of laughter, reading, and conversation along with hard work. There is no incongruity or contradiction here, just the recognition that so much of life is in those quotidian details, and, yes, while it is impossible to know or to control what’s coming next, we might as well face it as reasonably well as we can, with a strong cup of tea and an organized desk and as many good relationships as we have virtue and discipline to tend.