We’ve all been there: The endless rat race that seems to encompass the world of bringing up children. Not simply the long commute to school which seems to take longer and longer every year, but also the follow on from it, to extracurricular activities, kids parties and developmental classes getting them involved in the latest [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Are you a carpenter or gardener when raising your children?


We’ve all been there: The endless rat race that seems to encompass the world of bringing up children. Not simply the long commute to school which seems to take longer and longer every year, but also the follow on from it, to extracurricular activities, kids parties and developmental classes getting them involved in the latest ‘super-fun-super-educational-fad’ for kids. We try to maintain a formidable schedule and devote most of every day and every spare second towards the goal of giving our children every possible opportunity in life. For the mother who has to clock in hours at an office outside her home, it is a constant battle to keep up, and for the moms who have chosen to devote their time solely within it, it is a constant struggle to stay afloat. In the middle of all this structured activity, which seems to begin almost as soon as an infant is a toddler – and sometimes even before that – it often bodes the question, when do children have the time to actually play?

To borrow an analogy presented by Dr. Alison Gopnik in “The Gardener and the Carpenter” that’s currently taking the world of parenting psychology by storm, are we doing the best we can as parents, by constantly chipping away at the block of wood with the aim of creating the perfect specimen like an excellent Carpenter, or should we instead be working towards nurturing and creating the best environment and allowing our children to grow freely, like any good Gardener.

According to Bee Wilson, writing for The Guardian in August 2016, ‘In 2011, a team of psychologists did an experiment with some preschool children. The scientists gave the children a toy made of many plastic tubes, each with a different function: one squeaked, one lit up, one made music and the final tube had a hidden mirror. With half the children, an experimenter came into the room and bumped – apparently accidentally – into the tube that squeaked. “Oops!” she said. With the other children, the scientist acted more deliberately, like a teacher. “Oh look at my neat toy! Let me show you how it works,” she said while purposely pressing the beeper. The children were then left alone to play with the toy. In the “accidental” group, the children freely played with the toy in various random ways. Through experimenting, they discovered all the different functions of the tubes: the light, the music, the mirror. The other group, the children who had been deliberately taught how to use the toy by the teacher, played with it in a much more limited and repetitive way. They squeaked the beeper over and over again, never discovering all the other things the toy could do.’

For the American developmental psychologist Dr Alison Gopnik, this experiment revealed some of the deep flaws in modern parenting. Parents as a whole, try tirelessly to help their children succeed at everything. In Asia particularly, we focus hugely on Mathematical aptitude, Scientific interest, English elocution, developing an interest in Lego/building blocks, playing the piano and singing, excelling at the equivalent of Ordinary level and Advanced level exams – not forgetting the dreaded Grade 5 scholarship exam in our native Sri Lanka. But in the process, Dr. Gopnik argues, that we may end up limiting the very potential we are trying to foster. She excoriates the parents “who want to shape their three-year-olds into Harvard freshmen”. According to Bee Wilson, on Gopnik’s reading, children flourish the most – like the preschoolers in the accidental group – when they are left free to explore. They also learn as much from our mistakes as they do from our instructions. “Our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows.”

It is a philosophy that is currently very popular amongst experts of childhood ‘education’, and certainly one that merits further investigation. She suggests that the conflict arises perhaps because of our approach to ‘Parenting’ as opposed to simply ‘being a parent’. Possibly because more and more parents and mothers in particular, complete their higher/professional education and have already begun pursuing their careers, prior to embarking on the parental journey. Therefore she suggests that modern parents tend to follow the same formula with bringing up children: ‘You go to school and work with a goal in mind. At work, expertise leads to success.The promise of “parenting” is that there is some set of techniques, some particular expertise, that parents could acquire that would help them accomplish the goal of shaping their children’s lives. A notion that is further propagated by the wealth of “How to” books/seminars/workshops that are so freely available today – not to mention various parenting ‘techniques’ – each tripping over themselves in the race to be declared the front runner.

Interestingly Dr. Gopnik points out that she wouldn’t evaluate the success of her marriage by measuring whether her husband’s character had improved in the years since they married, nor evaluate the quality of an old friendship by whether her friend was happier or more successful than when they first met. However, she points out that there is an implicit standard of “parenting” – that your qualities as a parent can be, and even should be, judged by the child you create.

Of course there will never be a totally right or wrong way of parenting. Each child is different, with different interests, abilities, circumstances and their own definitive personalities and inherent qualities that often have very little to do with what we as parents do or don’t do. On a personal note, my husband and I often wonder how our own two children, who have had the same in everything, have turned out to be so very different – in almost every aspect. The key, we realised, was to try and enhance and actually nurture their own areas of interest, sharpen their own sense of adventure, and develop their own limits of risk and necessity to push the boundaries, within a physically safe and emotionally secure environment. Nothing new of course, but it often helps to remind ourselves, just like Dr. Gopnik’s encouragement towards favouring a ‘parent’ Gardener rather than a Carpenter.

In the end, whilst most of us cherish and admire incredibly intricate, detailed and beautiful and inanimate furniture – no doubt carved with loving hands – it is often the toil and sweat that goes into creating a lush, dynamic, burgeoning and colourful garden that leaves us with a sense of lasting satisfaction and wonder. One that only continues to flourish and grow, long after the loving hands have stilled.

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