September 21, 2021

One of the most daunting things about being a parent is worrying about our kids. The stress isn’t really in the mechanics of meeting their basic needs, but instead to their outcomes. Not only do we want them to be clothed and fed, we want them to have certain beliefs, values, and practices that will carry on through their lives. We want them to be happy and to find a sense of purpose. Since we cannot force our kids to believe/do much of anything, raising kids can be pretty terrifying. That’s one reason I found Alison Gopnik’s The Gardener and the Carpenter so interesting.

Gopnik says being a parent is more like watering a garden than building something in a workshop. Children (just like parents) are organic beings that have their own nature and are also shaped by their environments. Just like a garden is vulnerable to factors far beyond the gardener’s control (rain, soil conditions, sunlight, predators) children are also products of a much larger environment than even the most protective parent could ever account for. Gopnik writes, “It is very difficult to find any reliable, empirical relation between the small variations in what parents do...and the resulting traits of adult children” (23). In a workshop, the focus is on woodworker: expertise, methods, tools, and materials. For the most part, the better the woodworker, the better the chair. That’s not necessarily the case for gardeners, who cannot force the sun to shine and cannot command the rain to stop. They are at the mercy of the environment.

Gopnik distinguishes being a parent with parenting. The noun “parent” goes back centuries, while the verb “to parent” or “parenting” are relatively recent (1958 Mirriam-Webster’s Dictionary first included verb form, which came into English vernacular in the 1970s). Gopnik would say we should be good parents; that’s our responsibility. But to what degree being a good parent relies on particular parenting strategies, methods, and approaches is highly debatable. She would stress the noun and not the verb.

I think she’s right.

Sure, Andrea and I have methods that we’ve found helpful for raising our girls. We encourage bedtimes and discourage screen time. We persuade them to eat vegetables and to look both ways before they cross the street. But we aren’t so naive to think that these methods will produce perfect children (much less adults). No matter how savvy our approach, we face the same opportunities for disappointment as every other parent.

This doesn’t mean we should give up. Instead, it means we should try, but in a humble way. Recently I heard a parent make a demand on behalf of their child by saying, “I know my child’s needs best.” That’s probably true. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say as parents we always know what is best for our child. There’s more mystery in this than we’d often care to admit.

So what do we do?

We can control the things we can control. If we think vegetables are good for kids then we probably should eat them, too. If we want our kids to perform well in school, we can read more ourselves. We can’t control their temper or tongue, but we can control our own. We will devote ourselves to being good parents, while giving grace to ourselves on how we parent.

We’ll find ourselves devoting less to anxiously micromanaging the particulars of their lives, and instead calmly disciplining our own. This approach probably won’t create a perfect garden. But it might cultivate a better gardener. If I were a kid right now, I’d love to have a good gardener in my life.


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