Kinder-Gardening Many parents think they can shape their child into a particular kind of adult. Psychologist Alison Gopnik says the science suggests otherwise. This week, we revisit our December 2017 conversation with Gopnik, who thinks we'd all be better off if we had a different understanding of the relationship between parents and kids.



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Many parents think they can shape their child into a particular kind of adult. Psychologist Alison Gopnik says the science suggests otherwise. This week, we revisit our December 2017 conversation with Gopnik, who thinks we'd all be better off if we had a different understanding of the relationship between parents and kids.

A father reads "Advanced Astrophysics" to his daughter. sturti/Getty Images hide caption

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A father reads "Advanced Astrophysics" to his daughter.

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This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Step into the basement of Alex Hamilton's (ph) home in Frederick, Md., and you'll notice it has a distinct smell.

ALEX HAMILTON: It's wood dust and cigars (laughter). This is my cigar-smoking area.

VEDANTAM: The wood dust, that's from his carpentry projects. Alex's basement is his workshop. He's built things for every room in his house and outside, too - coat hooks...

HAMILTON: That's the table I made.

VEDANTAM: ...A shed...

HAMILTON: And this picture frame I made.

VEDANTAM: ...A mailbox color coordinated with the house.

HAMILTON: Yeah, I make stuff like that.

VEDANTAM: Alex is showing my producer, Rhaina Cohen, around. Today, he's building something for a beloved family member.

HAMILTON: One of my dogs likes to go with me everywhere, so I'm making a bike seat just for her.

VEDANTAM: Alex calls himself a retired perfectionist.

HAMILTON: Things don't have to be perfect for you to enjoy them.

VEDANTAM: That's especially true for another of Alex's hobbies.

HAMILTON: The garden is out here.

VEDANTAM: He steps outside his house to show us. A sausage of a dog scampers up.

HAMILTON: Butterbean (ph) - that's my garden helper.

VEDANTAM: Alex walks around his garden pointing out the fruits and vegetables he's planted.

HAMILTON: Those are blackberries...

VEDANTAM: Broccoli...

HAMILTON: ...Brussels sprouts...

VEDANTAM: ...Tomatoes...

HAMILTON: ...Sugar Baby watermelon.

VEDANTAM: ...Artichokes - maybe not artichokes.

HAMILTON: I had one artichoke plant. I've never had an artichoke plant before. And there was a rabbit who kept eating it down to the ground. And a couple weeks later, it would grow to be two or three inches tall. And then the rabbit would come back and eat it all the way down to the ground - so good for him. I still haven't seen what an artichoke plant looks like (laughter).

VEDANTAM: This pesky rabbit is one of the variables that distinguishes Alex's gardening from his carpentry. When he's in his workshop, there are things that he can control.

HAMILTON: The humidity, the shape, the size, the color, how smooth the finish is or if you want to leave it rough or rustic.

VEDANTAM: But as a gardener, he's found he has to let go.

HAMILTON: You can't control the weather. You can't control your rain. You can't control the humidity. So there are probably - I would say, more than half of the variables for gardening, you have absolutely no control.

VEDANTAM: Carpenters draft plans and stick to them. Gardeners, well...

HAMILTON: You have things that creep up on you all the time.

VEDANTAM: Surprises are what make gardening so frustrating.

HAMILTON: Those weeds are really awful. I hate those things.

VEDANTAM: But surprises are also what make gardening so rewarding.

HAMILTON: All these flowers here started from one flower and they propagated. So at the end of the summer, we had this beautiful flower bed and we didn't have to do anything.


VEDANTAM: Alex Hamilton's hobbies are a metaphor for something very different. According to psychology professor Alison Gopnik, the different philosophies of the carpenter and the gardener play out every day in how parents interact with their children.

ALISON GOPNIK: I think it was kind of natural for people to think, this is like going to school and working. And if I 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 at my job.

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we bring you our show from December 2017 on how to raise a human in our hypercompetitive world. We'll study two different approaches to modern parenting and their consequences.


VEDANTAM: Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She's 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 the consequences of those choices.

Alison, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

GOPNIK: Glad to be here.

VEDANTAM: Your book is built around an analogy - parents behaving like gardeners, parents behaving like carpenters. Unpack those analogies for me.

GOPNIK: Well, if you look at the prevailing culture of parents and caregiving in the United States, even in Europe now, 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 to 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 from the science is much more like being a gardener.

Now, one thing about being a gardener is you never know what's going to happen in the garden. The things that you plan fail but then wonderful things happen that you haven't actually planned. And there's actually a deeper reason for that. And the reason is that what being a gardener is all about is creating a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem in which many, many different things can happen and a system that can respond to the environment in unpredictable kinds of ways.

And I think the science suggests that being a caregiver for human beings is much more like being a gardener than being a carpenter. It's much more about providing a protected space in which unexpected things can happen than it is like shaping a child to come out to be a particular kind of desirable adult.

VEDANTAM: I was surprised to read that the term parenting itself isn't very old. When did the term become popular, and how did it come to be?

GOPNIK: 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 Google Ngram, it's only around the 1970s in America that the word first begins to really take off. And then there's this kind of exponential increase from the '70s up to the present moment.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is "Focus On The Family," hosted by psychologist Dr. James Dobson, the author of such best-selling books on the family as "Parenting Isn't For Cowards".


OPRAH WINFREY: Hey, parents, listen up to this. This could be revolutionary. You have to change the way you think about parenting because how many...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Amy Chua ignited a firestorm by sharing the surprising details of her strict parenting methods in the book "Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother."

GOPNIK: And if you think about it, parenting is a kind of strange word. After all, we don't wife 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 that 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 than parenting - than changing a child into something else.

VEDANTAM: So it's interesting that that switch in some ways to a verb it changes what we think about the activity. As you say, we don't sort of start a friendship saying, in three years' time, I want my friend to become X. And I'm going to raise my friend to become that person that I want him or her to be.

GOPNIK: 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 20th century and the culture that goes along with it, which has become more and more intense, even in the 30 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, you know, middle-class American people - who had not had much experience of caring for children before. So one of the things, again, that comes out of the science is for as long as we've been human, older brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and grandmothers and the whole village has been involved 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'd also watched lots of different people - not just your own parents but many other people - care for children.

And what happened in the 20th century was because families got smaller, and people got to be more mobile, and people had 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 lots of experience of going to school and working. So I think it was kind of natural for people to think, oh, OK, 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 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 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 anxiety and worry and also this billion-dollar parenting industry - all started emerging at the end of the 20th century.


VEDANTAM: Alison points out that compared to other primates, humans have an especially long childhood.

GOPNIK: We just sort of take it for granted that children need to be taken care 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 could move, say, from one village to another or 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 they're simultaneously so creative, so imaginative, so exploratory and yet so bad at taking care of themselves - kind of fit that picture.

VEDANTAM: So you would say, for example, that the length of childhood that humans experience in some ways - perhaps not even lends itself to the model of the gardening parent but actually is designed for the model of the gardening parent.

GOPNIK: That's exactly right. So even if you could do the carpentering 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 going to make that - my 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.

VEDANTAM: What do you think the harm is of parents trying to be carpenters?

GOPNIK: 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 are unnecessary. And I think it makes it that way for parents, and it makes it that way for children. Now, 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 this evolutionary picture is that every individual child has their own characteristics. Every parent does. There's this complicated interaction between the parents' distinctive characteristics and the child's so that actually trying to say, well, if you do this, then your child is going to come out like that in the long run, that's pretty much a mug's game. And I don't think we have very much evidence for that. So I wouldn't want to say, ah, well, if you're a carpenter, then your children are going to come out to have some terrible, crazy feature. Children come out in all sorts of unexpected ways. That's the whole point.

VEDANTAM: It's not just that the carpentry model is making parents and kids stressed. There's something Alison has noticed about today's adolescence.

GOPNIK: You know, in some ways, they're doing much better. They're achieving more, they're less likely to take risks, they are less likely 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 where you're so concerned that the child come out that you're not giving the child the freedom to take risks and explore and be autonomous. And it's not risk-taking unless there's some chance that it could really go wrong, and I think that's another aspect of the current parenting culture that's problematic. We're so concerned about how these children are going to turn out that we're unwilling to give them the autonomy that they need to be able to take risks and go out and explore the world.

VEDANTAM: So I'm wondering if some of this has to do with what your goals are as a parent. The point that I think you're making is that by creating an environment where children can learn and explore, you build children who perhaps are going to be less anxious, more resilient, more able to deal with the vagaries of life in front of them. And I get that, and that does make sense. But there's also the case that I think our world rewards people who can do very specific things and do them very well. So, you know, every four years, the Olympics comes along.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The winner of the Olympics in 1998 at Nagano, Japan, on the ice. Now 17 years of age...

VEDANTAM: When I see people who are winning gold medals in the Olympics, you know, those are usually kids who've started ice skating lessons when they were 3. Or you see someone who was joining the, you know, the orchestra in your town, and that's someone who has started, you know, piano lessons when she was 4. And there are these very specific skills that I think are very hard to learn and take an enormous amount of time and dedication and practice. And if you don't actually invest the time to do that early, it becomes very hard to master those 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 discovers that she really wants to be an ice skater or a ballet dancer when she's 14, it's probably too late at that point to really be very good at it. And I'm wondering if some of the tension here comes from what it is that we're actually aiming for. Are we aiming for children who are well-adjusted versus aiming for children who are successful? And I wish there wasn't a tension between those two things, but I sometimes think there might be.

GOPNIK: Well, it's interesting. You know, there's no question that part of the kind of cultural background for 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 going to be absolutely crucial to make sure that the children continue to be in the middle class or the 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 class parents to make sure that their children get into that academic achievement trough.

VEDANTAM: When you look at sort of the inequalities in the country, what we see is that the wealthy in particular are able to pass on their privileges to their children in increasingly effective ways. So if you look at the kids who are in the Ivy League colleges, you know, a disproportionate number of them come from families who are in the top 5 percent or the top 1 percent of the country. And so it's clear that what these parents are doing, whether they're gardeners or carpenters, is passing on something to their kids that allows their kids then to go on and again join that 5 percent or that 1 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 in all kinds of ways if you behave like a carpenter. 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 a gardening model clearly seems to be better, or do I want my child to actually be, you know, as I said, successful?

GOPNIK: 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 crazy about having, you know, your teenagers staying up until 2 o'clock at night studying for their SATs and trying to get that little extra edge that's going to get them into the college as opposed to someone else. And yet, once that kind of competitive story starts in the culture, it's very hard to resist, right? It's very hard to sort of pull yourself out of it. And I'm genuinely sympathetic. I mean, I've felt those tensions myself, as I say in the book.

I do think in terms of the larger culture, it's again kind of disturbing if what we end up with is this kind of tiny core of people on the top who are all just like the people in the previous generation. Dynamism and flexibility of people changing, having different developmental trajectories, going on different paths, that's something that actually makes the society at large flourish. And I think there's a really interesting tension between sort of the individual incentives to try to - especially in the academic contexts - to get children to do the best they possibly can and what you'd want in society as a whole, that you'd want to have a sense of flexibility and movement and dynamism.

And of course it's particularly ironic because school was actually designed as part of trying to get people trained for an industrial world. In a sense, school was designed to make robots, in that it gave people 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 we're not encouraging in this very kind of narrow, competitive, academic parenting culture.

VEDANTAM: When we come back, we'll talk about the science behind how children learn and how adults can sometimes do more harm than good when it comes to teaching their kids. Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: 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 the toy, and what happened?

GOPNIK: So this is work that was done by Elizabeth Bonawitz and Laura Schulz, and what they did was they showed the children this kind of complicated thing that could do lots of different things. It could squeak, had a mirror, it had a light. And the question was, would the children discover all the things that the toy could do? And what they found was that if you gave a complicated toy like that to a 4-year-old, as you might expect, that 4-year-olds play and they find all the things that it could do.

But when the experimenter just changed what they said when they presented the child with the toy, where now the experimenter said, this is my toy, I'm going to show you how it works, and did one thing like squeak the squeaker, the children were much less likely to explore. What they did, sort of rationally, was squeak the squeaker, did what the adult had 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, that someone's being a teacher, and that has some advantages that narrows down the number of options they're going to consider. But it can also have disadvantages in terms of the range of exploration that they're willing to consider, too.

VEDANTAM: Now, of course, play itself can be a form of learning, and one way to think about the importance of play is to think about artificial intelligence and how play informs the way we train robots. You talk about this idea in the book. How are researchers using play to help robots learn, and what does that tell us then about the science of raising kids?

GOPNIK: Well, it turns out that a very good way of getting a machine system to learn is to give it an early period where it can just play. It can just explore. It can just try out lots and lots of different options and get a lot of information about how the system works. So for example, they designed a robot that had a period early on where it could just kind of dance around in this kind of weird, funny way without actually trying to do anything in particular. And it turns out 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 had a chance to play.

And this is one of the interesting things about play. I 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 better if you don't play, if you just have very specific instruction. But if you want that knowledge to be resilient, if you want someone to be able to be flexible, to say, OK, I didn't learn how to do this particular thing, but now can I apply what I did to something else, then play really seems to play a deep role.

So for the robots, for example, the robots who had played, you could take off one of their arms or you could tip them over, and they would still be able to figure out how to reach for the cloth. And that was not true for the robots who had just been trained on that particular action. And I think that's a good model for the things that play can do in general.

VEDANTAM: So you were once in the kitchen with your grandson, Augie, and you were whipping egg whites for pancakes. And I understand your grandson was imitating you but not quite doing it the way you were doing it. Tell me what happened.

GOPNIK: Well, one of the great joys of life is cooking with 2 and 3-year-olds, and they love to cook. But of course they're extremely inefficient at the same time. So, you know, when Augie's whipping egg whites, the egg whites end up having egg white fresco all over the walls, and he's doing it in a way that is not nearly as efficient as it would be for me to do it myself. But it's interesting that if you look across cultures, what 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 eggs.


VEDANTAM: Alison 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. They practice. They get critiques. But most schools teach in a very different way. Alison gave me a thought experiment.

GOPNIK: So imagine we taught 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 reproduce famous baseball plays of the past, and it wouldn't be till 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 till graduate school that you actually ever get a chance to do science, as opposed to reading about science or reconstructing science.

And, you know, especially with things like virtual reality and computer environments, there's no reason for that to be true. Children could be actually doing inquiry and doing experiments and doing science early on. And I think the same thing's true for things 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.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering 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 there used to be a time when we needed large numbers of people to join the industrial workforce, but increasingly I think we are looking to young people to do the kinds of things that are much higher-order skills.

You know, I think the average futurist will tell you that in 20 or 30 years, you know, a college education probably isn't going to cut it because the kinds of skills 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 and the carpenter model because if you actually need people who don't just simply understand, you know, 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 play. It actually has to be acquired through sort of systematic and diligent training over very, very long periods of time. And 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?

GOPNIK: Well, I think that'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, compare us to our closest primate relatives, we're not actually as good at doing specialized tasks often as other creatures are. 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 skill that we're going to need in the future. And the irony is that 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 in other domains.

So I think we may be kind of suckered into thinking, well, if we want children 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 they get it. So, you know, famously Google gives their employees a day off to do whatever they want, and, you know, Pixar has playhouses as part of their environment.

So I think the value of that kind of playful exploration is something that people, say, in the tech world get, but I do think it's in tension with the sense that this is so important it has to be shaped and you want a particular outcome. So the irony is to get to good outcomes, sometimes you do better by not trying specifically to get to 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.

VEDANTAM: Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She's the author of several books about children's development, and her most recent one is "The Gardener And The Carpenter." Alison, thank you so much for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

GOPNIK: Thank you so much, Shankar.


VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Rhaina Cohen and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu and Laural Kwerel. NPR's vice president for programming is Anya Grundmann.

Our unsung 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. They not only helped build a great institution, they literally invented what we think of today as public radio. HIDDEN BRAIN is part of their legacy.

Today’s episode is part of an NPR-wide project called How To Raise A Human. You can find more stories from that series at For more HIDDEN BRAIN, please follow us on Facebook and Twitter and listen for my stories on your local public radio station. If you haven’t subscribed to the podcast, please take a second to do so. You don’t want to miss a single episode. I’m Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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