Book Review: The Carpenter and the Gardener

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The Carpenter and the GardenerThe Carpenter and the Gardener: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik is a book I bought for the metaphor in the title, which struck me as brilliant.

Most mainstream parents view parenting and education as carpentry. “You should pay some attention to the kind of material you are working with, and it may have some influence on what you try to do. But essentially your job is to shape that material into a final product that will fit the scheme you had in mind to begin with. And you can assess how good a job you’ve done by looking at the finished product . . . Messiness and variability are the carpenter’s enemies; precision and control are her allies . . .

When we garden, on the other hand, we create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish . . . And as any gardener knows, our specific plans are always thwarted. The poppy comes up neon orange instead of pale pink, the rose that was supposed to climb the fence stubbornly remains a foot from the ground, black spot and rust and aphids can never be defeated . . . And yet the compensation is that our greatest horticultural triumphs and joys also come when the garden escapes our control, when the weedy Queen Anne’s lace unexpectedly showed up in just the right place in front of the dark yew tree, when the forgotten daffodil travels to the other side of the garden and bursts out among the blue forget-me-nots, when the grapevine that was supposed to stay demurely hitched to the arbor runs scarlet riot through the trees . . . Unlike a good chair, a good garden is constantly changing, as it adapts to the changing circumstances of weather and the seasons. And in the long run, that kind of varied, flexible, complex, dynamic system will be more robust and adaptable than the most carefully tended hothouse bloom . . .

So our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows . . . We can’t make children learn, but we can let them learn.”

But the poetry of the book ends there. This is a science book by a researcher who covers a lot that I struggled to find relevance for and then a good deal of studies that illustrate ways in which young children learn, which did have value. The point of her book is the message that research shows us that children learn best with freedom to explore within the context of a loving relationship. This research is important, especially for those of us advocating for natural learning as a family. And yet the whole thing left a bitter taste in my mouth as she simultaneously endorsed school. School is 100% carpentry. She places the blame for the shift from gardener to carpenter squarely on the shoulders of parents but it would be impossible to maintain a gardening paradigm in a carpenter school system.

​Have you read it? What did you think? Comment below or head on over to the Sage Parenting Tribe and discuss with us under the Carpenter and Gardener post!

Next month, we dive into Dumbing Us Down. So grab your copy, settle into a good bedtime cuddle, and get reading.

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