Introduction: The Parent Paradoxes
Why be a parent? Taking care of children is demanding and exhausting, and yet for most of us it is also profoundly satisfying. Why? What makes it all worthwhile?
A common answer, especially for middle-class fathers and mothers today, is that you are a parent so that you can do something called “parenting.” “To parent” is a goal-directed verb; it describes a job, a kind of work. The goal is to somehow turn your child into a better or happier or more successful adult—better than they would be otherwise, or (though we whisper this) better than the children next door. The right kind of parenting will produce the right kind of child, who in turn will become the right kind of adult.
Of course, people sometimes use the word “parenting” just to describe what parents actually do. But more often, especially now, “parenting” means something that parents should do. In this book, I’ll argue that this prescriptive parenting picture is fundamentally misguided, from a scientific, philosophical, and political point of view, as well as a personal one. It’s the wrong way to understand how parents and children actually think and act, and it’s equally wrong as a vision of how they should think and act. It’s actually made life worse for children and parents, not better.
The parenting idea is so pervasive and seductive that it might seem self-evident, incontrovertible, and obvious. But at the same time that parents, most definitely including the parent writing this book, feel the pull of the parenting model, they also feel, often in an inchoate way, that there is something wrong about it. We simultaneously worry that our children are not doing well enough in school, and that they are suffering from the pressure to make them do well in school. We compare our children with the children of our friends and then feel despicable for doing it. We click on the latest headline praising or attacking some new parenting prescription and then say, perhaps a little too loudly, that we are actually just going to act on instinct after all.
Working to achieve a particular outcome is a good model for many crucial human enterprises. It’s the right model for carpenters or writers or businessmen. You can judge whether you are a good carpenter or writer or CEO by the quality of your chairs, your books, or your bottom line. In the parenting picture, parenting follows the same model. A parent is a kind of carpenter; however, the goal is not to produce a particular kind of product, like a chair, but a particular kind of person.
In 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. And a sizable industry has emerged that promises to provide exactly that expertise. Some sixty thousand books are in the parenting section on Amazon, and most of them have “How to” somewhere in the title.
Many of the parenting how-to books, of course, simply give practical advice about being a parent. But many more promise that if parents just practice the right techniques, they can make a substantial difference in the way their child turns out.
The parenting model isn’t just something you find in how-to books, though. It shapes how people think about children’s development in general. I’m a developmental psychologist—I try to figure out what children’s minds are like and why they are like that. Even so, practically everyone who has ever interviewed me about the science of childhood has some question about what parents should do, and what the long-term effect of what they do will be.
The parenting idea is also a major source of grief for parents—especially mothers. It helps fuel the never-ending “mommy wars.” If you accept the idea that parenting is a kind of work, then you must choose between that kind of work and other kinds of work (such as, for example, work). Mothers in particular become endlessly defensive and conflicted about whether it is possible to both successfully parent and successfully work at other jobs, and they feel forced to choose between de-emphasizing the importance of motherhood and forgoing their careers. But the same dilemmas affect fathers, all the more intensely because they are less acknowledged.
Partly as a result there is a countervailing impulse to devalue the importance of being a parent—hence all the wry memoirs in which women self-consciously confess to their ambivalence about motherhood. After all, if being a parent is a kind of work aimed at creating a successful adult, it’s a pretty lousy job—long hours, nonexistent pay and benefits, and lots of heavy lifting. And for twenty years you have no idea if you’ve done it well, a fact that in and of itself would make the job nerve-racking and guilt-inducing. But if it isn’t a kind of work, why do we do it? If the point is not to create a particular kind of adult, what is the point?
I’m one of those anxious, middle-class working parents myself, and all my life I’ve felt both the pull of the parenting model and the reaction against it. My three sons are all grown up, reasonably happy and successful, and starting to have children of their own. But I have also found myself perpetually assessing my responsibility—or should that be credit?—for the ups and downs of their lives. Was I overprotective when I walked my youngest son to school every day when he was eight years old? Or was I neglectful when I didn’t do the same when he turned nine? I wanted my children to follow their own paths and discover their own gifts. But should I have insisted that my oldest child finish college instead of trying to become a musician? I believed—and still do—that good public schools are best for all children. But when my older kids were suffering at the local public high school, should I have sent them to a fancy private school in the suburbs, as I did with my youngest son? Should I have forced my youngest to turn off the computer and read, or should I have let him master coding? How could I have made sure that my “gifted” middle child had lots of free time to play, and did his homework, and at the same time went to an advanced math tutor and ballet classes? Hardest of all, I got divorced when my youngest child finished high school. Should I have done it sooner or later or not at all?
My professional expertise and knowledge about development has brought me no closer to answers than anybody else. Looking back on my nearly forty years as a parent, I suspect the best answer is that these are just the wrong questions.
Reflecting on your own experience as a parent may make you skeptical about parenting. But reflecting on other parents and children makes the parenting model look unsatisfactory, too. After all, the members of my generation, the happily cocooned and prosperous baby boomers, aren’t actually a dramatic improvement on our Greatest Generation parents who grew up in the miseries of depression and war. And we all know people with terrible childhoods who grow up to become wonderful grown-ups and loving parents themselves, and good parents who end up with tragically unhappy children.
The most telling, heartbreaking counter to the parenting model comes when we think about the parents of children who will never reach adulthood. In 2011, Emily Rapp wrote an immensely moving and much circulated article about her son, Ronan, who she knew would die of Tay-Sachs disease before he turned three. That made no difference to the intensity of the love she felt for him. Her son would never become an adult at all, and yet we feel that Emily Rapp and others like her are the most profound examples of what it means to be a parent.
Is it important to figure out why being a parent is worthwhile? Worrying about parents and children is often relegated to the Lifestyle section and the Mommy blogs. But I’ll argue in this book that, in fact, those everyday worries reflect genuine and deep aspects of the human condition itself—tensions that are built into who we are as human beings. From a biological point of view, our exceptionally long and helpless human childhood, and the enormous investment in children that goes with it, is a crucial part of what makes us human. What purpose does that investment serve? Why did it evolve?
Figuring out why being a parent is worthwhile isn’t just a personal or biological question, but a social and political one, too. Caring for children has never, in all of human history, just been the role of biological mothers and fathers. From the very beginning it’s been a central project for any community of human beings. This is still true. Education, for example, is simply caring for children broadly conceived.
As with other social institutions, the way that we care for children has changed in the past and will continue to change in the future. If we want to make good decisions about those changes, we need to think deliberately about what caring for children is all about in the first place. What should preschool look like? How can we reform public schools? Who gets to make decisions about a child’s welfare? How should we deal with new technologies? Caring for children is a political subject as well as a scientific and personal one, and the tensions and paradoxes emerge at greater as well as smaller scales.
There must be a way of thinking about children that goes beyond “how-to” on the one hand or wry memoir on the other. Taking the long view offered by science and philosophy might help. But I’ve recently become a grandmother, and maybe that view can give an even better perspective. Grandmothering provides a more empathetic kind of distance, both from the mistakes and triumphs of the young mother you once were (who couldn’t tell the two apart at the time) and from the struggles of your own children.
So this book will be the work of a grandmother as well as a scientist and philosopher—a bubbe, as my own Jewish grandmother would have said—but a bubbe at Berkeley, a grandmother who runs a cognitive science laboratory and writes philosophy papers in between telling stories of the olden days and making blueberry pancakes. Grandmother scientists and philosophers have been rather thin on the ground in the past, so perhaps combining both perspectives can help us understand the value of being a parent in a way that takes us beyond parenting.
From Parenting to Being a Parent
If parenting is the wrong model, what’s the right one? “Parent” is not actually a verb, not a form of work, and it isn’t and shouldn’t be directed toward the goal of sculpting a child into a particular kind of adult. Instead, to be a parent—to care for a child—is to be part of a profound and unique human relationship, to engage in a particular kind of love. Work is central to human life; we couldn’t do without it. But as Freud and Elvis both remarked, apocryphally at least, work and love are the two things that make life worthwhile.
The particular love that goes with caring for children is not just restricted to biological mothers and fathers, but includes all the people whom academics call caregivers and the British, more elegantly, just refer to as carers. It’s a form of love that is not limited to biological parents, but is at least potentially part of the lives of us all.
We recognize the difference between work and other relationships, other kinds of love. To be a wife is not to engage in “wifing,” to be a friend is not to “friend,” even on Facebook, and we don’t “child” our mothers and fathers. Yet these relationships are central to who we are. Any human being living a fully satisfying life is immersed in such social connections. And this is not only a philosophical truth about human beings, but one that is deeply rooted in our very biology.
Talking about love, especially the love of parents for children, may sound sentimental and mushy, and also simple and obvious. But like all human relationships, the love of children is at once a part of the everyday texture of our lives—ubiquitous, inescapable, and in the background of everything we do—and enormously complicated, variable, and even paradoxical.
We can aspire to love better without thinking of love as a kind of work. We might say that we try hard to be a good wife or husband, or that it’s important to us to be a good friend or a better child. But I would not evaluate the success of my marriage by measuring whether my husband’s character had improved in the years since we wed. I would not evaluate the quality of an old friendship by whether my friend was happier or more successful than when we first met—indeed, we all know that friendships show their quality most in the darkest days. Nevertheless, this is the implicit picture of parenting—that your qualities as a parent can be, and even should be, judged by the child you create.
If being a parent, especially a parent of young children, is a pretty awful kind of work, it’s a pretty great kind of love, at least for most of us. The love we feel for our young children and the love they feel for us is simultaneously unconditional and intimate, morally profound and sensually immediate. The most important rewards of being a parent aren’t your children’s grades and trophies—or even their graduations and weddings. They come from the moment-by-moment physical and psychological joy of being with this particular child, and in that child’s moment-by-moment joy in being with you.
Love doesn’t have goals or benchmarks or blueprints, but it does have a purpose. The purpose is not to change the people we love, but to give them what they need to thrive. Love’s purpose is not to shape our beloved’s destiny, but to help them shape their own. It isn’t to show them the way, but to help them find a path for themselves, even if the path they take isn’t one we would choose ourselves, or even one we would choose for them.
The purpose of loving children, in particular, is to give those helpless young human beings a rich, stable, safe environment—an environment in which variation, innovation, and novelty can blossom. This is true both from a biological and evolutionary point of view and from a personal and political one. Loving children doesn’t give them a destination; it gives them sustenance for the journey.
So being a parent is simply about loving children. Except that love is never simple. Volumes have been thought, spoken, written, sung, and sometimes screamed about the paradoxes, complexities, and unique craziness of erotic love. Our love for children is just as intense, just as paradoxical and complex, just as uniquely crazy. But the discussion of relations between parents and children, particularly young children, is almost entirely confined to the how-to books or the memoirs.
In this book I’ll focus on two kinds of paradoxes: paradoxes of love and paradoxes of learning. These paradoxes are built into the evolutionary nature of childhood itself. The parenting model just can’t deal with them. They emerge when we think about childhood scientifically as well as personally. In fact, the most recent scientific research makes these paradoxes especially vivid.
But they aren’t just abstract scientific and philosophical questions. They’re instantiated in the real-life tensions and dilemmas that bedevil the lives of parents. And they’re at the root of the difficult moral and political decisions that arise when we try to care for children as a society.
The Paradoxes of Love
The first dilemma comes from the tension between dependence and independence. Parents and other caregivers must take complete responsibility for that most utterly dependent of creatures, the human baby. But they must also transform that utterly dependent creature into a completely independent and autonomous adult. We start out feeding and changing diapers and physically holding our children most of the day, and doing all this with surprising satisfaction and even happiness. We end up, if we’re lucky, with the occasional affectionate text message from a distant city. A marriage or friendship that was like either end of our lives as parents would be peculiar, if not down-right pathological. Children move from a dependence that is far greater than that of the neediest lover to an independence that is far greater than the most distant and detached one.
In the early part of a child’s life we have more control over the details of their lives than they do themselves. Most of what happens to a baby happens through a parent or caregiver. But if I’ve been a good parent, I’ll have no control at all over my child’s adult life.
This tension becomes particularly striking during adolescence. Not only are our children independent and autonomous from us, they are also part of a new generation that is independent and autonomous from the previous one. Infancy and intimacy go together—we hold our babies close, literally and metaphorically. Our adult children are and should be foreigners—inhabitants of the future.
A second tension comes from the specificity of our love for children. I care about my children in a special way. We feel that the welfare of our own children is more important than just about anything else, even the welfare of other children or our own happiness. We can be—we even should be—ruthless about advancing it. Think about a poor mom in a terrible neighborhood who scrimps and saves to send her child to a good private school, a school out of reach for most of the other kids around. She’s heroic, not selfish or foolish.
But it’s a unique kind of heroism. The classical ways of thinking about politics and morality turn on the idea that moral and political principles should be universal. Fairness, equality, justice—these ideas are supposed to apply to everybody. The very idea of a law, for example, is that some principle applies equally to all. But I care about and am responsible for my own specific children, far more than children in general. And so I should be.
Where does this specific commitment come from? It isn’t just a matter of genetic affinity. Almost anyone who cares for a child will come to love just that specific, special miracle. How can we accommodate the dramatic specificity of our love for children within a broader politics of child-rearing? And what would this mean for public policy?
The Paradoxes of Learning
A second set of paradoxes concerns the ways that children learn from adults. In a world where schooling determines success, a lot of parenting focuses on getting children to learn more, learn better, and learn faster. The parenting model is also the default model for much of education. The idea is that adults teach children what they should know and so determine how they think and act. Again, the idea may seem obvious, but both science and history suggest otherwise.
A first paradox concerns play and work. It’s a truism that children learn through play. But how do they do it, and why? By definition, play is an act of spontaneous exuberance that isn’t designed to accomplish much of anything in particular. And yet the ubiquity of play in childhood suggests that it must be serving some special function.
In fact, just about everybody thinks that children should have time to play. But playtime is one of the first things to go when we start legislating children’s lives. Recess is replaced by reading drills, and wall ball and hopscotch give way to soccer practice. The parenting model gives us a long list of activities that children should do. From Mandarin classes to Kumon math practice to SAT prep, there simply isn’t much time left over for kids to just play. We feel bad about it, but we don’t quite know what to do.
Conventional moral and political systems are all about the stern and earnest business of human work. They are about how individuals and societies should think, plan, and act in order to accomplish particular goals. But children and childhood are all about play. Why do children play? And how should we value play, not only personally, but morally and politically, too?
Just as children must move from being the most dependent of creatures to the most autonomous ones, they must also move from being people who (mostly) play to people who (mostly) work. This transformation requires profound changes in children’s minds and brains. Parents, caregivers, and teachers must somehow manage this transition in a way that both preserves the benefits of play and enables the benefits of work. Schools, the main institutions we use to manage this transition, arguably do a pretty terrible job on both fronts. Is it possible to do it better?
A second tension concerns tradition and innovation. The great twenty-first-century battle of the screens and the books is just the latest skirmish in a long war. We humans have always been caught between preserving the old and ringing in the new. This tension has gone on for a very long time—it isn’t just a feature of our technological culture, but a part of our evolutionary program. Children have always, by their very nature, been on the front lines of that war.
Many moral and political views, particularly classical, conservative ones, emphasize the importance of preserving traditions and histories. Continuing a past cultural identity, placing yourself in a tradition, is a deep and satisfying part of human life. Caregivers pass on traditions just in the course of nurturing babies.
At the same time one of the basic functions of childhood is allowing for innovation and change. Indeed, paradoxically there would be no specific cultures and traditions to pass on if past human beings hadn’t done something new. Without unprecedented new events there would be no history. By adolescence, children characteristically invent new ways of dressing, dancing, talking, and even thinking. How can we value and pass on our own culture and traditions, yet also allow and encourage our children to invent entirely new ones?
Science speaks to these paradoxes of love and learning, and I’ll outline new scientific research that helps us understand just how love and learning work. Research in evolutionary biology is elucidating the origins of our love for children, and the ways that dependence and independence, the specific and the universal, play out in that love.
In cognitive science, there are new approaches to learning, and a new line of research about how children learn from the people who care for them. Even babies and very young children are sensitive to social norms and traditions and quickly adopt them from their caregivers.
But equally, one of the great discoveries of the past few years has been that even very young children can imagine new possibilities and consider new ways they themselves, or the world around them, could be. And new studies actually demonstrate and explain the ways that play contributes to learning.
In developmental neuroscience, we are starting to understand how young brains are different from old brains. And we are starting to understand how the transformation from early play-based learning to later, more focused goal-directed planning takes place neurologically.
All this scientific research points in the same direction: Childhood is designed to be a period of variability and possibility, exploration and innovation, learning and imagination. This is especially true of our exceptionally long human childhood. But our remarkable human capacities for learning and imagination come at a cost. There is a trade-off between exploration and exploitation, learning and planning, imagining and acting.
The evolutionary solution to that trade-off is to give each new human being protectors—people who make sure that the child can thrive, learn, and imagine, in spite of being so vulnerable. Those protectors also pass on the knowledge that previous generations have accumulated. And they can provide each child with the opportunity to create new kinds of knowledge. Those protectors are parents, of course, but they are also grandparents and uncles and friends and caregivers. Human caregivers must both fiercely protect each individual child and give that child up when they become an adult; they must allow play and enable work; they must pass on traditions and encourage innovations. The parent paradoxes are the consequence of fundamental biological facts.
The Uniqueness of Childhood
I won’t suggest a simple resolution to these paradoxes or a simple solution to the personal and political dilemmas that stem from them. There just isn’t a simple way to deal with the transformation from profound dependence to equally profound independence. There is no formula to resolve the tension between the fact that we love just this one child but still have to make policy decisions about children in general. There is no simple algorithm to weigh the values of work and play, or of tradition and innovation.
But at least we can try to recognize these paradoxes and acknowledge that they go far beyond the scope of the usual parenting discussion. We need to go beyond thinking about whether a particular parenting technique will have good or bad outcomes. Thinking about childhood in a more abstract way, from a more universal and general perspective, can help to make our discussion of parents and children more thoughtful and less divisive, more complex and less tortured, more nuanced and less simplistic.
I do think, though, that there is a good way of approaching the paradoxes, even if we can’t resolve them. We should not only recognize that being a parent—caring for children—is a relationship, but recognize that it is a relationship unlike any other. We need to recognize that caring for children just isn’t like the other kinds of human activities that are our usual models. Raising children is special, and it needs and deserves its own brand of scientific and personal thinking, and its own set of political and economic institutions.
In fact, the distinctive example of caring for children may help us solve other difficult moral and political questions. The tensions between dependence and independence, specificity and universality, work and play, and tradition and innovation are at their clearest in childhood, but they lie behind intractable adult questions, too. They influence how we understand everything from abortion to aging to art, and the insights we gain from understanding children may help us to solve grown-up problems, too.
We can start thinking about caring for children in a way that escapes the morass of guilt and resignation, of parenting manuals and personal stories, and of codified political divisions that make up most of the current discussions of children and parents. We can recognize that relations between children and the people who care for them are among the most important and most distinctive of all human relationships.
The Child Garden
Perhaps the best metaphor of all for understanding our distinctive relationship to children is an old one. Caring for children is like tending a garden, and being a parent is like being a gardener.
In the parenting model, being a parent is like being a carpenter. 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. Are the doors true? Are the chairs steady? Messiness and variability are a carpenter’s enemies; precision and control are her allies. Measure twice, cut once.
When we garden, on the other hand, we create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish. It takes hard labor and the sweat of our brows, with a lot of exhausted digging and wallowing in manure. 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 white Queen Anne’s lace unexpectedly shows 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.
In fact, there is a deeper sense in which such accidents are a hallmark of good gardening. There are admittedly some kinds of gardening where the aim is a particular outcome, such as growing hothouse orchids or training bonsai trees. Those kinds of gardening demand the same sort of admirable expertise and skill as fine carpentry. In England, that land of gardeners, they use the term “hothousing” to refer to the kind of anxious middle-class parenting that Americans call helicoptering.
But consider creating a meadow or a hedgerow or a cottage garden. The glory of a meadow is its messiness—the different grasses and flowers may flourish or perish as circumstances alter, and there is no guarantee that any individual plant will become the tallest, or fairest, or most long-blooming. The good gardener works to create fertile soil that can sustain a whole ecosystem of different plants with different strengths and beauties—and with different weaknesses and difficulties, too. Unlike a good chair, a good garden is constantly changing, as it adapts to the changing circumstances of the 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.
Being a good parent won’t transform children into smart or happy or successful adults. But it can help create a new generation that is robust and adaptable and resilient, better able to deal with the inevitable, unpredictable changes that face them in the future.
Gardening is risky and often heartbreaking. Every gardener knows the pain of watching that most promising of sprouts wither unexpectedly. But the only garden that didn’t have those risks, that wasn’t attended with that pain, would be one made of Astroturf studded with plastic daisies.
The story of Eden is a good allegory for childhood. We grow as children in a garden of love and care, a garden at its best so rich and stable that, as children, we don’t even recognize the work and thought that lie behind it. As adolescents we enter both the world of knowledge and responsibility and the world of labor and pain, including the literal and metaphorical labor pains of bringing another generation of children into the world. Our lives wouldn’t be fully human without both phases—Eden and the Fall, innocence and experience.
Of course, although our young children often think we are omnipotent and omniscient, we parents are all too painfully aware that we utterly lack anything approaching divine power and authority. Still, parents—both literal, biological parents and everybody who cares for children—are both witnesses and protagonists of this most compelling part of the human story. And that makes being a parent worthwhile all by itself.
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. Our job is not to tell children how to play; it’s to give them the toys and pick the toys up again after the kids are done. We can’t make children learn, but we can let them learn.
Copyright © 2016 by Alison Gopnik