Children behave in mysterious ways. Think of the quick shifts of attention, followed by the sudden absorption in a passing insect, or a dust particle, just when you’re in a rush to get out the door. Or think of the pretend play that seems to go on just a bit too long.
To many adults, all this can be mind-boggling. But not to developmental psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik, who has dedicated her career to studying the brains of babies and young children to understand how humans acquire knowledge in the first place. To her, children’s behaviour makes complete sense.
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As the head of the Cognitive Development and Learning Lab at the University of California at Berkeley, Gopnik has learnt to love a good paradox. In addition to scientific publications, she writes books and columns for the general public, in which she addresses the many contradictions and tensions inherent in childhood – and, by extension, parenthood – without ever offering to resolve them.
In fact, Gopnik believes that those tensions are precisely the point. Her work is devoted to explaining, in accessible and lucid prose, why those elements that can make caring for babies and infants such an exasperating endeavour – their incredible dependence, their seemingly utter inability to focus, their messiness – are not design flaws, but the most important features of childhood.
Earlier generations of developmental psychologists, from Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget, considered infants and children as underdeveloped or even irrational little creatures – and you could argue that lots of parents have at times believed that too.
But Gopnik’s research shows that small children behave extremely reasonably – as long as you keep the purpose of childhood in mind.
What we talk about when we talk about childhood
We’ve both been enamoured with Gopnik’s work since we first came across it. She speaks simultaneously to the thinkers and the parents in us, is critical of a number of persistent ideas about parenting and the industry that has sprung up around it, writes in a fascinating way about the importance of play – a topic that Irene has been writing about recently, and about the bond between different generations – which Lynn has delved into. We wanted to hear more about her ideas.
In early April we wrote to Gopnik asking for an interview. She quickly agreed, but added that we would have to be patient: the semester was almost over, and she was still tied up with the last few tasks – which seemed more preoccupying than ever because all of it had to happen over Zoom.
It was late May when we spoke, logging on from Naples, Amsterdam and Berkeley. Sitting comfortably on a leather armchair in her study room, with a well-stocked bookcase in the background and frames on the wall, Gopnik mused about writing an op-ed to assuage her younger colleagues, many of whom were trying to homeschool their children while working from home at the same time.
“Cognitive developmentalists have found,” the op-ed would say, “that if you tell your children to go outside and play, give them a bag of goldfish crackers, and then shut the door, this leads to great improvements in their cognitive control, their conceptual understanding and their abilities to explore.” The opinion was only half in jest, Gopnik told us, laughing: “I think I’d do lots of parents a great service and I even suspect it’s sort of true.”
Gopnik is an expert on child development who refuses to offer parents any practical advice
Such commentary also suits her style. Gopnik is an expert on child development who refuses to offer parents any practical advice – yet reading her work can be among the most liberating and consoling experiences for a parent. One very useful example: an infant throwing their cup on the floor, time after time after time, becomes much easier to handle when you know they’re figuring something out about the laws of gravity, rather than trying to annoy you.
Thinking and writing about parents and children, Gopnik told us early in our interview, is usually done in one of two ways: instrumentally – “here are five tips to help you homeschool your child” – or as wry, personal anecdote – “now I’m going to tell you how homeschooling didn’t happen in my house, and my kids are all running around like wild animals”.
“Just imagine,” she added, “if the only stories featured in the economics section of the newspaper were along the lines of ‘here’s what you need to know about your personal budget’ or ‘here’s why I’m so bad at balancing my budget’. We would never think that gave us the full picture of what economics is all about.” She sounded amused and dead serious at the same time – it’s precisely that combination of lightness with seriousness that characterises her writing.
Relationships between parents and children, the comparison suggested, involve a great deal more than practical tips and idiosyncratic experiences. Yet we’ve relegated discussion of those relationships to the lifestyle sections in newspapers, as if we’re unable to see them for what they are: among the most profound and fundamental relationships any of us will ever be part of.
Why ‘life history’ matters
Gopnik would like us all to speak both more deeply, and more widely, about parents and children, and other intergenerational relationships. One crucial concept that kept coming back throughout our interview was “life history”, the idea that natural selection led every organism to develop its specific life cycle. Instead of thinking of children as underdeveloped adults (and of the elderly as retirees with little added value to society), we need to understand that every stage in the life cycle has its own purpose.
In early childhood, that purpose is exploration. And it starts surprisingly early. In her book The Philosophical Baby (2009), Gopnik describes experiments which found that even very young children can distinguish between fact and fiction, have a moral compass, make inferences about the world, and form theories about the nature of reality.
When we grow up, our purpose shifts to exploitation: that is, taking what we’ve learned as children and applying it to achieve goals. (And as we move further along in adulthood and into old age, our roles change yet again; we become teachers, mediators, bearers of historical knowledge.)
Another purpose of adulthood is to help and protect children as they go about their business of exploring. A toddler who is mesmerised by a beetle can only follow its path if there’s an adult around to keep the child from running under a bicycle. Discovering how gravity works by repeatedly throwing a cup to the floor only works if someone, most likely the adult in charge, picks it up for you over and over again.
“What the science tells us is that there’s a reason for the way our lives unfold, from the time we’re born, up through childhood, adolescence, adulthood and older age. Those stages of life all have different functions from a scientific and evolutionary perspective,” says Gopnik.
“My heart is with the crazy, poetic, exploratory children; but they couldn’t function unless you had a whole lot of people who were doing the hard work that we do as adults,” Gopnik says.
At this moment, as Gopnik points out, many societies around the world are doing a poor job of allowing each stage in life to fulfill its purpose. For example, small children are often forced to adjust to educational systems that don’t fit their learning styles. Meanwhile, large portions of the elderly population aren’t using their powers as storytellers and caregivers, vital for passing on information to the next generation. And then there are pervasive ideas about parenting that are far from beneficial for children.
In her most recent book, The Gardener and the Carpenter (2016), Gopnik shifts her focus to parents as well as children, explaining why many of the things that middle-class parents in industrialised societies try to do to help their children develop are completely misguided.
“Parenting”, the idea that parents can shape their children the way a carpenter might turn a bar of wood into a chair leg, has become a prominent notion in the United States over the past decades. Before the twentieth century, “to parent” didn’t exist as a verb. You either were a parent or you weren’t, and if you were one, you might try to “raise” your children to survive, more or less gently, into adulthood. There is, of course, a very long tradition of thought around how best to do that. But in recent years, “parenting” has come to mean something that you might “succeed” at (and so can fail at, too).
Parenting is a goal-directed verb, describing goal-directed behaviour in which the goal is “turning your child into a better or happier or more successful adult – better than they would be otherwise,” writes Gopnik in The Gardener and the Carpenter. And while the term often describes what it is that parents do, it’s increasingly used to describe what parents should do.
Around the world, parenting entails a set of prescriptions (“Limit your children’s screen time!” “Take them to baby yoga to promote focus and attention!”) and a set of supplemental behaviours (parents dragging their kids to after-school classes, extracurricular activities, standardised tests in kindergarten and so on). Gopnik writes that parenting implies a promise, “that there is some set of techniques, some particular expertise” to help parents achieve their goal of shaping their children’s lives.
That promise is false as well as harmful, but fewer and fewer parents seem to know that. In fact, if the excessive supply of “how to” parenting guide books and newspaper articles make one thing clear, it’s that parents are hungry for practical tips that read like clear-cut recipes. While Gopnik acknowledges that many of these books “simply give practical advice about being a parent” – about helping children sleep, say, or eat – “many more promise that if parents just practise the right techniques, they can make a substantial difference in the way their child turns out.” This promise, Gopnik argues, is an empty one – and undesirable, too.
All parents can do for children is offer them a rich, safe, varied environment in which they can explore and become whoever it is they were meant to become. Gopnik suggests that parents should act like gardeners rather than carpenters: carpenters have their eye on the finished product (a table, say, or a chair), while gardeners plant seeds and care for them with only a vague, and ever-receding, end in mind.
The lost art of parenthood
If parenting is such a bad idea, why did it become a thing in the first place? “Becoming a parent,” Gopnik said when we asked her, “is not something that you can learn from reading books, any more than being a hydrologist will help you become good at surfing, or understanding physics will make you a good tennis-player. It’s more like an apprenticeship in that you learn by doing, and you learn by doing it alongside experts who have been doing it for a long time.”
So did studying children’s development make becoming a parent easier for Gopnik, we wanted to know? Not exactly, she said.
“What did help was the fact that I was the oldest of six siblings, and so grew up caring for babies and small children. But we no longer have good mechanisms for doing that kind of apprenticeship: families are smaller and different generations have become much more separated. Children are in schools, parents are away at work, and grandparents are in an assisted-living facility even further out.”
“What’s also contributed to the rise of parenting, especially in the United States, is this growing anxiety regarding meritocracy. With greater economic inequality comes a rising fear of falling out of the middle class. Everybody knows that the formula for staying in the middle class is: education and knowledge and information.”
That’s why so many parents want to make sure their children turn into excellent students: "A lot of the craziness around parenting has that economic situation as a backdrop. It’s lousy for parents and it’s lousy for kids, but if you look at it from an economic perspective, it’s not irrational."
It might seem rational to turn your child into an optimally fit participant in society, but in the long run it’s a very bad idea. Gopnik thinks opting for variety is a good evolutionary strategy. After all, once circumstances change, having only goal-oriented, focused grade-A students who become leaders might no longer be of much use. Our species might then benefit more from having a good crop of creative, adventurous, and open-minded members who can come up with solutions to whatever new problems we are facing.
Our species depends on diversity. Uniformity would ultimately mean our downfall. Besides, both parents and children become frustrated by the process of parenting. Parents realise that getting your baby to adhere to a schedule or your preschooler to learn the alphabet is not as easy as the guide books suggest; and young children find they’re not allowed to do what their brains are most equipped to do – namely, to wander about in ways that are as variable, aimless, exploratory and playful as they are ultimately useful.
Why we need grandparents
The separation between generations has made parenthood less intuitive and more fraught, Gopnik says. This is also a loss in another sense: human children are dependent on adults for an exceptionally long time, meaning that raising them is a lot of work – too much work for one or two adults alone. Our ancestors solved this by distributing that work among several people: biological parents, but also uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, neighbours and grandparents. This still happens in many modern cultures, as well as in traditional hunter and gatherer tribes.
In industrialised societies, too, care of children is partly outsourced to nannies, playgroups and schools, as well as to helpful grandparents. But for the most part in those societies, the nuclear family now reigns supreme. As a consequence, parents – mothers more than fathers – are a lot more on their own, especially during children’s preschool years. Depending on the country, more or less help may be available, but it is generally less organic than our species has traditionally known. Parents are left feeling ultimately responsible at all times.
The result: tired, overextended and overwhelmed parents – and children exposed to a narrower range of caretakers and models than they otherwise might have been. This is a shame. Gopnik told us the practice of “cooperative breeding”, so characteristic of humans, has played an important role in evolution. Key social skills, such as an ability to read others and communicating well with many different people, evolved because of this social set-up, contributing to a uniquely social and cooperative species.
But that is not the only advantage of “cooperative breeding,” as Gopnik explained. “There’s the cliché about how ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ – but the science really shows that cliché is right. And it’s not just that it takes that many people, but it takes that many people all doing different things. In these forager communities, you’ve got a dozen people who are involved in taking care of the child; some teach them practical skills, others tell stories that give children information about how the world works. And that helps obviously because it’s just a lot of work to take care of a child, but also, children are exposed to all these different kinds of models for how different people could be, to the various forms that human relationships can take.”
The literature about resilience has much to say on the importance of such variety in care-giving. "We know that, say, kids who were abused are more likely to have problems. But then some kids grow up in terrible circumstances and they turn out OK. Sometimes they grow up to be leaders or heroes. So what sets them apart? It turns out that the crucial factor is having somebody in your life who acts as a model, showing you a way to behave that’s different from the way your parents are behaving.”
Many ways of learning
Just as it takes a variety of adult role models for children to learn, it also requires a variety of ways of learning. Take the development of a moral compass, a sense of right and wrong. It’s hard to simply tell a child what’s the right thing to do in all circumstances. If it were any easier, “ethics” would be a prescriptive course rather than a realm of philosophy.
As Gopnik put it, “Caregiving is a way that we teach ethics. When we take care of another human, especially a child, we give them a chance to develop a set of values, a sense of what is and isn’t important.” In caring for a creature that is not autonomous, parents express their morality. And it is from being cared for that children learn about right and wrong, and the many grey areas in between.
So children learn in all kinds of ways: by playing and listening, by observing adults and being taught, by being cared for. But, Gopnik said, just as children in many societies are exposed to a fairly limited group of caregivers, the education system has also become more uniform than it ever was – and than it ideally should be. Her analysis is valid for many industrialised countries, although the US is probably leading this trend.
Take kindergarten. Pre-school, which previously was all about exploration and unstructured play, is becoming much more like school. Toddlers are also given standardised tests and “learning objectives”. “I have three grandchildren, all of whom are being homeschooled right now. And you’d think, at least with a four year old you could say, you don’t have to worry too much about homeschooling. But even he’s got a list of things he’s supposed to do, too.” Gopnik shook her head at the thought of it.
This doesn’t stop at kindergarten, she writes in The Gardener and the Carpenter. While apprenticeships were once considered a perfectly fine alternative to sitting at a desk in school, those vocational tracks have largely disappeared. The abstract, theoretical learning that goes on in schools, with results measured through standardised tests, works fine for some children but not for others – variability is the first casualty of standardisation.
This tendency leads to what we might call a monoculture of people – adults who were all trained in one way but not in many others, as if our strength as a society, our resilience as a species, didn’t depend on variety, on many ways of thinking, acting, and problem solving. What’s more, Gopnik argues, this specific kind of learning doesn’t prepare children very well for the world outside school – where questions may have more than one answer, and problems more than one solution. Where no one is going to give you a grade for repeating what your teacher told you.
This is also a world, it goes without saying, in which becoming a parent can be learned only by doing – not by studying for it.
The unexpected parenting expert
It might seem paradoxical, or at least counter-intuitive, for a distinguished professor of philosophy and psychology to argue for more apprenticeship and less abstract learning. But Gopnik wants schools as well as parents to rely less on theoretical expertise and more on simply letting their children be. Then again, her own research has shown that we learn by doing – as children and also, especially, as parents.
Understanding the minds of babies and children – knowing that they benefit from a variety of caregivers, examples, learning styles and opportunities – will not make parents better at parenting. If anything, it will make them worse at sculpting their children into a certain vision, a certain ideal. But of course, that is precisely the point.
Being bad at carpentry might be just what we need to become more caring, more forgiving, and more mindful gardeners.
A previous version of this article spoke of "parenting" as a US invention. Following the contribution by anthropologist and biologist Barry Bogin below the article, we have amended the wording.