Why you should stop worrying about the way you parent

By Susie Mesure

Worried about the right way to parent? Don’t bother, writes Susie Mesure, for it makes no difference.
Children still need looking after but too much parenting can ruin your relationship with your child. Photo / Getty Images
Children still need looking after but too much parenting can ruin your relationship with your child. Photo / Getty Images

If permission to stop parenting sounds liberating, then Alison Gopnik is your saviour. The American psychology professor and grandmother of three thinks too much "parenting" risks ruining your relationship with your children. It's also churning out a generation of young adults afraid to take risks.

What's more, all that fussing and fretting over the daily minutiae is pointless: it won't affect how your children turn out. Decades of research into how kids develop means that Gopnik, 61, can back up her claims; this is no mere backlash against overbearing "helicopter" parents.

Gopnik isn't absolving parents of all responsibilities; children still need looking after. But parents should stop trying to "shape" their offspring into particular types of adults. "That is a doomed project and maybe even counterproductive," she says from her home in Berkeley, northern California.

In her new book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, Gopnik launches a manifesto "against parenting", a noun she points out first emerged only in 1958, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

"Parenting is a terrible invention. It hasn't improved the lives of children and parents, and in some ways it's arguably made them worse. It's made relationships more intense, particularly in this latest generation of parents and children. The time that they are together is much more fraught and unhappy and guilt-ridden than it should be."

She thinks older, middle-class mothers and fathers have turned parenting into an occupation to match the jobs they did before having children. This makes them hungry for results they can measure, like the degrees they notched up while studying.

"One reason why the parenting phenomenon emerged in the 20th century was because really for the first time in history people were off trying to be parents on their own who had never taken care of children but who had gone to school and worked, so therefore they think, 'okay, this is like another class I take at school'."

Cue frustration when babies and small children turn out to be unpredictable. "You don't know what your children are going to be like, and you can't control what you're going to be like as a parent. That's kind of terrifying in a world where we are used to knowing how things are going to turn out."

And yet, children are the last thing we should be trying to control. Gopnik, who is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, where she runs a cognitive science laboratory, has pored over the science and struggled to find any empirical evidence to suggest parents should bother.

"All those tiny differences in parenting that parents obsess over - co-sleeping versus letting the baby cry it out, putting the stroller frontward or backwards, exactly how much homework children do - the data show that none of that makes any difference in how the children turn out in the long run."

In short, parents should stop worrying. "Leaving them alone is not a bad idea. We know children will innovate. When they organise a game, like football, then it's not just that they're learning to play, they are also learning who is a leader, who is a follower, how to divide people up. If they are in a sports league, all that stuff is being done for them."

And if they lack enough space or available friends to play football, well that doesn't matter either because it's good for individual children to be bored, or pick up a book.

The same logic applies to pre-schoolers, who learn by observing. Parents should "slow down" whatever they're doing to let little ones join in, be it cooking, grocery shopping, or simply tidying up.

The trick is getting kids interested in what you're interested in as an adult "rather than always thinking there is some special parenting thing you should be doing, which is usually some form of schooling when interacting with your children".

The "gardener" and the "carpenter" in Gopnik's book title describe how she thinks parents should approach bringing up their children.

Rather than try to shape them into a certain kind of adult, the way a carpenter might shape a chair, parents should think of their kids like a plant in a cottage garden or meadow, free to grow how they like.

What they should not be is "hothoused" - manipulated in the way gardeners might force orchids in a greenhouse.

She "muddled" through bringing up her own kids - three boys, now men - "all very different from each other and me". In fact, muddling through and hoping for the best is as close as she comes to offering any parenting advice.

"It's been funny, because when I tell people, 'There isn't any formula,' they say, 'But how do you manage to parent without any formula?' 'Tell me what the formula is for not having a formula!'"

- Canvas

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