Against Parenting
Drawing from the archives (no. 401/1952)
The Other School

Against Parenting

An Interview with Alison Gopnik
Tomasz Stawiszyński
time 18 minutes

“The whole purpose of childhood is to allow us to have a new generation that is going to see things and understand things in a different way.” Alison Gopnik, psychologist and philosopher, urges mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles to take risks. Let children experiment (even if they want to become carpenters, not doctors). I love people who turn stereotypes, common sense ideas or so-called evident truths upside down. Providing, of course, that they do it with concern for scientific and philosophical credibility. One of those people is Alison Gopnik, a psychologist and philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, one of the most distinguished modern researchers studying childhood. That’s why her books on babies’ minds (especially The Philosophical Baby) and, more recently, parenthood (The Gardener and the Carpenter) are so fascinating and refreshing.

Gopnik doesn’t beat around the bush. She says there is a pervasive, culturally-entrenched myth that parents have a great influence on their children; that they shape them like the potter’s experienced hands shape a piece of clay. This myth is not only false but also harmful. Parenthood isn’t about playing a god who creates another human being in his own image. Quite the opposite: for a child freedom is essential, Gopnik says, adding that another thing of great educational value is diversity. The more people around you the better. Nothing beats a huge, multi-generational family in which everyone, not just mum and dad, is responsible for raising a child. Especially if you add a pinch of anarchy, disorder and chaos. That’s the best possible environment – order and discipline cannot compare.

Well, judging by the dozen or so jackets and coats of different sizes piling up on a coat rack in her Berkeley home, Alison Gopnik practices what she preaches, which is a rare thing today. She welcomes me warmly at the door and offers tea. She then disappears into her kitchen, while I try to add my jacket to the layer cake that is the rack. Just when it seems I have succeeded, the overloaded rack falls down with a loud thud.

How embarrassing, I think as I rush to collect all the jackets and coats.

“Not to worry,” says the psychologist, standing beside me with a mug of steaming hot tea. “A little chaos never harmed anyone.”

Relieved, I take a deep breath and, knowing that I’ve just created the proper environment for an interesting and creative conversation, I ask my first question.

Tomasz Stawiszyński: Just before coming here, I visited the excellent bookstore Moe’s Books, where I saw a huge shelf dedicated entirely to ‘Parenting’. Judging from your works and lectures, you wouldn’t recommend purchasing any of those books?

Alison Gopnik: Definitely not. The first chapter of my book The Gardener and the Carpenter is called “Against Parenting”. It turns out that in the English language, the word ‘parenting’ didn’t actually turn up until the 1970s. There had always been parents – ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are among the oldest English words – but ‘parenting’ as this verb, this activity, is a very recent invention. And so is the idea that you should go out and read books


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Also read:

The Birth of Childhood
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “Children’s Games”, 1560, Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

The Birth of Childhood

A Brief History of the European Child
Andrzej Krajewski

It took several thousand years for our culture to recognize that a child is not an object. Learning how to treat children as humans continues to this day.

“Nature wants children to be children before they are men,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the book Emile, or On Education (1762). While Rousseau did not see children as humans, he appealed to parents to look after their offspring. “If we consider childhood itself, is there anything so weak and wretched as a child, anything so utterly at the mercy of those about it, so dependent on their pity, their care, and their affection?” he asked. At a time when children were regularly entrusted to others during adolescence or left in shelters, Rousseau’s demands seemed revolutionary. They paved the way for the breakthrough discovery that indeed, a child is also a human being, capable of feelings, having their own needs and, above all, suffering. But the philosopher himself did not take these ideas to heart. Whenever his lover and later wife, Teresa Levasseur, gave birth to a child, Rousseau immediately gave the baby to an orphanage, where just one in a hundred newborns had a chance to live to adulthood.

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