Understanding How to Parent

By Lola Coffey
Special to the Palisades News

Even though my husband and I have raised our two children the same—or tried to—they are different. I hoped that one would maybe teach in college or be a doctor or dentist. The particularly athletic one, I hoped might play in college.

It hasn’t happened. I felt like I was a failure at parenting.

Experts say parents are supposed to read to kids every night to develop their love of reading. I did. It wasn’t a chore, because I always loved reading. But neither kid would pick up a book justforfun.Takingmykidstomuseumsandplays, enrolling them in chess and providing piano lessons is what I thought a good parent did.

I watched my neighbor’s kids score high on tests and get into Ivy League Schools. Mine didn’t. Other parents would brag about their kids’ latest accomplishments. I didn’t feel that doing well on League of Legions was something to bring into a conversation at a school meeting.

Last Saturday, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that made me feel much better.

It was an essay adapted from Dr. Alison Gopnik’s book The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship between Parents and Children.

Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, says the idea of “parenting” implying that parents must do something is a recent idea. (Probably starting around 1958 and becoming more popular in the 1970s.)

She writes, “The idea that parents can learn special techniques that will make their children turn out better is ubiquitous in middle-class America. But this prescriptive picture is fundamentally misguided. 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.”

The professor maintains that parents think there is some expertise we could acquire to help us in our goal of shaping our kids’ lives, but there’s little scientific evidence to support that.

Rather, she approaches parenting from an evolutionary aspect. One of the ways that humans were able to adapt to a changing environment and survive as a species was by nurturing a wide range of children with differenttemperamentsandabilities.After reading that, I started to feel better.

But there was a paragraph in the essay that really seemed to make a lot of sense. “Instead of valuing ‘parenting,’ we should value ‘being a parent.’ Instead of thinking about caring for children as a kind of work, aimed at producing smart or happy or successful adults, we should think of it as a kind of love. Love doesn’t have goals or benchmarks or blueprints, but it does have a purpose. Love’s purpose is not to shape our beloved’s destiny but to help them shape their own.’”

Gopnik argues that we should view raising a child as if we’re a gardener. We make a safe place for plants to grow and we nurture them, but she says, “As all gardeners know nothing works out the way we planned. The greatest pleasure and triumphs, as well as disasters, are unexpected.”

Instead of this being about me and whether I’m a failure as a parent, this is really about my kids as they find their own way. All I need to do is love them.

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