“You can do this,” I told my 7-year-old son. “We won’t stop until you get it. I know you can do it.” Oh, how I regret those words.
They were not encouraging words, not really. We’d been at violin practice for more than 30 minutes, well beyond the 15-20 minutes of daily practice I recommend for my youngest students. My son didn’t want to practice violin. At one point, he’d been excited to learn, but—and I didn’t realise this at the time yet—I’d crushed his enthusiasm with my hovering and over-coaching and obsessive “belief in him.”
For many parents, the following scenario is painfully familiar: Child becomes interested in a particular instrument after witnessing a performance on said instrument. Child begs for one of their very own. Also begs for lessons. Promises they will practice “every day.” Three months and several hundred dollars later, every practice session is an argument and the child says they “hate” previously adored instrument. They want to quit.
I had become what Alison Gopnik calls a “carpenter” parent. Gopnik, a psychology and philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is author of the book “The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children,” in which she describes two distinct type of parents: gardeners and carpenters.
The Gardener Parent vs the Carpenter Parent
According to Gopnik, the carpenter parent believes they have the power to shape who their child will become. Much like a carpenter with his truckload of specialised tools, the carpenter parent believes that as long as they parent their child the “right” way, they can influence a particular outcome. That was me, trying to turn my son into a violin prodigy. You see how well that worked out.
The gardener parent, on the other hand, knows and accepts that many variables are out of their control. The gardener parent provides a nurturing environment but understands that you can’t force an outcome any more than a gardener can control when the sun shines or how big a plant will grow or whether it will yield fruit.
Gopnik recommends that if we want to promote self-esteem, curiosity and tenacity in our kids, we should strive to be more like the gardener. If you’re like I was, frustrating yourself and your child by trying to get them to squish their square-pegged self into a round hole, try these tips to start parenting more like a gardener:
Offer options, not instructions
In the book, Gopnik described how in one study, researchers learned that when a complicated toy was given to a 4-year-old along with instruction for how to use the toy, the child played with the toy only in the way they were shown. However, when the same toy was offered without instruction, the child experimented until they discovered the many other things the toy could do.
Kids are naturally curious and have an innate drive to learn. It’s tempting as a parent to spoon knowledge into our child in the form of constant instruction, but just as a plant will take what it needs from the soil in the garden in its own good time, so too will a child absorb new information when they’re good and ready. The gardener parent just makes sure that information is there for the taking.
Observe without intervening
After my epic failure trying to turn my son into a violin prodigy, my husband and I noticed he loved rock music. He had a toy plastic guitar given to him by my aunt and was constantly pretending to play it. We got him a small toy guitar that had strings you could actually tune, and lo and behold, he figured out how to play a few notes on it.
So, we got him a real guitar and found him a teacher. The teacher’s methods are totally different than mine and Lucas is improving every week, so I keep my nose out of it (aside from reminding him to practice). He’s been playing for 5 years and is still going strong; at this point, I’m just along for the ride.
This is hard but so important. My son has ADHD, so when he struggles at school, my instinct is often to jump in and rescue him. But he’s 13 years old now, and I know he has to learn to manage his diagnosis and advocate for himself.
We have provided the skills and techniques, and now he must use them (or not) and feel the consequences either way. A gardener parent is willing to let their child fail because it allows them to experience the consequences of their actions—a valuable lesson that promotes accountability and agency and sets them up for independence. And isn’t that our ultimate goal as parents?