Tending the Childhood Garden

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Most of us would appreciate having some rules for good parenting; some ironclad procedure to follow in order to give our children the best of what we have. New research in the burgeoning field of neuroscience is taking what we know about the brain, how it works and how it grows, and giving us some clues. But because it’s the brain we’re talking about, there are no simple answers. What has been emerging is some support for certain approaches over others. And often this research brings us back to older ways of thinking about children and what they need to grow, thrive and succeed.

Alison Gopnik, in her new book The Carpenter and the Gardener: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children (say that three times fast) offers this very thing. Her central metaphor contrasts the model of the carpenter–the parent who attempts to construct their child through micromanaging and fine-tuning–with that of the gardener, who allows space and nourishment for a child to grow in the way it naturally wants to. Guess which one is more effective?

I have written about the metaphor of nurturing as cultivating the things we want to grow. We give our positive attention to the traits we want to encourage rather than focusing on the negative traits we would like to see less of. This is both a good and useful thing. However, there is more to it than that, and also less.

As Gopnik tells us, it is easier to allow children to do what they do best–learn–than try to will them into the shapes we want to see.  It sounds great, and quite a relief besides, to just move out of the way and let children grow. But that’s when we see that some approaches work better than others.

I encourage you to read the linked article, which provides a great summary of Gopnik’s research. And, of course, to read the book (I have it on hold at the library). Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Let children under 6 just…play. Academic preparation is just not effective for small children. It’s not a matter of getting them ready earlier, because that’s just not where they’re at. They learn through play. So give them ample opportunity to do so.
  • School age children are ready to learn. So give them things to learn: cooking, building, cleaning, making. Show them, watch them, offer ways to improve the skill.
  • Teenagers benefit from practical skills. Less homework, more real-world experiences. Teens used to enter the adult world through apprenticeships, and we can offer them internships, community service projects, and guided projects such as putting together a newspaper or, heck, starting a garden.

In each of these stages, children learn by doing. Our job as parents is to let them do, in a safe and nurturing environment. Sounds simple, right? Simple work is often the hardest. But really, the hard part for modern parents is just letting it happen.

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