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The Gardener and the Carpenter:

What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us about the Relationship Between Parents and Children

Alison Gopnik

(London Times)

The communal garden was in early summer bloom — trees to climb up, chrysanthemums to smell, bushes to hide in. 'Do you get many children playing here?' I asked my friend, who’d lived there for 25 years. 'Not these days. They're all doing Kumon maths!' she laughed.

I recalled those empty lawns when reading this controversial book on parenting from the American child psychologist Alison Gopnik. Apparently we are doing it all wrong. Raising children, says the 61-year-old mother of three boys, should not be a goal-orientated task, such as a carpenter sculpting a chair. Instead, we should simply provide a loving environment for a child to grow - like a gardener does to allow plants to flourish.

The metaphors are tortured, but I don't dislike them as much as Gopnik does the actual word 'parenting'. She laments the fact that it transgressed into a verb in America in 1958 and that Amazon now stocks 60,000 titles on the subject. The rise of it, she says, has ruined playtime for many children. 'Parents are not designed to shape their children's lives'. Forget merciless after-school schedules, what they need is more love and fewer lessons. Her area of expertise is the young developing mind, so if your children are already seven or over, prepare to embrace the guilt.

Apparently, children learn more from the unconscious details of what caregivers do than from any structured manipulations of 'parenting'. So those flashcards were a waste of time. We should have been letting them destroy the kitchen baking bread. Because the absolute key to bringing up young children, says Gopnik, is 'doing things together' and being part of an 'open-ended, dynamic conversation'. It’s enough to make any time-poor working mother who can barely afford to pay the Filipino nanny weep with despair.

So how qualified is this woman to lay on so much regret? Born in Philadelphia, with a brother who is Newsweek's art critic and another who writes for The New Yorker, Gopnik is the product of a gambolling-in-the-fields hippie upbringing herself. Yet she's no pseudo-academic slouch. Ex-McGill and Oxford universities, she is now a pioneering developmental psychologist and a philosopher at the University of California at Berkeley, who oversees extraordinary experiments at her Child Study Centre. In 2011 she delivered a TED talk entitled What Do Babies Think? that's been viewed more than 2.5m times and is a must-watch if you are planning to have anything to do with babies ever again.

Play, believes Gopnik, is absolutely essential to your children’s growth, and academic learning - she's talking to all of you out there who send your three-year-olds to French and Mandarin lessons - is 'far from being the most important or challenging kind of learning for young children'. She reminds us that successful companies such as Google and Pixar (her second husband is a co-founder) intentionally set aside time and space for play.

Instead of getting young children to sit still and narrow their attention spans, Gopnik claims they can learn more about managing networks of friends, divisions of labour, negotiations, compromises and what genuinely interests them simply through unsupervised play. Though she doesn't actually say it, those damn Danes, who delay formal education until the age of six but encourage lots of play and social interaction until then, seem to have got it right again. Is it any coincidence Denmark is habitually the happiest nation on earth?

Gopnik does allow parents at least one Get Out of Jail Free card - the technology one. Of course you can't leave kids in front of the TV all day - that goes against the 'dynamic conversation' rule. But she says we shouldn't expect our children to replicate the values and culture we hold. Just accept they will speak a digital language we find indecipherable and may never learn to love Dickens or Trollope.

In a world that moves beneath our feet on an almost daily basis, I finished this 304-page book thinking a) I should never have thrown that god-awful Play-Doh away so soon, and b) Justine Greening really should read this.

It may be too idealistic of Gopnik to say schools should be judged on how well they educate children in general - 'not how well each child does in a test' - and that high-quality preschool childcare of the free-wheeling gardener variety should be available to all. But the truth is there is something rotten with the state of our children's education.

A study last week revealed that psychological distress is up 10% in the last decade among teenage girls, while experts talk of a 'slow-growing epidemic' of mental health issues in our schools. Meanwhile, in America, three-year-olds are being routinely drugged to become more focused, and an increasingly large number of children are raised in isolation and chaos.

In truth, many of us are failing at the most important job we will ever do. Maybe it's time we all woke up and smelt the chrysanths.

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