The title of her book stems from an extended metaphor about the relationship between parents and children.
For "carpenters", children are raw materials we shape and build into a final form. "The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you're going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult," she says.
"Gardeners", meanwhile, are less concerned with having a direct hand in who or what a child becomes. Rather, they focus on building a nurturing soil bed for them to grow from and explore. Gardeners aim to create "a rich, nurturant but also variable, diverse, dynamic ecosystem."
A world where parents are more obsessed than ever on a results-driven approach to parenting, she argues, is also bad science. Citing studies, experiments, and anecdotes from her own grandchildren, Gopnik makes the case that children learn best by observing a wide variety of people.
“From the point of view of evolution, trying to consciously shape how your children will turn out is both futile and self-defeating.” Though knowing this doesn't make it any easier for parents to avoid doing so.
The Limits of Binary Metaphor
I found the metaphor of the carpenter versus the gardener interesting, even if reductive. Rarely are we "this or that" and the oppositional nature of binaries leads to a lot of finger pointing.
The reality is there are few controlling parents singularly focused on turning their children into only engineers or CEOs. And how many parents are truly “gardeners”, accepting a laissez-faire approach no matter the number of unavoidable hardships their child must endure?
Most parents exist on a spectrum between the two. And whether they are gardening or building depends on the child and the moment. As it should be.
Schools, Race, and Class