Review: The Gardener and the Carpenter

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

Alison Gopnik (2016)

The Gardener and the Carpenter is a magnificent example of philosophy grounded in science. The book aims to answer the question ‘what is parenting?’, and, in so doing, to explain why the anxieties about modern parenting are largely misplaced. The central theme is that each child is unique, and that the role of those caring for them is to allow the child to become a unique adult, not to shape the child into a particular kind of adult.

Sidenote: I should mention that I greatly enjoyed the book: there was something worth taking note of on almost every page, which is relatively rare. As the heavy dog-earing of my copy attests, there was a great deal which was novel, contentious, important, or well-expressed (not all my underlinings or notes on dog-eared pages are complimentary, but they do indicate engagement).

A proxy for engagement

Gopnik’s starting point is the parenting industry. While parents have been around as long as reproduction, parenting is a pretty modern invention. The purpose of parenting (and of schooling), is to fashion children into particular kinds of adults - happier, more productive, kinder, more successful… in short, better than they would otherwise be. This is the ‘carpenter’ model, where we start with a specific end goal in mind, and measure the success of the venture by how much the end product differs from the goal. The science of this is frankly dubious. We know that children vary in the kinds of adults they grow into, and we parenting varies, too. What we don’t have any good evidence for is the idea that the variation in parenting explains the variation in the kind of adults the children grow into.1 This surprising fact is neatly summed up in Freakonomics:

A long line of studies, including research into twins who were separated at birth, had already concluded that genes alone are responsible for perhaps 50 percent of a child’s personality and abilities… another famous study… found virtually no correlation between the child’s personality traits and those of his [sic] adopted parents… the top-down influence of parents is overwhelmed by the grassroots effect of peer pressure [p. 155]

Parenting affects children2 (largely because of how much control parents have over their children’s experiences), but it doesn’t really affect the adults they grow into. What does matter, is providing the right kind of environment for children to grow into whatever they’re going to grow into - the ‘gardener’ model.3 Providing the love, support, and resources necessary for the child to grow up into the full-fledged adult version of themselves is the purpose of parenting, not dictating what that adult will be like. After all, as Gopnik points out repeatedly, they’ll grow up to be foreigners: inhabitants of the future.

Gopnik argues that the parenting industry, and its corollary, the education system, have optimised themselves on the carpenter model, and serve to perpetuate it through marketing to middle-class anxieties and insisting on standardised assessments in which children are measured in terms of deviations from a single ideal.4 The very idea that we can know how our children should be encodes within it the assumption that we will know what the future will be like, and this is not only wrong, but it overlooks the whole purpose of childhood itself.

Several sections of the book are devoted to demonstrating that the purpose of children is to be varied copies of their parents. This is, in essence, how evolution works. If children are precise copies of their parents, small changes in the world can be disastrous if they happen to find a weakness.5 Where the world can change, variation is required to cope with that change. Humans are extremely variable: we recombine the genes of our parents, we learn from our life experiences, and we innovate on our culture to adapt it to our needs.6 Some animals encode their expectations of how the world will be in their genes alone, and consequently they can be self-sufficient almost immediately, at the cost of taking many generations to adapt to changes in the world. Many animals instead encode the expectation that the world will be variable, and devote a period of development to calibrating to however the world happens to be, during which time support is required from older more competent animals to ensure they survive. The more time spent learning about the world in safety, the more completely you can adapt your behaviour to changes in the world, and this is the evolutionary niche that humans have occupied more completely than any other animal.7

Children’s job, Gopnik argues, is to be children: to learn about the world and to adapt themselves to it (and learn how to adapt it to themselves). To help them do this, they are well equipped to co-opt the attention of not only their biological mother, but also of almost any other human in the vicinity. In one of the most delightful takes in the book, Gopnik suggests that love is a consequence of caring for children, rather than vice-versa.8 Parents’ job is to let children be children. Teach them to be good children, and give them the opportunity to learn about the tools they’ll need in adult life (language, social skills, riding bicycles).

Some of the recommendations are a bit loose,9 and the wider claims about how economics ought to be reshaped to take heed of the central features of human lives (see Doughnut Economics - review forthcoming) are little more than gestures towards a wish that we could be kinder to one another, but Gopnik does show a philosopher’s awareness of the existence of potentially intractable problems such as the appropriate balance between parents’ self-expression and children’s rights (e.g. to appropriate education).

The book may not provide much in the way of practical advice, but it is all the more helpful because of that. You already know how to parent: love, support, guidance. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s almost all small stuff. That message is one we could all do with remembering.


  1. Disentangling the various components of genes, environments, and their interactions is a notoriously tricky problem. 

  2. To make disentangling influences on children even more difficult, a child’s characteristics change how caregivers interact with them, too. And these effects can be relative to other children in the household, too. 

  3. Abusive and negligent parenting, as well as failing to provide appropriate resources (food, education, experiences), do matter. Somewhat ironically, if you want to have an effect on the kind of adults your children turn into you should treat them badly… don’t do this. The best parents raise children who are expressions of themselves, not expressions of their parents. 

  4. Standardised assessments do have notable advantages in tackling inequality of opportunity, but cause problems which they insist upon a single standard for success and shoehorn all candidates into that mould. 

  5. Banana sweets don’t taste like bananas because of this: the sweets were engineered to replicate the flavour of Gros Michel bananas, while modern bananas are Cavendish bananas. Panama disease all but wiped out Gros Michel bananas because all banana trees are clones of one another - they have no genetic variations and panama disease exploits a weakness. 

  6. These components all interact, of course. 

  7. Other species which demonstrate curiosity, insightful problem solving, and especially tolerance of juveniles, such as New Caledonian Crows, also have relatively long childhoods in which they are cared for by conspecifics. 

  8. This is the Franklin Effect writ large, and possibly provides a clue to why this effect exists. 

  9. The slightly unsatisfying Isiah Berlin-inspired responses to questions of competing values recur throughout the book, but they’re not necessarily wrong or unhelpful for being unsatisfying.