Why be a parent?
Gopnik approaches this question by examining the paradoxes inherent in being a parent and unraveling some of the mystery surrounding the bonds between parents and children. As a cognitive developmental scientist -- and a Grandmother -- she draws on many fields of human study to encourage parents to create caring, secure and loving environments. She encourages the development of bonds between children and parents that
"allows children to explore. to try entirely new ways of living and being, to take risks. And risks aren't risks unless they can come out badly. If there isn't some chance that our children will fail as adults, then we haven't succeeded as parents. But it's also true that being a good parent allows children to succeed in ways that we could never have predicted or imagined shaping."
There is one reason this book is the first Parenting by the Book review: Gopnik examines the paradoxes of being a parent from the point of view of a developmental cognitive scientist as well as with the heart of a Grandmother.
Gopnik is a professor at UC Berkley, the author of numerous academic papers, writes the Mind and Matter column for The Wall Street Journal and publishes books for parents' general reading, including
Well-being in childhood
Recently, on a FB video chat with Little Guy it was pretty obvious he was experiencing Big Feelings. When I asked why he was sad, he said that Mom and Dada would not give him a treat. I could see his little face all scrunched up and knew he felt quite put upon by not getting a treat before dinner; I could also tell Mom and Dada were just about done with the crocodile tears. So, after letting him know I was sorry he felt sad, I attempted some distraction -- visual games of peek-a-boo with both of us moving out of sight, as well as showing him some great pictures from the books I will bring when I next visit -- while the grown-ups prepared dinner. A few giggles later and some pretend tickling through the phone, Little Guy was ready to help set the table -- I'm not sure the treat was forgotten, but the Big Feelings were more under his control.
There are so many fascinating things about this less than 10-minute video chat with my Grandson which are made clear by the book!
Gopnik covers quite a bit of material in The Gardener and the Carpenter -- cognitive development, learning processes, children and technology, and the world of play -- but it solidly supports her premise that our relationship with our children is the key to their well-being in childhood.
Regardless of where you are in being a parent -- hoping to have a child, raising children or are part of the village raising a child -- Gopnik is an excellent resource and The Gardener and the Carpenter is well worth your time and attention.
Not even trying to get up
And I realized we - grandparents - have fallen down on the job and are not even trying to get up.
In my search for a resource on how to be an awesome grandmother, I realized there is a plethora -- no, a tidal wave of contradictory parenting information and resources online. Parenting how-to books, programs, as well as social media influencers are part of a billion dollar industry which encourages parents to believe there must be a right way to "parent" a child to insure said child will grow to be a specific kind of adult.
This is not true.
Thinking of parenting as a job with success or failure markers along the way is a fertile mind-set for growing a bountiful crop of anxiety and distress for the whole family. With so many different experts how do you know which one is right? And what happens if you commit to one expert's path, but are not very good at implementation? Can you pick and choose from different experts or will that mess up your child for life?
Experts are important, but being the Mom or Dad your child needs requires something different -- something more -- than being able to apply how-to information. Moms and Dads could use someone with lived experience to serve as a support, a sounding board, to figure out what that something different might be. And, historically, their own parents -- grandparents -- filled this need.
What's missing? And why?
In the past century we have moved rapidly from a rural, agrarian based society to one which is significantly more urban centered: more than 82% of our population lives in urban areas today compared to 50% in 1920. Along the way there have been seismic changes to the structure, as well as the concept, of family. In the early 20th century the average household size was 5.55 persons, but our average family today is 2.58 persons. A more mobile, urban society creates looser kinship networks because we are less likely to live in close proximity to our extended families.
I am not an elder-someone who thinks everything in the past was better than today -- look, I remember using my grandparents' outhouse as a child ... indoor plumbing is definitely better. But the one thing we miss out on by not living near extended families is the chance to grow up watching and experiencing siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins helping to raise younger children. This is not to say we should return to by-gone days; it's just to acknowledge this one difference in family dynamics feeds into the idea that expert guidance is necessary for success in your journey as a parent.
While I firmly believe every family needs grandparents, it's just not the case that every family has grandparents nearby. Fortunately, many younger families create their own found-family structures -- like-minded friends who step into some of the traditional extended family roles in their children's lives.
If you are building a found-family, you are most likely thinking carefully about who you want in your family's circle. For me, grandparents are those wonderful people who want you to be the best parent possible and will
Perhaps the final bullet-point is the most important one listed above -- grandparents are those people who love your children enough to encourage you to be the Mom or Dad your child needs. If you are reading closely, you will notice this statement is more about your relationship with your child than "parenting" your child. It's less about what you do, and more about who you are in your child's life.
While it might feel as if you don't know what you are doing or how to be a good parent, you've got this - really, truly. The basics of being a good parent involve your attention to and care of your child. That's it.
This has been a longer post -- thank you, if you've made it this far -- but I wanted to give context for why I've decided to review parenting books this year. It's a question of giving advice versus being a sounding board.
If I were going to give advice to my Daughters and Sons about raising children, I would encourage them
But I don't like giving advice and would much rather be a sounding board! As a sounding board I can listen, ask questions and offer my own experience as a way to help my Daughters and Sons find their own answers in raising their children.
It's the same for reading parenting books by experts. I can read, ask questions along the way and compare what I'm reading to my lived experience. And I can share my thoughts with you, not as advice, but as a sounding board to see if this particular book resonates with you and your experience as a parent.
Watch for the first parenting book review next Thursday,
The mission at