Can parents be gardeners of children’s creativity?

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In the 1964 classic How Children Fail, John Holt concluded that traditional methods of school-based teaching did/do more harm than good to children’s natural ability and desire to learn. His book was a game-changer in alternate ideas on child-rearing.

In her review of Alison Gopnik’s 2016 book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, science journalist Josie Glausiusz remarks that the multi-billion dollar industry of ‘right parenting’ is not exactly on the “right” track. Gopnik, a developmental psychologist and philosopher, argues that using expertise to sculpt your child into a “successful” adult is akin to a carpenter making a product – like a chair with perfect symmetry and function. But there is little scientific evidence to show that expert child-rearing techniques (such as sleep-training) have any predictable positive effects on how children turn out in the long run. Alternately, she suggests the gardening metaphor: parents have to “dig and wallow” in a messy environment, to nurture creativity and innovation in their children because children are born to be messy and unpredictable, playful and imaginative. Parents, as gardeners, can create a secure and loving environment (the “manure”) for children to innovate and survive in an unpredictable world.

Gopik’s “no-parenting” approach reminds us of the ecological farming technique popularized by Masanobu Fukuoka in his 1975 book The One-Straw Revolution. His book suggested that farmers “do-nothing”, that is, do away with external inputs such as machines, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. His ideas challenged the predominant industrial mode of doing agriculture, but his methods have proved to be successful till this day; alternative means of food production such as permaculture and organic farming fast becoming a reality across the globe.

In a similar revolutionary fashion, Gopik suggests that parents “do-nothing”: her research and other social experiments show that children learn more on their own than in the way of deliberate teaching. She encourages parents to let their children learn through apparently “goal-less” activities like playing with toys and discovering how to play. Sugata Mitra’s remarkable Hole-in-the-Wall project demonstrated how children can acquire basic computing skills “through incidental learning… and minimal human guidance”.

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As one can expect, Gopik is critical of the test-based, modern education system. She is also alarmed (and rightfully so) about the increasing diagnoses of young children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) which is often treated with drugs with serious side effects. One cannot but agree with Gopik’s conclusion that: “The most important rewards of being a parent aren’t your children’s grades and trophies — or even their graduations and weddings. They come from the moment-by-moment physical and psychological joy of being with this particular child, and in that child’s moment-by-moment joy in being with you.”


Do you agree that parents need to be gardeners and not carpenters? Do you believe that Alison Gopik’s research on developmental psychology can have practical implications for parents today?



One thought on “Can parents be gardeners of children’s creativity?

  1. While a great deal of discussion is there in this post about parents, children, references to books and authors/psychologists, there is no reference to grandparents/grandchildren relationship and how this can assist in the development of children. Todays educated grandparents can be seen as helpers rather than family disciplinarians. Close grandparent/grandchildren relationship does “no harm” even if may do “no good” in some cases.


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