Alison Gopnik’s Advice to Parents, Stop Parenting!

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But why doesn’t she say to school authorities, stop schooling?

Alison Gopnik is a renowned developmental psychologist whose research has revealed much about the amazing learning and reasoning capacities of young children, and she may be the leading interpreter of such research to the general public.  She is one of the best science writers I know of.  In her most recent book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, released just a few days ago, she describes the results of many clever experiments that help us understand how young children learn by watching others, listening to others, and manipulating objects in systematic ways in their play. 

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Source: Farrer, Straus & Giroux

A persistent theme emerging from such research, as Gopnik explains, is that children learn not by passively absorbing information, but by actively engaging their social and physical environments and drawing logical inferences based on what they see, hear, and in other ways experience.  Gopnik contends that children learn a great deal from other people, including from their parents, not because the others are deliberately teaching them but because those others are doing and talking about interesting things, which children are innately motivated to try to understand and incorporate into their own growing world views.

Indeed, Gopnik describes research showing that deliberate teaching can, at least sometimes, reduce the amount that children learn about an object, because the teaching tends to inhibit them from exploring the object themselves and thereby prevents them from learning any more about it than what the teacher had pointed out.  The research reveals, to a far greater extent than most people would expect, that young children are quite sophisticated little scientists who bring their already acquired knowledge and theories to bear, in logical ways, as they explore the world around them to acquire new, more advanced understandings.  We adults can help them best not by teaching, but by making sure that they have adequate social and physical environments and time and space in which to explore. The more that young children are integrated into the real world of other children and adults, the more they will learn about that world and discover their places in it.

Of course, if we take this approach and let children learn in their own natural ways, we are giving up the illusion that we can control what they learn and can shape them into being the particular kinds of persons that we might want them to be.  We are, instead, trusting children to shape themselves.  And this leads to the main point of the book.

Gopnik is not only a researcher and author, but is also the mother of three grown sons and proud grandmother to a little boy named Augie.  Her book is founded on research about how children learn, but her message is directed to parents.  In a nutshell, her message to parents is this: Stop parenting.  Does that sound paradoxical?

Parent, according to Gopnik, is a wonderful noun, referring to a partner in a particular kind of relationship; but it’s a terrible verb when used, as it so often is, to refer to what is perceived as a particular kind of work.  Here are some of Gopnik’s words about this awful verb.

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