Alison Gopnik's "manifesto against parenting" appeared yesterday in the Wall Street Journal. It is a mere snippet of a larger work, to be published as a book next month. Gopnik teaches psychology at Berkeley, so even if she gets parenting wrong-- as I believe she does-- she does give us a fully drawn picture of current academic thinking about parenting. It is, I daresay, not a very encouraging picture.
For all I know Gopnik's book has a dazzling chapter on Dr. Benjamin Spock, a brilliant expose on the theories of developmental psychologists like Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson, and a though refutation of the practices now associated with Amy Chua, the Tiger Mom.
Speaking of the Tiger Mom, her harsh discipline and insistence of perseverance is precisely the kind of advice that Gopnik rejects. Because Gopnik wants parents to be more like gardners. And the Tiger Mom wanted her children to become like tigers, not like fruits and vegetables. She insisted that her girls know right from wrong and always do the right thing. She held them to strict standards and did not much worry about the current vogue that defines human flourishing as the goal of just about everything.
Since flourishing means flowering, Gopnik is firmly within the tradition that sees children as plants that need to be cultivated. You might want your child to grow up to become a buttercup, a peach or a radish. But your gardening is not going to produce a child with the heart or the eye of the tiger.
Gopnik takes special exception to the notion of "parenting." Fair point. But she does not seem to notice that people have latched on to the term becaue they no longer wish to use such gender specific terms like Mother and Father.The term "parenting" seeks to eradicate and neutralize the difference between mothers and fathers... as though the two will become interchangeable as soon as we tweak the language and force everyone to use the new terms. For the rest of us, we know that mothering a child is not the same as fathering a child.
Gopnik believes, in a singularly unoriginal thought, that showering a child with love is more important than teaching, training or building character.
Think what you will, but when Tom Brady steps on to the football field, no one is going to be thinking that he is flourishing. The guy who is working eighteen-hour days at Google is surely not doing it becaue he wants to flourish or even to attain work/life balance. The Tiger Mom 's older daughter did not sign up for ROTC because she wanted to flourish.
If you want your child to succeed in school, in the playground or in the concert hall you do best not to think in terms of flourishing. You should think of him or her as a construction project, not fruit or vegetable, or even a flower.
But Gopnik does not see things this way. She does not even see marriage in these terms. In a very wrongheaded proposal she suggests that she does not judge the success of her marriage on the basis of her husband's good character. Of course, we would prefer to think that being married to Gopnik makes him a better person, so we are somewhat confused here.
Consider this. If character is at issue, one would expect that the average adult of marriageable age has a fully formed character. If you are deciding whether or not to marry someone, you ought to be able to judge the person's character. If your intended does not have good character, your chances of sustaining your marriage over time drop. If all you have is love, your great lover might just decide to shower his love on someone else-- why not share the bounty.
As for success, it is rarely noted that a man's career success or failure will often either help or destroy his marriage. If a man thinks that his wife has been intstrumental in helping him to get ahead at work, he will love her until the ends of time. If he feels that she has undermined him and has not permitted him to succeed, all the sentimental slop about work/life balance will not save the marriage.
Children need to be trained, to get along with people and to compete in the world. If they do not they are simply not going to be very happy. End of story.