Modern Parenting: The Downside of a One-sided Balance Sheet

When my first daughter was born, I wanted to do everything right. I bought a book about positive parenting and read it cover to cover. I didn’t want to say the negative word “no” so I would say “not for Emily” when she reached for an electrical outlet or anything related. If I could have bubble wrapped her without worrying about suffocation, I would have figured out how to do that too. But I quickly came to my senses and realized that I was trying to do something in contradiction to the fundamental laws of human nature. Life is like a giant ledger with pluses and minuses, positives and negatives. Both sides must have entries that balance each other out. Struggles and pain on one side result in resilience and strength on the other. By focusing on only one side of the balance sheet, we deny our children the ability to grow into a healthy adulthood with a solid sense of self.

This idea of molding children is a new one that emerged from our modern world of parenting, according to Alison Gopnik, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and author of Carpenters and Gardeners: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children. “The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you’re going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult,” she says of the carpenter style of parenting now dominating our culture. “From the point of view of evolution,” she writes, “trying to consciously shape how your children will turn out is both futile and self-defeating.

In her book, Gopnik advocates for children to learn and explore on their own as they are innately wired to do. She likens this approach to that of a gardener. She cites a research example of 4-year olds playing with a toy that could do multiple things (squeak, light up, etc.) and discovering all the things the toy could do when left on their own. But when the experimenter showed them the toy and how it squeaked, they only followed what the adult demonstrated.

Gopnik champions the idea that children need “gardens” in which to flourish and that parents need to learn to be gardeners rather than carpenters. The gardens need to have fertile soil and a variety of plants, but gardeners understand that many things are outside of their control and that there will be year-to-year changes in the climate and conditions.

I would argue that our school systems are similarly aligned with the carpenter model. We are molding students in the image of an outdated economic framework rather than allowing them to innovate and adapt for a changing future. In our current system, the balance between imitation and innovation is skewed to one side, imitation. Gopnik argues:

The things that come out of play and free exploration, which are things like capacity for creativity and innovation, those are things that we need more than ever in the adult workforce. It’s a bit ironic that we’re taking a school system that was designed for 19th-century factory workers to be able to do the same thing over and over again—it was to try to develop human robots. In the 21st century, what we need is innovation and creativity, but we’re extending the robot model to younger and younger ages and more and more children.

A study by NASA further illustrates the ramifications of focusing on imitation. After reviewing how fast the rest of the world copied our products and produced them at lower costs, NASA researchers determined that creativity, and thus innovation, was the way for us to remain relevant and competitive in the global marketplace. They decided to study where creativity comes from and what happens to children’s brains over time in our education system. Shockingly, creativity dramatically declines as students progress through the different grade levels and are taught to view things in a specific way. In the study, creativity went from 98% of 5-year-olds to 30% of 10-year-olds to 12% of 15-year-olds. By adulthood, it was only found in 2%.

By allowing them to learn on their own, we are inviting mistakes, struggles, and pain. In her brilliant TED talk, The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage, Susan David says, “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”

Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure. Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don’t get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort.

When people are allowed to feel their emotional truth, engagement, creativity, and innovation flourish in the organization. Diversity isn’t just people, it’s also what’s inside people. Including the diversity of emotion. The most agile, resilient individuals, teams, organizations, families, communities are built on an openness to the normal human emotions.

Teaching our children to view the world only from our lens has put their generation at a disadvantage, personally and globally. We must help them learn emotional and cognitive agility on the way to developing into their own person. We must create the environments that allow them to flourish and explore rather than programming them into a specific mold. If we are to truly help this next generation grow into a healthy, productive adulthood, we must acknowledge and allow entries on both sides of the ledger.

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