A psychologist in the US, Alison Gopnik, has recently released a book that looks to fortify perceptions about “good” and “bad” parenting by effectively creating two parenting styles, one good and one bad, that we all will apparently align with.
The basic premise appears to be this: you fall into the category of either the carpenter (structure, planning, rigid boundaries) or the gardener (no structure, flexible, adapts boundaries depending on circumstance). The carpenter is bad, the gardener is good.
Does this create a dynamic where you only have two possible parenting styles to choose from – the uptight jerk with a pole up their arse or the free-flowing hippy who never wears a bra?
Metaphors dominate the parenting style space. We see the Tiger Mums pushing their children to excel in the relentless pursuit of success. We see the Pushy Stage Mothers living out their dreams as their tiny tots dance on stage covered in glitter and desperation for approval. We see the Wombat Mother who collects soft things for her nests and viciously head-butts anyone who comes too close (I made that last one up but I also identify with that pretty closely).
My point, and yes your Honour I do actually one, is that we seem to be obsessing with labelling the biological imperative of parenting instead of focusing on actually doing it. Self-assigning yourself with the label of “Gardener” because you are a bit lenient with bed times and lunch is a free-for-all party in the pantry doesn’t match up with the theory in the first place nor does it mean you’re better than anyone else. Telling mothers, and fathers, that they can only be one or the other closes us off from both new experiences and ideas and also from what we’re trying to accomplish in the first place – a connection with our kids.
I’m going to use my son as an example. He’s a kid who is very independent and social. Some would say he is excessively social – he never shuts up and he’s best buds with everyone. He likes a lot of variety and responds best to unstructured play where he can create his own narratives and bring his own ideas to the table. So, I must be a gardener, right?
My son also responds to firm and reliable boundaries. He has a set bed time and has always had set nap times as well, often down to the minute. He is a sucker for a routine. He is asked the same series of questions before entering any venue and must respond with “I understand” after an explanation about expectations before we go anywhere. His manners in terms of Please, thank you, you’re welcome, good morning and afternoon and have a good day are now second nature and do not require reminders. That’s all sounding very carpenter to you now, yeah?
If we listen to parenting ‘experts’ who categorise the very complex task of raising humans into a few very basic, stagnant classifications then we limit what our children can do, and ultimately who they will become. If I was all boundaries all the time with my son he would never be able to spend time by himself creating imaginary worlds, taking risks or experimenting with cause and effect. If I never provided him with any structure he would not experience the reliability and consistency that he needs in order to take those chances in the first place.
As a family we found a model that works for us. I threw away all the baby books very early on when I realised that in my anxious quest to find answers, to be told exactly what to do and when to do it, I had neglected to factor in the idea that my son is his own person and he does not come with a manual. I had to let go of my need for control, order and timelines and relax into a rhythm that adapted to our individual circumstances. I think it says something about our society that we’re so focused on finding a guide or a cheat-sheet for every aspect of life that we stop actually living it.
Let’s stop with the classifications and rebel against a culture that wants us to conform to A, B, C or D like we’re an old Cosmo quiz. It’s interesting how people who come up with these parenting styles always seem to have something they want to sell us.
All you need to focus on is being the best parent you have the strength to be in each moment – let the gardening and the carpentry be taken care of by someone else. Surely there’s a Jim’s Mowing near you. Stay inside, soften your burrow and give any intruders a big head-butt from me.