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The Carpenter and the Gardener

Ben Rous, HRA's Director of College Counseling
Carpentry is about control:  the carpenter uses a blueprint, faithfully follows it using the prescribed tools, and produces exactly what she intended.  Gardening is about reaction and resilience:  a gardener controls precious little during the time it takes for a seedlings to grow into a finished product.  Based on temperature fluctuations, moisture levels, hungry animals, and other factors, the gardener must embrace flexibility.
This dichotomy serves as a jumping-off point for Alison Gopnik, a psychology and philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley. In her book The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children, she advances many provocative concepts.

Applying Gopnik’s premise to the college search and application process, then “parenting” according to the carpenter’s blueprint can shape the child into a particular kind of college applicant (that is to say, a more—or less—competitive one).

And this is all-too-often the current state of affairs in the increasingly competitive landscape of college admissions. Parents follow a blueprint: they encourage their children to take the most demanding curriculum a high school offers; they encourage music lessons and tutoring and elite-level sports and club involvement and high-priced test-prep and higher-priced independent college counselors—and they do all this in the hope that their children will gain admission into the “right” colleges, a college that will ensure future “success.”

Professor Gopnik suggests that this type of “carpenter” parenting invites a burden of stress on both parent and child and is perhaps fundamentally missing the evolutionary point of childhood. She points out that human childhood and adolescence is much more protracted than any other organism’s, and that this protraction is by design, as it is intended as a prolonged opportunity for a child to master new and different environments. Gopnik argues that such an environment naturally resists scripting, and that a “gardener” approach to parenting is healthier in that it promotes in children a spirit of autonomous exploration without fear of failing because there are no “stakes” in play. In a gardening model, Gopnik suggests, children embrace failure and intellectual risk-taking because a “C” on a report card isn’t the end of the world. The gardner knows that you can’t promote risk-taking in a child if there aren’t really any risks being taken.

Weighing Gopnik’s arguments, I find myself of two minds; I want to be a gardener type of parent because I believe it’s the model that is built to last; I’ve seen so many “carpentered” children flame out in college because they were never given the autonomy as children that they needed to take risks, fail, and explore the world. If a child who is “gardenered” is the one well-adjusted, better equipped to deal with the vagaries of life, then surely this is the best gift a parent can give a child?

But we live in a society that rewards the carpenter model. True masters of a thing—the cello, figure skating, particle physics—didn’t start on these paths late in life; rather, their mastery is the result of many, many years of dedicated work and practice, a journey initiated by a carpenter parent. All of our culture’s markers for success—money, power, influence, etc.—are more commonly the result of focused hard work and determination than they are the product of thoughtful, meandering reflection and an embracing of failure.

The very structure of the binary argument appears to invite a dispiriting question: do you want a well-adjusted child, or a successful one? To again apply Gopnik’s thesis to the college admission model, the students who are the most successful in the application process at ultra-selective institutions are indeed the ones who have checked all the boxes, taken all the AP and IB courses, played the cello at an elite level, gotten very high test scores, etc. etc. The student who was given the independence to fail (and did so) repeatedly in high school won’t be getting in to Stanford.

Do these respective fates in the admission process prefigure success or failure in life? Maybe, maybe not. And maybe not in the way we’d think. What if the Ivy League graduate burns out and suffers in the realms of her life outside of her high-powered job? What if the woman who graduates from a less selective university because she was gardened as a child emerges as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company precisely because she was gardened as a child?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!