Alison Gopnik on the science of relationships between parents and children

Siren Films recently met up with Alison Gopnik at the Early Education Conference. Alison is Professor of Psychology at The University of California, Berkley. She has delivered Ted Talks, Robb Lectures and also writes a column for the Wall Street Journal.


Your latest book is called “The Gardener and the Carpenter’, can you tell us a bit more about the thoughts behind this and what it means in relation to children and parents?

I started writing this book because I wanted to write a book first about the science of the relationships between parents and children. And then my own children had children, I became a grandmother for the first time – about the same time that I was writing the book – and what struck me was how much being a parent had changed even between the thirty years from when I had my children, and now. A way of kind of summarising that difference is that a picture of what parents and children should be like had become increasingly influential – and this picture thought about sort of like being a carpenter so you can have a picture in your head of the sort of child that you want to create so if you just do the right things and buy the right apps and read the right books you’ll be able to create a child that has the right kind of features in the way that a carpenter who’s competent and ends up creating a chair. And that picture is sort of encapsulated in that very word ‘parenting’ which interestingly only started to show up in England in the 1970’s. People had always talked about being a parent or having children but this idea that there is this activity of ‘parenting’ – something you could do to make your children come out better – that ‘s a very recent idea. And that picture’s really very different from what I think of as the gardener picture. If you’re a gardener, at least if you’re a gardener like me, nothing ever comes out in the way that you expect it to – in both the most glorious things in the garden and the most frustrating things in the garden are the unexpected things that come out of the blue. But there’s actually a deeper reason for that and the deeper reason for that is that when you create a garden what you want to do is create an ecosystem, create a protected nurturing space which bare.s lots of scope for variation, possibilities, lots of different kinds of things can go on. And that kind of unpredictable, messy variable kind of system – think of like being a hedgerow or a cottage garden rather than an orchid hothouse. That’s more like what the science tells us children were designed to be. Every generation of children gives us a chance to do things that are new and taking care of children is about providing a protected rich space in which all this unpredictable variety can develop rather making children who come out a particular way.

Can you suggest a few easy steps that could help parents be a bit more like gardeners?

Well I think part of the reason why this carpenter picture developed at the end of the 20th century was that really for the first time people were having children who hadn’t actually raised children very much themselves when they were growing up. For most of human history by the time you had children yourself you’d had lots of younger siblings and cousins and younger brothers and sisters and you’d had lots of experience of care and of watching other people take care of children. So I think one very simple thing is to get experience by just watching good caregivers and seeing how they interact with the children around them. But in genera, what in America we would call chilling out is a good idea. So in general you can pretty much bet that you’re more worried than you need to be about what your children will be like and how your children will turn out and I think a very good first step is to shift the focus away from thinking how will this affect him 20 years from now when he grows up and how what I do now will have consequences later on, and instead think what can I do right now that would let me as this particular parent with my particular characteristics and this particular child, what would let us thrive in this moment at this point , rather than trying to think about it as if it were this long term process that’s going to have particular kinds of outcomes.

How do children learn differently form adults?

Well one of the things that we’re finding more and more is that if you look at children’s brains, children seem to be designed to learn in this very exploratory creative sort of way. They’re designed to consider lots of different alternatives. So if you look at a baby’s brain for example what you see is initially in the first five years are making many more new synapses – new neural connections – than they will later on. And what happens is as you get older, although you continue to make new connections, you make fewer new connections and you prune the ones that are there. So what happens is, as you get older, as the result of experience some of the connections get stronger and more efficient and work better, and then the connections that you don’t use kind of disappear. And that’s actually a good thing , it makes your brain efficient and effective and it makes it able to do all the things that adult brains can do – like get out of the house in morning and go to preschool! – it has a disadvantage and it also has a downside. The trade of is that the efficiency, swiftness and focus and ability to inhibit all the things that are important to us as adults, shut down some of the possibilities of learning and exploration and finding out new things that we see in very young children. So there seems to be this kind of trade off between the early brain that’s really designed to learn – from an evolutionary perspective children are really there for learning, that’s what children are all about. That’s the thing they do best and the thing they’re really designed to do. And then a later brain that can take all the things that we leaned when we were children and put them to use to do all the things that we need to do as adults – to act effectively, to make things happen, being out in the world, to do the things that we need to do. So the way I put it sometimes is that it’s as if babies and young children are the research and development division of the human species and we’re production and marketing. So they’re exploring every new possibility that they can think of and we take those possibilities that we explored when we were young and we put them to use to solve the kind of adult problems that we need to solve.

Why do children play?

Well of course one of the most interesting things is that we just take for granted the fact that children play. And if you look at essentially every animal with a brain , one of the things about those animals is that early on in life they play. But it’s still kind of mysterious about why they would do that,. After all the whole definition of play is that play is that play is something that’s different from work. It’s something that you do for it’s own sake, it’s something that you do that doesn’t have an obvious outcome. And I think for many years that people who’ve worked closely with children, the childhood educators, parents and so forth, have had this intuition that children learn through play – that they’re finding out about the world through play. But it’s only been relatively recently that we’ve discovered that we could show scientifically that that’s true because of course it’s very hard to take something that’s as spontaneous and natural and unconstrained as play and actually study it in the lab. But people have been starting to do this and what they’ve discovered is sort of amazing , in fact I was just writing my Wall Street Journal column this week about a new study that just came out where they showed that with 2 year olds , what they did was they showed 2 year olds a machine that worked on a particular abstract principle so either it worked because you put a particular colour on it or a particular type of shape on and in just 5 minutes of leaving the 2 year old alone the toddlers had worked out what the abstract principle was that made the machines go. And they did it just by sitting and playing with the machine. And there’s more and more evidence to suggest that that’s right. And again learning in that kind of playful way lets you explore a range of possibilities that you don’t necessarily explore when you’re just on a pedagogical situation. One of the other things that we’ve discovered is that 4 year olds are very sensitive to whether or not they’re being taught and they think that if someone’s being a teacher they narrow the range of solutions they consider to the ones that that teacher is offering. Whereas if they’re just playing they’ll think about a much wider variety of different kinds of options, different things that they could do, different things to explore.

Why is pretend play so important?

One of the real particular mysteries is that for human children in particular from the time they’re about 18 months old, one of the things they do is they engage in this kind of unstoppable wide ranging pretend play. No one’s been able to quite figure out – what’s that doing – it’s so important to children. But we had some ideas and we did an experiment in my lab where we looked at how well children could do something called counterfactual thinking. So counterfactual thinking is when you say’ what would have happened if I had missed my train, or if only I hadn’t lost my ticket then I would have been here an hour ago’ That kind of counterfactual thinking , thinking about things that could have happened but didn’t is a really important part of our adult ability to think. So if you think about a scientist for instance. Scientists are always saying ‘what would the world be like if it was a bit different. Einstein’s saying what would it be like – let’s imagine what would happen if the speed of light was fixed. And what we discovered was that children who pretended more were also the children who were making these kind of counterfactual inferences, were better at thinking about what could have happened but didn’t. Another link that people have found between pretend play and understanding – of course that when children are pretending, very often they are pretending about other people, they’re pretending to be superman, they’re pretending that they’re having a tea-party or in one of my favourite sort of pretend – imaginary companions, children will just make up imaginary friends who shows up in their house.

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