Alison Gopnik Responds to Brilliant Blog Readers

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Earlier today I posted an essay by Alison Gopnik, developmental psychologist, Berkeley professor, and author of The Philosophical Baby, about how we should think about parenting. The piece, which I thought was insightful and thought-provoking, evoked a strong negative reaction from some readers. Surprised, I reached out to Alison to ask if she’d like to respond. Here’s what she said:

“I’m so sorry that some readers seem to think that somehow I was dismissing the important of parents. Actually, the point was just the opposite—I believe that from an evolutionary as well as a scientific, philosophical and personal perspective there is nothing more important for human beings than caring for children. Providing that safe nurturing rich environment for our exceptionally needy human children is one of the hardest, and yet most intense and satisfying things we ever do (I say with some personal feeling, having been up at 5 AM today with my wonderful grandson).

But I’d like to make a distinction between being a parent (or grandparent or ‘alloparent’) and caring for children and ‘parenting’—the idea that there is some set of strategies that someone else knows that will turn your child into a better adult. For many middle-class parents ‘parenting’ has become a major source of unnecessary anxiety and guilt, instead of support and help.

And that is particularly ironic because such large numbers of children in the U.S. are growing up without that safe nurturing context and care, not only in poverty but, worse, in isolation and instability, a situation we know we can remedy.

Of course, its practically impossible not to worry about your own children (I certainly can testify that you do it at least until they’re 35, and my mom tells me that it goes on a lot longer than that).

But I do wish some of the enormous energy that goes into worrying about ‘parenting’ could go instead into working for paid parental leave, high-quality public child-care, flexible work schedules and all the other policies that could help all our children thrive.”

Readers, do you have responses to her response?

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2 Responses to “Alison Gopnik Responds to Brilliant Blog Readers”

  1. Kelly says:

    I am a developmental psychologist and a parent. I like the distinction that Dr. Gopnik is making between parents and parenting, but I wonder if this distinction is somewhat confusing for a lay audience who is constantly bombarded with messages from people with MDs and PhDs after their names on the importance of certain parenting strategies (e.g., “attachment” parenting).

    For example, the actress who plays Amy Farrah Fowler on the television show Big Bang Theory has a PhD in Neuroscience from UCLA and has written a book on Attachment Parenting from a neuroscience perspective. The first three lines of the Introduction, written by a pediatrician, read “We can do better. I’ve seen far too many articles and books about so-called good enough parenting. Why settle for ‘good enough’ ?”. In this one book alone we have pediatricians and neuroscientists telling parents that they can (and should) do better.

    As another example, a Psychology professor from Notre Dame writes a blog for Psychology Today in which she discusses the “scientific evidence” in support of various attachment parenting practices. In a recent post she claimed that formula causes babies to sleep too deeply, leading to SIDS. When I pointed out, in a comment, that the article she cited did not support her claim, she accused me of “crazy scientism” and said we do not need science to tell us what we already know (i am over-simplfying our exchange for the sake of space here). How in the world is a typical parent supposed to see through this sort of sloppy and, I suspect, purposefully misleading “science”?

    It would be easy to argue that the very concerns that motivate parents to buy these books and read these articles in the first place are misguided, but I think that raises a chicken and egg question.

    Not too long ago, I sat in a meeting with other faculty from the developmental psychology program at my university. We were discussing paid parental leave and flexible work schedules for faculty in our department who have children. One of the male faculty members, an eminent scientist in his field, argued that the problem with parental leave is that it creates more work for the faculty who remain. This same faculty member had never had to teach a single class because his research was supported by Career Awards from the NSF and NIH for his entire career. Another very well-known developmental scientist in my department, also male, once said in a department meeting that “women who have children are not serious about their careers.” If developmental psychologists are not united in their support for paid parental leave and flexible work schedules, how do we convince the rest of the country?

    So, whereas I think Dr. Gopnik’s distinction between parents and “parenting” is spot on, I think it misses the mark somewhat to lay the blame at the feet of parents alone (e.g., “middle-class parents are worrying too much about things that are unimportant”). After all, if parents can’t trust pediatricians, neuroscientists, and psychologists, who can they trust?

  2. As a mother and a psychologist who writes about childre’s health and parenting, I’d love to see a study on how much time parents spend over-thinking or in some ways worrying about parenting and their kids in an unproductive, potentially disruptive or negative manner. We always hear about how often people think about sex but I suspect parenting is right up there too. I agree with Kelly, there are many factors promoting this seemingly excessive parenting. Let’s not forget the media’s role in delivering parents an unprecedented amount of advice, experts and studies often without much context, nuance or accuracy.

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