The Gardener and The Carpenter, by Alison Gopnik (Book Review Pedcast by Doc Smo and Sonya Corina Williams)

I’m always looking for interesting books that I think parents will find thought-provoking. In today’s pedcast, I am going to introduce you to a book that will do just that. So kick back and enjoy our take on The Carpenter and The Gardener, by Allison Gopnik

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Gardener and the Carpenter

Musical Intro

Overview of Gardener/Carpenter

It’s not every day that you find a developmental psychologist and a philosopher with a strong interest in evolution, writing a parenting book giving advice to today’s parents. I must say that her unique background and scientific perspective makes this a very interesting read and probably explains why she has gleaned so much attention from the media.  As her title reveals, Dr. Gopnik divides the craft of raising children into two broad categories – the precise and measured process a carpenter uses to build something of wood versus the skill of growing a garden, with all the environmental variables and obstacles one encounters there. Professor Gopnik sees the techniques used by a carpenter as inflexible and prescribed whereas the gardener being the opposite – flexible and changeable. Dr. Gopnik sees modern parenting (and education for that matter) as following the carpenter model rather than the gardener approach, even though she contends that there is a wealth of scientific evidence that the adults a family ultimately produce, has little to do with the carpenter decisions that today’s parents think are essential to effective child-rearing.

Interesting things I Learned from Dr. Gopnik

If you choose to read The Gardener and the Carpenter, expect to encounter many new concepts, many of which are rooted in experimental biology. For instance, Dr. Gopnik thinks that much of the uniqueness of humans stems from our long childhoods.  All the time human children spend under the protection of elders allows them to learn a lot, develop large brains compared to other species, and gives their parents a longer time to teach and invest in their children. Add to this the fact that humans have traditionally shared child rearing duties and have a tendency toward “Pair bonding” with tribal living arrangements. All of this Dr. Gopnik argues has given human children evolutionary advantage with respect to brain development. In fact, she points out that long childhoods explain the known fact that human children are experiencing what is known as the Flynn Effect ( an inter-generational increase in I.Q. over time). Yes, evidence is strong that, on average, children have a higher IQ than their parents!

Our Opinion About the Essence of Gardener/Carpenter

Dr. Gopnik’s book provoked a strong reaction in us likely due to the fact that I am one of those people who have written two of the thousands of parent advice books of which she disparagingly speaks and  I am both a woodworker and gardener in my spare time.  First, our thoughts with regards to the advice books.  Writers of parenting books all have their own perspectives on the subject of raising healthy children. To lump them all into the same category and trivialize their value is convenient but simple minded. As part of my blog, I have read and reviewed many parenting books and I find value in each that I have encountered – each bringing fresh insights from the authors unique experiences.

Now, for the carpenter versus gardener analogy.  I think the differences between the two activities are a useful way of thinking about the role of a parent. The resume building carpenter parent is often disappointed with their results and the gardener parent is often surprised to discover passions and talents in their children that the carpenter parent might overlook or not discover. However, I feel that Dr. Gopnik missed the most important aspect of raising happy children, that being a strong trusting, relationship between parent and child. Studies of adult happiness studies have consistently found this to be true. I summarized and discuss this evidence in my most recent book, Great Kids Don’t Just Happen (Torchflame Books). In my book, I distilled what I have observed to be the critical things parents need to provide their children for them to grow up happy and successful: effective use of praise, effective boundaries and limits, a healthy emotional environment, a strong parental commitment, and family stability. Note, all of these factors are controlled by parents!

Critique and Review

Add The Gardener and the Carpenter  to the long list of parenting books out there. Yes, as a developmental psychologist with a strong interest in child cognition and evolutionary biology, Dr. Gopnik brings a unique perspective to the subject of parenting- her hook so to speak.  We think her use of the gardener/carpenter analogy will be useful for parents as they make parenting decisions. We also agree that her emphasis on unstructured play, the development of social skills, the value of parents passing on traditions, and the value of non-academic learning is wonderful. The book is well written and very interesting. Where else will one learn that a young child’s brain uses 66% of a child’s entire energy output or that crows share both long childhoods and high I.Q.s with human children?

However, we don’t think this book is for most parents as it is quite dense in places and some of the cognitive research is difficult to follow. Dr. Gopnik often drifts into philosophical arguments about the value of children and what parental love is. We found these discussions extraneous to her major points and distractions from the valuable parts of the book. Our major criticism, however, is with Dr. Gopnik’s contention that “it is difficult to find any reliable empirical relation between the small variations in what parents do-the variations that focus on parenting-and the results of their adult children”. Call us old fashioned but we think this is just incorrect!  To discover why we think this way, read my book, Great Kids Don’t Just Happen. For all these reasons, we are giving The Gardener and the Carpenter only 3.5/5 Doc Smo stars.


Well, thank you for joining me today and trusting me to bring you information useful in your parenting journey. If you find value in this podcast, consider taking a moment to like and share Portable Practical Pediatrics where you get your podcasts. Those clicks are important to any podcaster as they increase the podcast’s exposure. This is Dr. Paul Smolen, you know-Doc Smo, helping you power through the parenting weeds, with some interesting reads. Until next time.