Beach Reads
The Baby as Scientist and the Parent as Gardener: Alison Gopnik’s Inspiring Views on Childhood

The Baby as Scientist and the Parent as Gardener: Alison Gopnik’s Inspiring Views on Childhood

There’s nothing better than kicking back with a light read in the warm months of the year. Summer is a great time to catch up on new books and reread old favorites. So this summer, Nursing Clio is bringing you a Beach Read series! Lighter than monographs, we’ve got a mix of fiction, pop culture, and nonfiction reviews planned. These books might not be everyone’s cup of tea in the summertime, but at least we’re not recommending Foucault or Derrida.

One of my favorite books to recommend to new parents is The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind. In it, cognitive psychologist Alison Gopnik argues that babies approach their world like scientists, hypothesizing about how the world works and testing their ideas to hone their understanding. She describes her and her colleagues’ clever experiments and the adorable ways babies and small children respond. Gopnik takes obvious delight in small children. Unlike so many other books for parents that are about how to make your child smarter-better-stronger, Gopnik’s basic message is, “babies are amazing! Look at all the cool stuff they can figure out!” It’s fun to read, and geeky parents are likely to find it makes parenting more enjoyable. It might be annoying that my toddler keeps throwing his food off the high chair tray, but at least I can appreciate that he’s exploring the properties of gravity.

So when Gopnik published her latest book last year, I was excited to check it out. It’s called The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children. The cover photo, of a mop-topped preschooler picking wildflowers in a meadow, gave away Gopnik’s argument before I even opened the book. A parent, Gopnik says, should think of herself as a gardener cultivating a wildflower garden, rather than a carpenter constructing a perfectly designed piece of furniture. It’s a different kind of work. She argues from a combination of evolutionary biology and cognitive science that a parent’s role is to create a safe and nurturing space for her child’s exploration, not to turn her child into a particular kind of adult.

I fundamentally agree with Gopnik, at least for my own approach to parenting. But I do wonder if I agree not so much because she and I are simply right about the scientific truth of it, but because I was raised in the school of thought she represents. My mother studied child development in college in the 1960s, and my father dutifully studied the reading she assigned him before I was born. It was a lovely way to grow up, and I am continuing the tradition. Whether based on the biology of human development and the long span of evolution, or the shorter span of recent history, it certainly represents one congenial approach to family life.

Alison Gopnik, PhD (Wikimedia Commons)

I see in the book, too, other elements of the hippie 1960s during which the field of child development blossomed. Gopnik encourages her reader to see that “Love’s purpose is not to shape our beloved’s destiny, but to help them shape their own. It isn’t to show them the way, but to help them find a path for themselves, even if the path they take isn’t the one we would choose ourselves, or even one we would choose for them.”1 I immediately thought of Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, a book of spiritual writing popularized in the 1960s. Gibran said “On Children,” “They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”2 I’m not sure this is a universal truth—parenting and families have taken many forms over time and place — though it certainly resonates with me.

I find The Gardener and the Carpenter most lively and persuasive when Gopnik is discussing the cognitive psychology experiments that reflect her own tremendous expertise. Her arguments from evolutionary biology are interesting, and necessary to her broader claim that we should understand the chaos and play of childhood as an extended developmental stage central to humans’ special talent for adaptation and resilience. Still, her descriptions of experiments with babies and small children are the highlight.

Gopnik writes as a grandmother-scientist in this book, “a bubbe at Berkeley, a grandmother who runs a cognitive science laboratory and writes philosophy papers in between telling stories of the olden days and making blueberry pancakes.”3 This dual claim to authority thrills me. For far too long, grandmothers have been taken to represent tradition, and in particular a superstition-laden counterpoint to modern science. Gopnik insists, rightly, that tradition and grandmotherly-ness are not inherently inconsistent with rationality and science. Rather, Gopnik’s dual sources of expertise give a nuanced texture and persuasiveness to her arguments. We need more grandmother-scientists.

I think I’ll still buy The Scientist in the Crib for my friends when they become new parents. It has just the right cheerful tone and funny stories that lighten the overwhelming first months of new parenthood. But The Gardener and the Carpenter is the right book for parents with slightly older kids, when they start wondering if they are becoming overbearing “helicopter parents,” and finding the job to be, as journalist Jennifer Senior has put it, “all joy and no fun.” It is an encouraging argument for why we will be giving our children what they need if we spend our energy providing them fertile soil for growth, and enjoy the unexpected beauty of their blossoms, whatever they turn out to be.


  1. Alison Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 10. Return to text.
  2. Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), 18. Return to text.
  3. Gopnik, The Gardener and the Carpenter, 8. Return to text.

Lara Freidenfelds is a historian of health, reproduction, and parenting in America. She is the author of The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy: a History of Miscarriage in America and The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. Sign up for her newsletter and find links to her op-eds and blog essays at