Permission to Relax and Play (and Garden)

In her recent book child psychologist Alison Gopnik suggests that parents should aim to be gardeners (gently tending) rather than carpenters (building or shaping). She argues that our current parenting climate over-emphasizes the individual efforts of parents (and educators) and undervalues the collective relationships and institutional structures that ultimately, holistically influence our children. Gopnik decries over-teaching and the under-valuing of play:  

Less of this...

Less of this...

In our current culture, with parenting and the way schools are structured, often kids are exclusively in the pedagogical mode, where they are being told about rather than simply exploring their world. And that’s ironic, because exactly what we need for our future economy is innovation and creativity, which comes from play.
More of this.

More of this.

So, if we are over-teaching and over-building, what should we be doing instead? What does gardening look like? She offers three basic goals for parents:

  • provide unconditional warmth and love
  • convey your values
  • ensure a safe, stable environment

Now, this checklist makes it sound easy, right? Just love 'em, have some opinions on what is important to you, and make sure they wear their seat belts. I love this sentiment and encouragement; relax more and trust that the details work themselves out. 

And yet I think often the tricky parts are the gray areas and intermixing of these goals. For example, maybe you generally believe it's important to say please and thank you. So, in real life, how often do you insist on this happening? At what age is it realistic to expect this as a regular practice? When do you let it slide? These are the moment-to-moment calls we just have to make as parents. Often we call it choosing your battles (intervene or not? Let slide or not?). We are afraid that if we don't 'battle', we won't be instilling our values consistently; and yet we are also afraid that if we 'battle' too often, we might not convey unconditional warmth or we might not EVER get out the door. 

This is where improv, playfulness and creativity can bridge some of the moment-to-moment uncertainty that arises within the larger intentions of love, instilling values and keeping safe. When I am able to put myself into a playful or creative mood while 'battling' with my children, I find that I better trust myself, feel authentic in expressing my values, and am able to keep perspective on the long game. 

For example, improv has helped me to look at child-to-child interactions differently. If I think of an interaction as an improvised scene, I can see the children as two actors who ultimately want to agree (say yes to each other) and work it out, even if they are struggling to. It's easy, as the adult, to want to take charge and fix and lecture right away. Where in the past I might immediately intervene when a toy is being fought over, sometimes I choose to let it play out (with the intention of intervening if safety or values are being tromped on). Sometimes the situation resolves itself (they take turns, or one loses interest), and sometimes it doesn't. But also this: perhaps another adult steps in, or the important value/lesson is instilled at preschool because they talk about it a lot there, or grandma plays a sharing game with my child. To Gopnik's point, it doesn't all fall on me. I don't have to - and shouldn't - attend to every interaction and mine every teaching moment. I am better able to tap into this mindset when I'm in my relaxed, creative state, informed by improv. It's okay to show up and play and be a gardener delighting over her flowers. In Gopnik's words:

It points to a more reassuring and liberating picture for parents—where they can relax some and simply provide the supports needed for their children to grow as they will.

Keren Gudeman

Minneapolis, Minnesota