Gardeners and carpenters: the ‘skill’ of parenting



Wanting your child to have the best chance in life is natural for any parent. But by focusing too much on the ‘skill’ of parenting, are we losing sight of things that matter more – how we talk to and play with children? Cambridge researchers are examining how parents can best help their children in their early years through nurturing rather than shaping.

Healthy child development is a fascinating and complicated picture. By getting a clearer picture of how it works, we have the best chance of helping to improve children’s lives around the world

Paul Ramchandani

Professors Claire Hughes and Paul Ramchandani have spent their adult lives studying children. Both are fascinated by the complicated jigsaw of early child development. “Such a lot happens in pregnancy and the first few years of life: the child’s brain and physical development, the acquisition of new skills and knowledge, it’s utterly transforming,” says Ramchandani, Cambridge’s first LEGO Professor of Play.

But while we know much about what goes on, we understand far less about how the outside world shapes this transformation – knowledge we need as parents, practitioners and policymakers to provide environments that help children thrive.

It’s clear, for instance, that our mothers, fathers and families affect our lives and the people we become, but has understanding the importance of parent–child relationships led to modern-day parenting approaches that stifle rather than help a child to flourish?

“Think carpenters and gardeners,” says Hughes, referring to a book by American psychologist Alison Gopnik published in 2016. “Gopnik’s theory is that parents who behave like carpenters mould their child by a deliberate, organised and focused influence on their development; those who behave like gardeners create a safe, nurtured and free environment that helps their child to shape themself.”

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Image credit: Sushobhan Badhai

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge

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