Going back to my long standing interest in child and family development, I have just finished reading The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the new science of child development tells us about the relationships between parents and children. The author Alison Gopnik, an American professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley, posits that the active term ‘parenting’ leads people towards the Carpenter model of raising a child…sawing, chiselling, honing a child into a wished for shape or mould. The Gardener model on the other hand tends and nurtures the soil in which the child grows into the person he or she wishes to be. ‘Tiger’ parenting would be an extreme example of the Carpenter model and eco friendly home-schoolers right at the far end of the Gardener spectrum. My own feeling is that you can use the term parenting to describe a middle-of-the-road version of the Gardener that both nurtures and guides, but I absolutely see where she is coming from. Modern life seems to promote a level of vigilance over our children that results in pushing ourselves and them towards standards of excellence that are unattainable for most people. As a psychotherapist friend said to me this morning, “We need to fail our children sometimes so that they have something to kick against and launch themselves in life”. If we do everything for them, then how do they define themselves and have incentives in the world.”
At the beginning of her Conclusion, Gopnik, who throughout the book refers to her own three children and grand-son, asks, “Why be a parent? What makes caring for children worthwhile? It certainly isn’t worthwhile because it is going to produce a particular kind of valuable adult. Instead, as Gopnik says, “…being a parent allows a new kind of human being to come into the world, both literally and figuratively. Each new child is entirely unprecedented and unique – the result of a new complicated combination of genes and experience, culture and luck.” She goes on to say, “Part of the pathos, but also the moral depth of being a parent is that a good parent creates an adult who can make his own choices, even disastrous choices. A secure, stable childhood allows children to explore, to try out new ways of living and being, to take risks. And risks aren’t risks unless they can come out badly. If there isn’t some chance that our children will fail as adults, then we haven’t succeeded as parents.”
I think the very wise words above are very hard for parents of the children conceived via assisted reproduction to hear. Their children are so wanted that the idea of letting go and allowing some risk into their lives can feel very threatening, and where donated gametes are involved there is an extra element. None of us can know how that mostly unknown donor factor affects our parenting or our relationships with our children. Children who are not told about their beginnings are at risk of both finding out unexpectedly and of sensing that they are not being told something important that has to do with them. This could be seen as one of the many risks of parenting, one of the decisions that parents make that children cannot be party to when they are young, but it is one that openness and honesty could avoid. As Gopnik reminds us above, each child is unique and we cannot know how they are going to feel. We are surely under some kind of moral imperative to reduce the very obvious risk of our children losing trust and feeling a sense of betrayal because they have been allowed to continue, sometimes into adulthood, to believe that they are genetically connected to both parents.
Parents sometimes hope for a mini-me…a child that will resemble them so closely that they are able to see all their own good points reflected back to them. Children born with this burden placed upon them sometimes comply, living the life, attending the school and university that is designed to mould them into the adult their parent(s) needs them to be, but most end up rebelling sooner or later or suffering physical or mental breakdowns that reveal their need to be themselves. People using donor assisted reproduction have a very good opportunity to let go of the mini-me fantasy and to accept that their child, like any other, will be their own person and are likely to bring elements that are unrecognisable to their raising family, because of their genetic connection to another family. Personally I find this constantly fascinating and a bonus factor in family life (most of the time!)
As my friend, who is also a parent by donor conception, and I reflected this morning, being a parent is hard and sometimes very painful. We do the best we can but we sometimes fail. It is OK to fail.
The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the new science of child development tells us about the relationship between parents and children by Alison Gopnik and published by Bodley Head.