A new way to define “parenting”

Did you make a resolution for this year?

A friend of mine made one — as in, a single one — and I liked that.

One anchor for the year. Not a bombardment of all the things we’d like to change about ourselves or wish we could do or hope to add to our lives: well-intended promises that will probably go by the wayside next month, if not sooner.

One resolution would be a touchstone, a theme to return to, a way of being in the world — both with others and with ourselves. It could be just one word.

Grace. Gratitude. Compassion. Kind. Joyful. Fierce.

Ways of being rather than doing. I’m reading Alison Gopnik’s latest book, The Gardener and The Carpenter. The Berkeley professor of psychology and philosopher argues that, as parents, we will do best to focus on ways of being rather than doing.

“‘Parent’ is not actually a verb, not a form of work,” she writes in the prelude to a chapter called “Against parenting.” “Instead, to be a parent — to care for a child — is to be part of a profound and unique human relationship, to engage in a particular kind of love.”

She reminds us that we don’t see our other love relationships as a verb: “To be a wife is not to engage in ‘wifing’ … and we don’t ‘child’ our mothers and fathers.” We also don’t assign ourselves the task of sculpting the other person: “I would not evaluate the success of my marriage by measuring whether my husband’s character had improved in the years since we wed.”

As you can guess from the title, Gopnik makes the case for viewing parents’ (and society’s) role as gardener — nurturing the soil, delighting in the surprises — rather than as carpenter, directing a specific end result. Why? It’s a better fit with reality, for one.

From an evolutionary perspective, the survival of the human species depends upon there being all kinds of people with all kinds of characteristics. Children’s brains are wired to be incredibly flexible and creative and open for that reason. Children take lots of time to experiment and fail and work things out, and because of that process, they are smarter than animals born knowing. It’s how humans have been able to adapt and will continue to be able to adapt to any unpredictable future environment.

Children are meant to be who they are.

I think this is the most important concept that we as parents can let sink in.

We are not in charge of an outcome. We are not meant to control another person. We are not doing a job with the title “behavior management consultant.”

What’s one of the most profound things you can say about the dearest people in your life? That they bring out the best in you — by seeing your strengths, being on your side, and truly accepting you as you are. That’s who we can be for our children, in service of helping them be who they are.

Coach. Mentor. Guide.

What would it mean if the verb for “parent” was not “controlling” but “coaching”?

Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

12 thoughts on “A new way to define “parenting”

  1. I really like the idea of a coach, guide or mentor. It takes some pressure off of having an “outcome”. I appreciate being able to ruminate on this idea today. Thanks Tracy!

  2. I like this idea but must admit I struggle to implement it on any given day. Maybe it’s my type A, ex military personality. I find myself frequently telling my child to do things, because asking doesn’t get anything done and frankly things need to get done! I can’t get to work by coaching her every day through getting dressed when she runs away, yells no etc when I ask her. It usually escalates to me saying I’ll take her with no clothes on before she cooperates. Have I just spent too long in a controlling mode, that she doesn’t respond to anything softer? Or is part of who she is, the questioner, the boundary pusher, she-who-shall-not-be-told? I would believe either at this point, but still fail to see how to get things done whilst only “coaching”. Maybe I just don’t know how to coach because I’ve never done it before?

    I literally just asked/told her not to scream when she gets frustrated (God it is so loud) and to say “oh dear” or “bah” instead (for the 50th time, but I guess that’s 3 year olds…). Is that behavior modification in the negative sense, or sensible training for how not to annoy the hell out of people around her when she gets frustrated in future? The fact that I really can’t tell if I’m doing right or wrong when I tell her how alter her responses shows why I am struggling with this whole coaching vs controlling.

    1. Things need to get done! Absolutely, Clare. We will always need to give guidance and set limits, including personal boundaries like noise. “You want to scream, and that scream is too loud for me.” The difference with coaching is that it’s about starting with the child’s need in that moment:

      How can I help my child meet this need?

      Then we might come to solutions like, “You can scream into that pillow or you can scream in your room with the door closed.” We feel more open to our children’s solutions. “You want to scream, and that scream is too loud is for me. Hmm. Must be something you can do.” And we look for strengths: “You scream and then you feel calmer. You know what your body needs to release your frustration.”

      Does that make sense?

      Coaching can also be about taking a step back to solve a recurring problem. What training would help your daughter be able to dress herself? It can be surprising to adults — just because of the way our minds work — the extent to which kids need smaller steps, words more clearly defined, what to do rather than what not to do, and an environment that sets them up for success. I went through this as well and, on that last point, realized that my daughter’s dresser was kind of disorganized (too full, with tops and bottoms in the same drawer, not entirely in-season). It helped to change that. And so on. You’re ex-military, so that might not be your daughter’s dresser 😉 but other ideas may come to you.

      In the moment, coaching might sound like enthusiastically acknowledging any step she makes in the direction of dressing herself. Even if you also need to say matter-of-factly, “We’re leaving in 3 minutes with whatever you have on.” Completely different solution: having your kids sleep in the clothes they’ll wear the next day. With a problem-solving orientation, anything is possible.

      The nuts and bolts of HOW to coach are important. I totally agree, you don’t hear the phrase “coach instead of control” and just know what to do with that. Or naturally know what the child’s need is and how to spot it. But once you do, it’s pretty awesome! I’ll be teaching all this in a course later this year. You can sign up here to be notified when it’s ready:


      Please know that just your level of awareness and your willingness to think about these things is setting you down such a positive path with your daughter. <3

      1. Thanks Tracy for your considered response. I’ll try a few of those things and see how we go.
        FWIW I’ve seen her dress herself many times (often demanding to do it all herself!) So I’m pretty sure that particular struggle is not wanting to leave/do it because I’m asking her to, rather than a pure need for improved skills.
        And yes her drawers are very neat 😉

        I’ve never tried naming strengths under behaviors I don’t like, so I’ll try that along with letting her know how it affects me, and trying to have her help with thinking of solutions or alternatives

  3. Dear Tracy, thank you for the well written Blog and choice of words, which put out there a very different picture of the ‘role of the adult’. I say Role, as I am not a parent, but I do journey with the 3- 12 year old child on their spiritual journey to God.MY training is through the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, based on Montessori principles and the belief that we are born ‘in communion with a loving God whose desire is to deepen that relationship with us from birth to death and beyond. I see myself, in that role, a a spiritual director, not a religious educator.
    Thanks for also mentioning the book you are reading, I appreciate any good reads.
    Mariann Dunsmore

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