Erika Christakis is an early childhood educator and the author of ‘The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups.” 

What’s the difference between being a parent and the state we have only recently come to call parenting? This is the central question in Alison Gopnik’s bracing and thoughtful book “The Gardener and the Carpenter.”

To be a parent, Gopnik argues in her trenchant analysis, is to be in a loving and nurturing relationship with a young child, not unlike a gardener who tends the soil in which a variety of seedlings are given the ingredients to thrive.

"The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children" by Alison Gopnik (FSG )

To parent, on the other hand, is to labor toward a specific outcome — getting into college, for example — just like a carpenter building a piece of furniture. “The goal is to somehow turn your child into a better or happier or more successful adult,” she writes, and though we may not want to say it out loud, “better than the children next door.”

Gopnik, a renowned psychologist and the author of “The Philosophical Baby,” takes issue with the trend toward “prescriptive parenting,” calling it “fundamentally misguided.” It not only misunderstands “how parents and children actually think and act,” it has “actually made life worse for children and parents, not better.”

The fundamental problem, of course, is that children are not kitchen chairs; they have evolved to be more varied, more unpredictable and more flexible than any creatures on the planet, each child different from the next. You’d think the striking plasticity and diversity of the young human brain would be a joyful boon to us hidebound adults (who are considerably less creative as problem-solvers than the toddlers in Gopnik’s laboratory).

But today’s parents and schools are increasingly agitated by the unpredictability and messiness of young minds. Gopnik notes, sensibly, that we wouldn’t judge the quality of a friendship based on our ability to influence our peer’s choice of partner or profession. Nor do we speak of “wifeing” or “husbanding” to describe the experience of being married.

But the age-old struggle between what historian Steven Mintz calls the protected vs. the prepared childhood has come down squarely on the “prepared” side of the scale: Parents are increasingly frantic about their children’s futures, and the consequences of even fairly trivial childrearing choices such as co-sleeping or organic baby food seem to loom larger than ever.

The anxiety has led to a deep well of dissatisfaction for parents and children alike. Gopnik joins a chorus of concerned observers who have noted higher rates of depression and “loss of self” in the current generation of parents compared with baby boomer parents.

The misery flares up not only in ironic blogs and parodies (“Go the F--- to Sleep”) but also in more serious ways, including the pushdown of developmentally inappropriate readiness skills in preschools and kindergartens, and the rise of high-stakes testing protocols and a college admissions process run as an extreme sport.

Current trends in American parenting and schooling are hard to square with the reality of childhood because, as Gopnik explains in deeply researched detail, our species has evolved a set of learning tools that children deploy during their unusually long period of maturation — tools that include adorableness, an extraordinary capacity for creativity and experimentation, and the ability to learn better from loving, face-to-face interaction than from inanimate machines.

Parents are not a child’s only caregivers, needless to say, and Gopnik makes an interesting case for the advantages of “alloparents” (grandmothers and their ilk) who supplement parental efforts to provide a protected space in which children can develop their capacities, traits and temperaments without the risk of being crushed by a mastodon (or run over by a car). A “stable and reliable” caregiver who can provide a healthy habitat for learning is “more valuable than being a caregiver who explicitly teaches.”

This is both good and bad news for more than two-thirds of American 4-year-olds currently in some form of non-family care during the day. On the one hand, it shouldn’t be so hard to create the optimal conditions for young kids to thrive: Children are endlessly adaptable, and Gopnik describes humans’ unique ability to shape their social organizations to fit their needs — a lasting legacy of our evolutionary history, which prized constant innovation in challenging environments. Unfortunately, early childhood classrooms are increasingly grim places at odds with the vast evidence about how young children learn and grow.

Schools, Gopnik notes, seem designed to “teach kids how to go to school.” This is not a new claim, of course, and the idea that schooling and learning are different phenomena is one that I and others (including, apparently, Mark Twain) have advanced. But Gopnik is especially qualified to support such a claim, given her dual credibility as a scientist and self-proclaimed Jewish bubbe (or “grandmom”), which gives her writing wisdom along with humor, self-effacement and compassion.

For enlightened educators in need of backup, Gopnik expertly throws cold water on one of the most pernicious myths of the “parenting” and “schooling” camps — namely that learning and playing don’t go hand in hand. Not only is play an educational activity, the alternative — many “academic” early childhood classrooms — is profoundly anti-intellectual, even at times harmful spaces where children are trained in a kind of shallow “naming and labeling” curriculum with little chance to engage in deep thinking or meaningful conversation. Educators looking to resist the current vogue for highly scripted, teacher-driven lesson modules will be delighted by Gopnik’s strong scientific case for letting children guide their own learning, like flowers in bloom.

Gopnik’s book is not, however, a defense of the free-for-all or the slapdash, and those familiar with the early childhood educator’s catchphrase, “the environment is the curriculum,” will understand just how difficult it can be to cultivate the conditions in which children can leverage their exceptional capacity for growth.

This is a true paradox of childhood: Children are hard-wired to learn anywhere and yet so often struggle to do so in the places adults typically associate with learning. The difficulty of cultivating a healthy childhood habitat — whose watering and sowing require knowledge and resources — may explain why children in poverty are so much more likely to be in preschool classrooms deemed poor-quality. Goal-directed schooling, with its tests and checklists, turns children’s marvelous variations into problems to be diagnosed and controlled.

Gopnik shines when she describes the intricate world of children’s play. Her admiration for children’s learning powers is infectious, and her careful deconstruction of how children use different types of play (fantasy, roughhousing, exploration and so on) should provide ample support for teachers sick of having to defend recess to bean-counting bureaucrats, or parents tired of explaining why they don’t care about test results in kindergarten.

She also has a subtle grasp of policy problems bedeviling young children and their families, chief among them the curious “in-between” position children occupy in our society: “We feel uncomfortable assuming they are simply part of their parents’ interests and equally uncomfortable assuming that they aren’t.”

That said, I wish Gopnik had given even more space to the kinds of cultural, bureaucratic, legal and demographic forces that make it so difficult for even well-meaning teachers and parents — many of whom are desperately fed up with the 21st-century parenting model — to be gardeners and not carpenters. It’s hard to give up structured activities if there are no other children in the neighborhood allowed outdoors to play. It’s hard to value discovery-based learning if you can afford only the child-care program with the canned skills.

But Gopnik’s main aim here is not to craft policy but to shift mind-sets, and, as first responders, schools in particular have a lot of damage to repair. Gopnik cites one study that took advantage of a natural experiment involving the implementation of high-stakes testing at different times across different states; the authors found that these new testing protocols resulted in increases in children’s individual-level ADHD diagnoses. This is discouraging stuff — carpenters hammering away.

But Gopnik never veers from her faith in the warm human bond between caregiver and child that drives not only “the pathos, but also the moral depth” of being a parent. This lovely book, and the life’s work that animates it, will only deepen that bond, helping our children to flourish.

the gardener and the carpenter
What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children

By Alison Gopnik

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 302 pp. $26