Carpenter vs. Gardener

In a couple of weeks Pam and I are going to get to lead a parenting seminar for one of the companies that I chaplain. This company does a lot of training for their employees on how to improve their professional skills set and they have also begun to offer many seminars for their employees concerning aspects of life. For example, a year ago I did a seminar on relationships and marriage for any employees who were interested. We had around 40 that were. From the relationships and marriage seminar came a request for a parenting seminar and I told them that Pam might be willing to come in (I’m paying her with lunch) to help lead such a seminar. As a PhD Professor in Communicative Science & Disorders Pam is an invaluable resource on parenting. They agreed and we will be leading the seminar in a couple of weeks. I will just be there because I fit Will Roger’s definition of an expert “A man fifty miles from home with a briefcase.” Also I know a little bite about adolescents being as I was a Youth Minister for 20 years and I studied a good bit for that. But mainly I come from 50 miles away and I have a briefcase (actually it is a possible).

We haven’t map everything out yet but we are using a metaphor that Pam and I both love for parenting concerning carpentry and gardening. It comes from this Alison Gopnik’s book “The Gardener and the Carpenter” which we first learned about from this episode of Hidden Brain (a podcast I encourage you to listen to).

A brief description is that many people want to parent like being a carpenter, you have a set of plans and the end result is the product of whether or not you follow those plans accurately or whether or not the plans were accurate. In this model if your kid is “broken” (and I use that term merely for this example) then it probably means that you weren’t following the right plans or you didn’t have the correct skills to implement the correct plans. For a carpenter the end result is controllable if you have the right skills and plans. When a carpenter builds a house she chooses the materials to build the house and imposes her will on the material to achieve her desired results.

The gardener is different though, there aren’t set plans, though there are best practices. In gardening there are tons of uncontrollable factors. You can do everything right and everything still goes to pot. You can also do everything wrong and still, somehow, achieve tremendous results. Some times there is too much rain and other times not enough. Sometimes the soil is perfect and other times it has too much of one component in it. Sometimes the soil you have simply won’t grow what you were hoping for, but the gardener works with the soil he has to produce the best it can produce. Gardening means working with what you have and improvising with the environment, your circumstances, and your skills to put your garden in the best situation for the growth that fits that soil. In the end though the gardener never makes anything grow, he just encourages the growth. Gardening is like improvisational jazz.

Pam and I think parenting is more like this. You are helping kids to grow into who they are and can be, rather than imposing a set plan on them. It is a metaphor that I think works for and can give direction to lots of different situations and areas of life, not just parenting. I am looking forward to exploring this with Pam and the workers at one of the companies where I chaplain. Primarily I will be showing off my wife who is amazingly talented and one of the best gardeners I know in people’s lives. If you don’t know her you should. She’s pretty awesome.