The Gardener, Carpenter, and the Suzuki parent

Is being a Suzuki parent more like being a gardener or a carpenter?

I’ve been reading Alison Gopnik’s recent book “The Gardener and the Carpenter” and wondering how it all fits with our role as Suzuki parents.

Gardening and carpentry

Dr. Gopnik is professor of psychology at U.C. Berkley and studies child development. “The Gardener and the Carpenter” looks at the role parents play in their children’s lives using two contrasting metaphors. The “carpenter parent” views child development from the parent’s perspective - planning, arranging and “parenting.” Like a carpenter who plans, measures, and fits everything precisely, this parent takes a utilitarian view of his or her role. She fills her children’s schedules with multiple activities and ensures achievement by carefully orchestrating the “work” of child-rearing. The author contrasts this role with that of the “gardener parent” who sets up a loving supportive environment in which kids have independence to explore the world and learn experientially. Like a master gardener who is concerned about the tilth of the soil, the right amount of shade and light but then allows the plants to do what they do, this type of parent views their role less as work and more as modeling, supporting, and caring. She keeps no secrets about her preference that parents adopt the gardener model and presents considerable evidence from studies in her lab and others that show children do better.

Explaining vs exploring

In one study, children were randomized to two groups. The goal was for children to learn how to use a new device they had never seen before. Unbeknownst to the children in the study, the device was capable of doing several things - playing sounds, flashing lights, etc. In one group, an adult tole the children a how to activate one of the features of the device. In another group, the adult gave a demonstration of some of the features and invited them to play with the device. Children in the latter group found all of the features to a greater extent than those in the former group. This study, and those like it, show that children learn and develop best when adults interact with them in less explanatory and more playful, exploratory ways.

It’s a intriguing contrast in styles of interacting with children. Naturally, I wondered whether being a Suzuki parent is more like being a gardener or a carpenter. Or are we straddling a line between the two? After all, while planning ahead for recitals, making practice charts, and dutifully arranging calendars, we’re much more like carpenters than gardeners. But Suzuki himself was very concerned with love and caring as a necessary precondition of talent development. He was clearly a master gardener!

So how to reconcile all of this?

It comes down to attitudes, our orientation toward what it means to help kids learn music. Since children develop best when our approach to them is less like that of the carpenter than of the gardener, here are some ways that we can be better parents:

  1. Focus less on the outcome than the process. Paradoxically I’ve found that when I don’t have a schedule in my head about how my child should be progressing on a piece or through the books, she learns better. Building things is a study in planning and outcomes. Tending a garden is an exercise in allowing something to develop in the right environment.
  2. Think of learning more as exploration than explanation. By finding ways to treat learning as an adventure into the unknown we can allow children’s natural curiosity to take over.
  3. Look for larger goals and balance. Just as Suzuki was clear about his bigger existential goals for children, we can do the same. His goal was to help children develop musicianship and humanity.
  4. Think about the “why?” questions. Why learn music at all? By taking a mental step out of the daily planning mode, it’s possible to contemplate the bigger questions about how children are developing as people not just what piece they’re playing.
  5. Allow children freedom to explore by fostering their independence and choice in practice as their abilities develop and allow some time to explore alternative musical styles if they’re interested. There’s a world of music outside the Suzuki repertoire!

I must admit that I’m a “carpenter” (in a figurative, not actual, sense!) Planning and focusing on results comes naturally. So it’s a struggle for me to interact differently when I’m working with my daughter. But I’m working on it!