Q&A: A bubbe who has issues with parenting

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Name: Alison Gopnik
Age: 61
City: Berkeley
Position: Cognitive scientist, author, U.C. Berkeley psychology professor

In your new book, “The Gardener and the Carpenter,” you make the case against “parenting,” a term that entered common parlance in the ’70s. What’s wrong with parenting?

Alison Gopnik: I think the picture that has become more pervasive in the 30 years since I had my children is that culture sees being a parent as an expertise-driven activity. It’s something you can do with particular techniques: You can turn your child into a better adult. That picture doesn’t fit at all with the science.

Alison Gopnik

You write that in the long run it’s the parent-child relationship that counts, not which competing parenting theory the parent chooses. But with parents fed a steady stream of anxiety through the media, how can they relax?

It’s very hard to resist things that are pervasive in the culture. I think one of the things that goes with the general “parenting” picture is the idea that there’s one way to do it and everyone who’s doing it should be doing it the right way. There were a bunch of cultural things that happened in the 20th century that led to this change. People didn’t have the experience of caretaking that we had in the past, and I think the parenting industry is a reaction to that. On the other hand, people have a sense intuitively that there’s something that’s wrong with it. There’s the free-range kids movement, and it’s ironic that there’s a form of parenting for people to not have to be parented all the time.

You are a child development expert. With upsetting events hitting the news on a regular basis, many parents wonder how much they should shield their children. What do you suggest?

We’ve overemphasized how protected we think children should be. You probably know the latest theory about why we have this big increase in allergies is children aren’t being exposed to germs as much. There maybe is a psychological equivalent of that when you protect children so much from any kind of risk, they can’t deal with the kinds of risks [they face]. My tendency is to think children are more robust than we give them credit for. I think it’s always this balance of giving children the idea that they’re in this environment that they can explore, and at the same time, making them understand there are risks in the world.

After raising your own kids, you now are a grandmother. What’s it like to be a bubbe?

There’s a stereotype of the Jewish mother and the Jewish grandmother, but it’s not that dissimilar from the Italian grandmother and the Greek grandmother. Certainly this combination of tremendous warmth and tremendous value placed on children, that’s certainly part of my tradition. There’s this sense that grandparents are passing on information and traditions to the next generations. Maybe it’s because Jewish communities were isolated. You had to pass on your traditions through parents and grandparents.

My grandfather was a Russian Jewish immigrant, and he started a small delicatessen. My father became a university professor, a professor of English. I became a professor of psychology and my brothers and I are all writers. My son is starting an artisanal Jewish deli where he’s purveying Montreal smoke meat to Bay Area folks. There’s been this amazing Jewish deli revival among the hipsters. It’s funny to see this value of good deli food being passed from generation to generation, even through the distortions of being a university professor. Childhood is about exactly that distinct combination of generational transmission and generational change.

“Parenting” may be a new term, but “mothering” is an old one. What’s the difference?

Isn’t it interesting that mothering has a completely different connotation than parenting? If someone is mothering, you mean they’re warm and they’re nurturing; it doesn’t mean they’re doing a lot of tips, trick and techniques. No flashcards. If I say I’ve been mothering him, I’ve been sort of spoiling him and making chicken soup.

As a grandmother, do you ever have to hold yourself back from offering advice?

My daughter-in-law is a pediatrician. These poor children have a pediatrician and a developmental psychologist in their lives. There’s equal expertise and equal bewilderment on all sides.

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Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.