Parenting: a crossroads many of us find ourselves at eventually, somewhere between asserting control and giving our children the space they need to flourish. “Good parenting” –who’s to say what that even is?
From developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik’s The Carpenter and The Gardener: “The word ‘parenting,’ now so ubiquitous, first emerged in America in 1958 and became common only in the 1970s (p 21). . … But, in fact, parenting is a terrible invention. It hasn’t improved the lives of children and parents, and in some ways it’s arguably made them worse. For middle-class parents, trying to shape their children into worthy adults becomes the source of endless anxiety and guilt coupled with frustration. And for their children, parenting leads to an oppressive cloud of hovering expectations (p 24). … The rise of parenting has accompanied the decline of the street, the public playground, the neighborhood, even recess (p 36).”
Parenting and so much of teaching have done little more than perpetuate the moulding of learners into standardised shapes, evaluating them solely based on how they measure up to predetermined benchmarks. It’s a system that lures parents into the trap of moulding their children into perfect replicas of an idealised student.
If a child veers from this conformity, parents are summoned to school authorities who subtly imply that it is their duty to realign their child with the system’s standards. Like a grapevine trying to run riot through a meticulously pruned orchard—such a natural desire for exploration is deemed unacceptable. Parenting can only often follow suit to abide by the rules of creating this ideal.
The message is clear: your child’s future employability hinges primarily on their ability to achieve good grades, participate in an array of extracurricular activities, and/or secure a spot in a prestigious college.
But here’s the twist: what if we said that the key here is not to parent?
At least in the ways we’re used to, anyway.
Though we value learning for more than its ability to create idealised students, a growing body of research tells us something we already know at Imagine If: that educating, and its extension parenting, is about more than just maintaining a firm grip on the reins; it’s about recognizing the incredible potential of our children and respecting their agency and capability. This is something we are passionate about here in our learning space, but also something we acknowledge to be easier said than done. But it can be done–we’ve done it.
Gopnik sheds light on a profound aspect of child development that challenges traditional notions of parenting, and one that fills a core quality of learning at Imagine If that defines self-directed education: her research reveals that children aren’t just passive vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge; rather, they are active explorers of their social and physical environments. Like little scientists, they are constantly seeking to make sense of the world around them through their own experiences and interactions.
One key insight that emerges from Gopnik’s book and our own long-standing observations at Imagine If is that children thrive not when we push them towards a predetermined path but when we allow them to actively engage with their surroundings. Children learn best when they are given the freedom to explore, to ask questions, and to draw logical inferences from their observations. This process isn’t about us instructing them per se, but about creating an environment where their innate curiosity can flourish… thereby recognising their role in being active participants of learning, instead of just passive, and even hollow, receptacles. These experiences are made more profound by the experiencer that is the child; the lens of each child marks their capacity to make sense of the information around them, creating an arbiter, an author, or an observer in its own right that defines the knowledge received.
This key aspect of child agency reveals a fundamental truth beyond our learners: that children aren’t just empty slates waiting to be filled with knowledge. They already come equipped with knowledge and theories about the world, even from a very young age. Bringing this existing knowledge to bear as they explore, learn, and develop more advanced understanding, our children are capable thinkers who are constantly building on their preexisting knowledge through hands-on experiences as they do every day at Imagine If.
Interestingly, and on the other side of that, Gopnik’s research reveals a counterintuitive truth: deliberate teaching can sometimes hinder a child’s learning. When we try to force-feed information to our children, we inadvertently stifle their natural curiosity. In such cases, they may become more focused on following instructions than on exploring and discovering for themselves. The result? They may learn less than they would have through their own exploration.
So, what does this mean for parents?
It means that our role isn’t solely to be teachers but also facilitators of learning.
Providing children with the necessary tools, a rich social environment, and the time and space they need to explore and learn independently empowers them to become active participants in their own growth and development. It isn’t nurture vs. nature, but both working in tandem through an intuitive look at each child’s respective circumstances the way we proudly do as Imagine If educators; in other words, finding the key to unlock that drive to drink up the knowledge calling and placing it into their grasp.
It can be an intimidating thought, the idea of stepping back.
Respecting a child’s agency doesn’t mean abandoning all guidance and structure. Instead, and upon being called upon to do so, we find a balance between providing support and giving them the autonomy to make their choices, express their thoughts, and learn from their experiences. One crucial thing about this is the inevitability of mistakes. Allowing them to not always get it right with our watchful hovering is worth its weight in all the books in the world. Aside from engaging in meaningful conversations, listening to their questions, and valuing their perspectives, it softens our approach to flaws, and better yet, encourages them to get used to course-correcting out of their own capability with the critical thinking to get there.
Respecting a child’s agency and capability has created an environment where they feel empowered and valued to exercise their unique voice. We see our kids develop a sense of self-efficacy, confidence, and a love for learning to take them far into the future. The knowledge or academic material may be needed at this stage of their education, depending on what curriculum you want to implement, but it’s the skills that underlie the application and absorption of this knowledge that will carry them forward in a significant way, transcending assignments and the ability to complete whatever worksheet is in front of them at that moment in time.
Sometimes the best way to support our children is to let them take the lead–relinquishing the dated mentality behind parenting and education as we know it.
“So our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. …. We can’t make children learn, but we can let them learn (p 20).”
It’s a profound reframing of our role as authority figures in a child’s learning journey; side by side instead of ahead. The potential has always been there, waiting to be uncovered. It’s in this that true recognition of their capabilities unveils itself once we put in a little faith. It’s a mission we put into practice every day here, and encourage our parents to do the same outside of our walls.
Parenting is a complex and evolving journey that looks different for everyone, and respecting a child’s agency and capability is an essential aspect of it regardless of how different. We can stand to be reminded that our children aren’t empty vessels but active learners eager to explore the world around them with insight and quirks of their own to get them there. Our job as Imagine If educators and co-facilitators of learning? To coax them out of their shells and transform the way we see learning.
But most of all, it’s a declaration that our children aren’t just cogs in a societal machine but vibrant, creative, and independent beings who learn because it fills their cup. Who learn because they already–in the truest, most inalienable and inherent way, no matter how it looks like–can.
Gopnik, A. G. (2016). The Gardener and The Carpenter.