A Manifesto Against "Parenting"

Caring for children shouldn’t be like carpentry, with a finished product in mind. We should grow our children, like gardeners

By Alison Gopnik in the Wall Street Journal

A strange thing happened to mothers and fathers and children at the end of the 20th century. It was called “parenting.” As long as there have been human beings, mothers and fathers and many others have taken special care of children. But the word “parenting” didn’t appear in the U.S. until 1958, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and became common only in the 1970s.

People sometimes use “parenting” just to describe what parents actually do, but more often, especially now, “parenting” means something that parents should do. “To parent” is a goal-directed verb; it describes a job, a kind of work. The goal is to somehow turn your child into a better or happier or more successful adult—better than they would be otherwise, or (though we whisper this) better than the children next door. The right kind of “parenting” will produce the right kind of child, who in turn will become the right kind of adult.

The idea that parents can learn special techniques that will make their children turn out better is ubiquitous in middle-class America—so ubiquitous that it might seem obvious. But this prescriptive picture is fundamentally misguided. It’s the wrong way to understand how parents and children actually think and act, and it’s equally wrong as a vision of how they should think and act.

Taking care of children has always been a central, and difficult, human project. Our children depend on us for much longer than the children of any other animals. By the time they are 7, young chimpanzees gather as much food as they consume. Even in hunter-gatherer groups, human children don’t do that until they’re at least 15.

So you need lots of people to take care of human children, not just mothers but fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles and aunts and siblings and cousins and even friends. Biologists have shown that humans evolved a unique network of care. Unlike our nearest primate relatives, extended family and “alloparents” (unrelated helpers) all combine to take care of those needy kids.

For most of human history, we lived in these extended family groups. This meant that we learned how to take care of children by practicing with our own little sisters and baby cousins and by watching many other people take care of children.

But toward the end of the 20th century, families got much smaller and more scattered, people had children later, and middle-class parents spent more time working and going to school. The traditional sources of wisdom and competence weren’t available any more.


Today, most middle-class parents spend years taking classes and pursuing careers before they have children. It’s not surprising, then, that going to school and working are modern parents’ models for taking care of children: You go to school and work with a goal in mind, and you can be taught to do better at school and work.

Working to achieve a particular outcome is a good model for many crucial human enterprises. It’s the right model for carpenters or writers or businessmen. You can judge whether you are a good carpenter or writer or CEO by the quality of your chairs, your books or your bottom line. In the “parenting” picture, a parent is a kind of carpenter; the goal, however, is not to produce a particular kind of product, like a chair, but a particular kind of person.

In work, expertise leads to success. The promise of “parenting” is that there is some set of techniques, some particular expertise, that parents could acquire that would help them accomplish the goal of shaping their children’s lives. And a sizable industry has emerged that promises to provide exactly that expertise. Some 60,000 books are in the parenting section on Amazon, and many of them have “how to” somewhere in the title.

The scientific study of development provides very little support for this picture. It’s true that childhood experiences can influence adult life: Children who are poor or neglected are more likely to have problems as adults, and enrolling those children in high-quality preschools makes their lives better later on.

But middle-class parents obsess about small variations in parenting techniques. Should you co-sleep with your babies or let them cry it out? Should strollers face front or back? How much homework should children have? How much time should they spend on the computer? There is almost no evidence that any of this has much predictable effect on what children will be like when they grow up.

Does this mean that parents don’t matter? To the contrary: From a scientific perspective, being a parent, as opposed to “parenting,” is crucially important, but it’s important in a very different way.

Why do we have such a long immaturity, such an extended childhood, with all the cost that entails? Our long human childhood (and the major investment in caring for children that goes with it) is one of the keys to human evolutionary success.

More than any other animal, we human beings depend on our ability to learn. And the current thinking is that our large brain and powerful learning abilities evolved, most of all, to deal with change.

The immediate trigger for human evolution seems to have been a period of unpredictable climate variability in the Pleistocene era. It wasn’t just that the weather got warmer or colder, but that it moved from one extreme to the other in an unpredictable way. Humans are causing climate change now, but in the evolutionary past, climate change caused humans.

On top of that, human beings were nomadic, moving from environment to environment, and, thanks to culture, each new generation could create and modify its own environment. All this meant that humans had to adapt to an exceptionally wide range of exceptionally variable environments.

One way that the human species may have evolved to deal with this variability was by nurturing a wide range of children with very different temperaments and abilities. This helped to ensure that someone or other in a new generation would have the skills to cope with the unpredictable and unforeseeable environments that they might face.

Human learning contributes even more to the variability of our children. Our parental investment and commitment allow each generation a chance to think up new ideas about how the world works and how to make it work better. Childhood provides a period of variability and possibility, exploration and innovation, learning and imagination.

Many animals have minds that are exquisitely adapted to just one particular environment. Our minds can change in unpredictable ways to match unpredictable environments. But this strategy has a drawback: You can’t simultaneously learn about a new environment and act on it effectively. You don’t want to be stuck figuring out how to deal with a mammoth while it’s charging at you.

The evolutionary solution to that trade-off is to give each new human being protectors—people who make sure that children have a chance to thrive, learn and imagine before they have to fend for themselves. Those protectors also pass on the knowledge that previous generations have accumulated.

If “parenting” is the wrong model, then, what’s the right one? Let’s recall that “parent” is not actually a verb, nor is it a form of work. What we need to talk about instead is “being a parent”—that is, caring for a child. To be a parent is to be part of a profound and unique human relationship, to engage in a particular kind of love, not to make a certain sort of thing.

After all, to be a wife is not to engage in “wifing,” to be a friend is not to “friend,” even on Facebook, and we don’t “child” our mothers and fathers. Yet these relationships are central to who we are. Any human being living a fully satisfied life is immersed in such social connections.

Talking about love, especially the love of parents for their children, may sound sentimental and mushy and simple and obvious. But like all human relationships, our love for our children is at once a part of the everyday texture of our lives and enormously complicated, variable and even paradoxical.

We can work to love better without thinking of love as a kind of work. We might say that we try hard to be a good wife or husband, or that it’s important to us to be a good friend or a better child.

Love doesn’t have goals or benchmarks or blueprints, but it does have a purpose. But I wouldn’t evaluate the success of my marriage by measuring whether my husband’s character had improved in the years since we wed. I wouldn’t evaluate the quality of an old friendship by whether my friend was happier or more successful than when we first met. This, however, is the implicit standard of “parenting”—that your qualities as a parent can be, and even should be, judged by the child you create.

The most important rewards of being a parent aren’t your children’s grades and trophies—or even their graduations and weddings. They come from the moment-by-moment physical and psychological joy of being with this particular child, and in that child’s moment-by-moment joy in being with you.

Instead of valuing “parenting,” we should value “being a parent.” Instead of thinking about caring for children as a kind of work, aimed at producing smart or happy or successful adults, we should think of it as a kind of love. Love doesn’t have goals or benchmarks or blueprints, but it does have a purpose. Love’s purpose is not to shape our beloved’s destiny but to help them shape their own.

What should parents do? The scientific picture fits what we all know already, although knowing doesn’t make it any easier: We unconditionally commit to love and care for this particular child. We do this even though all children are different, all parents are different, and we have no idea beforehand what our child will be like. We try to give our children a strong sense of safety and stability. We do this even though the whole point of that safe base is to encourage children to take risks and have adventures. And we try to pass on our knowledge, wisdom and values to our children, even though we know that they will revise that knowledge, challenge that wisdom and reshape those values.

In fact, the very point of commitment, nurture and culture is to allow variation, risk and innovation. Even if we could precisely shape our children into particular adults, that would defeat the whole evolutionary purpose of childhood.

We follow our intuitions, muddle through and hope for the best.

Perhaps the best metaphor for understanding our distinctive relationship to children is an old one. Caring for children is like tending a garden, and being a parent is like being a gardener. When we garden, we work and sweat and we’re often up to our ears in manure. We do it to create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish.

As all gardeners know, nothing works out the way we planned. The greatest pleasures and triumphs, as well as disasters, are unexpected. There is a deeper reason behind this.

A good garden, like any good ecosystem, is dynamic, variable and resilient. Consider what it takes to create a meadow or a hedgerow or a cottage garden. The glory of a meadow is its messiness: The different grasses and flowers may flourish or perish as circumstances alter, and there is no guarantee that any individual plant will become the tallest, or fairest or most long-blooming. The good gardener works to create fertile soil that can sustain a whole ecosystem of different plants with different strengths and beauties—and with different weaknesses and difficulties, too.

Unlike a good chair, a good garden is constantly changing, as it adapts to the changing circumstances of the weather and the seasons. And in the long run, that kind of varied, flexible, complex, dynamic system will be more robust and adaptable than the most carefully tended hothouse bloom.

As individual parents and as a community, our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it is to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to make a particular kind of child but to provide a protected space of love, safety and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish.

It’s not easy to be a parent, especially in the U.S. right now. It takes time and energy and money to provide the support and nurture that children need. We evolved in small-scale societies, where an extended group of caregivers could spontaneously provide resources for the children they loved. In a big, postindustrial world, we treat most human activities as if they were either a kind of production or a kind of consumption—so that raising children is seen as either very badly paid work or a very expensive kind of luxury.

But the “parenting” industry isn’t the answer. Instead, we have to find a way to help parents be parents, and to provide the love and care that all children deserve.

Should Parents Post Photos of Their Children on Social Media?


Those in favor say it’s a great way to help build a community. Others say sharing violates children’s privacy and may have long-term consequences.
A parent on average will post almost 1,000 photos of a child online before the child turns 5, a recent survey found.
A parent on average will post almost 1,000 photos of a child online before the child turns 5, a recent survey found.

It’s a question any social-media user faces after snapping a great photo: Should I post this? Or it going to come back to haunt me?
The questions get doubly complex when they involve people’s children. A parent on average will post almost 1,000 photos of a child online before the child turns 5, according to a recent survey. Many parents don’t ask children’s permission before posting, and many have never checked their privacy settings—even though photos often contain data about where they were taken.

That leads many privacy advocates to urge restraint on parents. The risks of putting your child in danger now, or embarrassing them later, are too big to ignore, these critics say. The best course is to keep their photos off the Internet.

But some parents strongly argue for posting photographs of children. It’s a way to strengthen an online social circle, they say, and connect with people you didn’t know before. What’s more, children are going to end up on social media eventually, they say, and parents can set a good example for them by being careful about what photos they post and asking permission when children are old enough to consent.

Lauren Apfel, a writer and mother of four (including twins) and founder and executive editor of Motherwell magazine, makes the case for sharing photos. Arguing the case against sharing is Morgan G. Ames, a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society and a fellow at the Center for Technology, Society and Policy at the University of California, BerkeleyYES: In an Isolated Age, It’s a Great Way to Help Build a Community

By Lauren Apfel

Sharing photos of your children online can be a rewarding experience and a way to connect with other parents. But you must be prepared to be responsible about what you post.

The big reason to share is to build community. Raising children is a more isolated endeavor than ever before. I live, for example, thousands of miles from my family. In this atmosphere of modern parenthood, we all struggle to make it through the day, and the Internet has become an incredible source of support. In the early years of mothering twins, one of the things that brought me the most happiness was posting pictures of them on Facebook. Sharing those photos and engaging with an online community was a lifeline.
Many people fear those pictures will spread further than intended. To me, that’s part of the joy of it. My work as a writer has helped me create a community on social media, and the images I post of my children allow me to engage with a range of “friends” I wouldn’t necessarily include on a tailored list. I delight in seeing their photos, too. You don’t know whom a picture will touch, what connection will be made. Unexpected people have seen my pictures and commented on how much they enjoyed them or could relate to them.

I know there is much concern about the potential dangers in sharing pictures of children: catfishing, identity theft or projected scenarios where our bundles of joy are judged by future employers because of a virtual fingerprint they did not create. But none of this bothers me. My children are my children because of the choices I make about them. They were born to parents who believe that the benefits of sharing photos of them online outweigh the risks—this is their lot, and it has been a constant, familiar part of their upbringing, one with which they seem innately comfortable.

I don’t actively avoid unintended negative consequences, because I don’t fear them per se and certainly not enough to stop posting. If problematic unintended consequences did arise because of a photograph I posted, I would deal with them on an ad hoc basis.

I will not share photos that I think are tasteless or inappropriate, or that I feel mock my children in any way. Nor will I share photos that my older children have expressly asked me not to (and, with my 10-year-old and 8-year-old, I tend to request permission).

What Twitter and Facebook Said
We asked readers on social networks if it’s a good idea for parents to post photos of their children on social media. Here’s what we heard.
As critics of sharing photographs argue, there might well be much about the effects of the Internet we don’t yet know. There are always unpredictable repercussions when it comes to new technologies—but there are always new solutions. Instead of fearing the unknown, we should be embracing the digital world and all it has to offer by interacting with it in a civilized, dignified way. Parenting (indeed, life!) is hard enough without letting vague and unsubstantiated concerns for the future dictate present-day decisions.

My oldest son will soon be entering the brave new world of social media. The same way our children are the first to grow up immersed in screens, so too are they the first to be raised in the age of online parenting. We should be using our own forays into the Internet as an opportunity: Parenting is nothing if not setting a good example.

When my son follows the winding trail of my online history, I know what he will find: a mother who prioritizes posting photos of herself and others respectfully, moderately and tactfully. And this is exactly what I will expect from him.

Ms. Apfel is a writer and mother of four (including twins). She is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell magazine. She can be reached at reports@wsj.com.

NO: They Violate Privacy, and Without a Child Giving Consent

By Morgan G. Ames

Facebook seems to be full of friends’ adorable babies and precocious children. But a healthy proportion of parents—myself included—have decided that sharing photos carries too many risks for their children.

Why do we opt out? And what issues should parents consider when posting pictures of their children online?

My own reasons center on privacy and consent. In the early days of the Web, those few with an online presence often felt that they were protected by security through obscurity. But in today’s world, data mining is big business. Much of our content is hosted on sites where we may not only lack control over what happens to it, but where it is aggressively used in aggregation and profiling.
The pictures parents post may follow children from birth to death as their data profiles are sold and resold to marketers. They can reinforce prejudices and barriers as marketers decide what sort of person someone is, what kinds of content will be marketed to them, and even what kinds of loans they might be worthy of based on their past. And there are likely long-term implications of these data profiles that we don’t yet understand.

It can also be difficult for parents to keep in mind just who their actual audience is. They may be targeting grandparents in their posts, but on many sites, including Facebook, sharing to one’s whole network is the default that many never change, and photos are visible years in the future. It can also be hard to control re-sharing, so that photos that people think are private can eventually take on a life of their own.

These issues are thorny enough when deciding to post pictures of ourselves online—in fact, research shows that adults are sharing less personal content on social-networking sites (much to Facebook’s chagrin!). They may be compounded for children.
Some people who share photos say they are building an online community. Indeed, there are definitely benefits to creating such support structures of parents. But the benefits to children are less clear, and the risks are high enough that I would encourage parents to think about posting a few paragraphs of text instead of a photograph.

It’s also true, as some people who share argue, that information will end up online eventually. But rather than use that fact as a reason to post photographs of our own, we should take it as a warning to be even more cognizant of the information about us and our children that ends up online.

Finally, there’s the crucial issue of consent. Children are rarely given the opportunity to agree to having pictures of themselves shared online by others, and they may not fully understand what they are consenting to. Children also often don’t have control over how they are portrayed when others are posting. They may not understand how that embarrassingly cute photo of them that parents adore might come back to haunt them years later when bullies or future employers or bitter ex-lovers unearth it.

This isn’t to say youth don’t make missteps when managing their own online identities. But allowing them to create those identities themselves, rather than contending with something their parents have already crafted for them, could be an important part of developing independence while maintaining trust.