Project parenthood

The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius, by Kristine Barnett, Fig Tree, RRP£18.99/Random House, RRP$25, 272 pages

Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, by Emily Bazelon, Random House, RRP$27/RRP£18.99, 400 pages

Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant and Better Students for Life, by Peter Gray, Basic Books, RRP$27.99/RRP£18.99, 288 pages

Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, by Jay Griffiths, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£20, 432 pages

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough, Random House, RRP£12.99/RRP$15.95 232 pages

Besotted new parents often believe their baby is a genius. They feel a huge but simple responsibility: to guide and nurture this little bundle of inherited potential. Then, one day, reality dawns. Our children aren’t obedient prodigies. They are flawed individuals with argumentative minds of their own and don’t want to adopt our interests or even follow our sage advice. As the psychology professor Peter Gray reminds us in Free to Learn: “What we call ‘reproduction’ is not. It doesn’t produce another you ... Nor is the child yours. Your child is its own being who, like every child, comes into the world designed to grow, learn, and chart a life course. You are simply part of the environmental substrate that your child uses to create himself or herself. Try to be a good substrate by providing what your child needs, but don’t assume that it is your responsibility to direct your child’s development.”

Comparing a parent’s influence to soil seems unflattering but it is apt. Free to Learn, along with several other recent books, addresses that most fundamental question for the parent of the older child: what is the best way to help our offspring blossom into happy, well-educated and autonomous individuals?

In recent years there’s been a trend towards driven – and directed – parenting, in which a child becomes, as Gray terms it pejoratively, a “project” for the parents. The high priestess of driven parents is Amy Chua, whose best-selling Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011) chronicled life as an Asian-American mother determined to make her two daughters into musical and academic powerhouses. To that end, Chua banned drama, sport and any hobbies the girls chose for themselves. And no playdates: “Why why why this terrible Western institution?”

We may mock parents who go to such extremes, but the reality of modern middle-class family life can be seen on messy kitchen wall-charts: a web of tutoring, extracurricular activities, music practice and homework. This is a version of childhood that owes something to the Victorians: the young as empty vessels who must be filled to the brim with our new equivalents of Latin and piety – algebra and the violin.

The latest books on parenting suggest that this approach might be wasting everyone’s time. In How Children Succeed, the American journalist Paul Tough argues that we are striving for the wrong things. His starting point for the book was the discovery, as a parent in New York, that “the competition among affluent parents over slots in favoured preschools verges on the gladiatorial”. Our society is in thrall, he says, to “the cognitive hypothesis: the belief, rarely expressed aloud but commonly held nonetheless, that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills – the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests, including the abilities to recognise letters and words, to calculate, to detect patterns – and that the best way to develop these skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible.”

This is the edifice upon which modern, academically focused, pushy parenting has been built, yet Tough finds plenty of evidence that it is, at best, shaky as a predictor of future success. What matters more, he argues, is “a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence”.

Tough profiles children who have “grit”, succeeding despite growing up in grim circumstances; and adults who make an extraordinary difference to children’s lives. The most memorable is Elizabeth Spiegel, a Brooklyn teacher who guided her low-income, inner-city pupils to US national success in chess championships. How did she do it? “ ‘It’s a little like what people ideally get out of psychotherapy,’ Spiegel says. ‘You go over the mistakes you made – or the mistakes you keep making – and you try to get to the bottom of why you made them.’ ”

Potentially the most valuable lesson in all of this is that good things come to those who wait. Tough quotes James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, whose work shows that the ability to delay gratification has big knock-on benefits “in college, in the workplace, and in life generally”.

Slate reporter Emily Bazelon gives another robust account of what makes “character”, though from a rather different angle. In Sticks and Stones she talks to children and adults affected by bullying – including the family and friends of a girl who killed herself after being taunted by classmates. She works out what works in terms of anti-bullying policies in schools, and online, and what doesn’t. (There are plenty of scary statistics: Bazelon says that as many as a million teens a year are harassed on Facebook.)

Yet this is not a scaremongering work. Bazelon warns that we could go too far to protect children – we must give them the freedom to be mean to each other. “They have to learn to handle conflict, to stand up for themselves and their friends, to recover from rejection.” She also points to a deeper issue, quoting the Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd: “We’re organising kids around their self-esteem. But maybe the primary goal should be that kids are good people, and maybe all the focus on their own happiness doesn’t actually make them happier.”

Tough and Bazelon are coming at the nurturing debate from different points inside the mainstream education system. While both advocate change, essentially their case is for more, not less, education: they want “character” to be developed alongside traditional “cognitive” abilities. But there are those who disagree profoundly with that view, arguing rather that school is at the heart of our children’s malaise. In Free to Learn, Gray outlines how our present, imperfect education system is a product of history. And it is failing: “Children don’t like school because to them school is – dare I say it – prison. Children don’t like school because, like all human beings, they crave freedom, and in school they are not free.”

Gray advocates a form of schooling where “children educate themselves through their self-directed play and exploration”. He uses the practical example of his son, who didn’t fit in at a mainstream school but did well in a relaxed place, where mixed-age play and learning were encouraged.

A lot of what he says makes great sense – he argues, for example, for parents to be more “trustful” of their children’s abilities and give them the freedom to take risks. But it’s impossible to imagine a small-scale school like the (fee-paying) one he lauds here being rolled out into a massive state education system in the US or the UK. (The only school I can think of like this in London is favoured by celebrities and, accordingly, costs a fortune.)

For the truly committed, Tough advocates “unschooling” – where children are based in the home but are not home-schooled in the usual sense. Unschooling parents “allow their kids freedom to pursue their own interests and learn, in their own ways, what they need to know to follow their interests”. Learning becomes part of life itself, not something separate. There’s something admirable about this purity of vision, and it does play to our desire to help our children find their “thing” – the spark that makes them tick and which might be the key to their future. But it would also require a parent to be at home nonstop.

The least conventional view of all comes from British writer Jay Griffiths in her extraordinary, infuriating book Kith. In a previous work, Wild: An Elemental Journey (2007), she chronicled her experiences living among tribal cultures around the world. In Kith, she’s written a polemic calling for the return to a freer, unbounded version of a childhood spent roaming fields and woods.

Griffiths makes good use of her earlier experiences to highlight tribal cultures and their child-rearing traditions as ideals: the best start in life is apparently that of a !Kung baby, carried around the Kalahari in a sling for a year and fed “on demand several times an hour”. Lucky mothers. By contrast, the western habit of getting babies into a routine, and using the “controlled crying” method of sleep training, helps them, “one presumes, be more malleable to a workforce system”. It’s clear that Griffiths isn’t exactly coming at this from a working-mother perspective.

This book is a call to nurture our children by returning them to a prelapsarian world. Many of Griffiths’ points are good ones: a close connection with nature has been lost in the computer-gaming age. The problem (for me at least) is Griffiths’ romantic, ethereal view of kids: “The wellbeing of childhood needs something of the wild at the core of nature and human nature. Obedience is deadly, will is divine and the vital wildness of the human spirit is purring, over there, like a cat-shadow in the beetroot patch.” It just doesn’t add up to much of practical – or even spiritual – use.

Kristine Barnett’s The Spark offers a very different, more personal take on nurturing a child’s potential. This is an unashamedly folksy tale of bringing up her son Jacob, who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler. His development stalled and Barnett was told he would struggle to do up his shoelaces. Jacob is now 15 and working on advanced maths and science research. Barnett describes eloquently how it feels to be short of money in recessionary America. Yet she ploughs on through every setback, carries on as a working mother (she runs a day nursery) while also creating astonishing projects for Jacob and other autistic children, including a weekend sports club: “I’d spend the week buying whatever I needed for that week’s sport. When our alarm clock sounded at 4am on Saturday morning, we were off ... we’d stay most days, until the daylight was gone.”

It ought to be cloying, but it’s not. Barnett writes honestly, and isn’t afraid to talk about love: that hidden part of being a parent that is so easy to miss amid the public rhetoric about education and our private domestic struggles. Reading this book stripped me back to the basic truth about being a parent. Love, consistency and support are the best guarantees of nurturing a child – any child – towards a good life. All the rest is froth.

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