Gardener or Carpenter?

I have been listening to an interesting programme (BBC, Radio 4, 13.10) about raising children: so, as a parent, are you a gardener or carpenter? No, it’s not a trick question. As I understand it, from having tuned into the programme part way through, these terms summarise two alternative ways of raising children: the former with maximum freedom to grow and develop into their own shape (as plants do), or the latter, carefully formed and moulded as a piece of furniture. Strange terms, aren’t they: gardener or carpenter? I asked my daughter what she thought. ‘A carpenter,’ she said, without hesitation, although we both agreed that most parents raise their children somewhere between these two extremes.

Whilst discipline is essential, can we have too much? At what point might rebellion set in if children, particularly when they reach that ‘tweenager’ stage, feel that they are on too tight a rein? By ‘tweenager’ I mean from about thirteen to about seventeen, those years when common sense appears to fly out of the window and everything in their lives revolves around peers. Parents, it often seems, do not matter (though they do at the heart).

It often seems as if parents walk a tightrope as their children want to flex their muscles. Too much discipline risks rebellion: too little may leave our precious youngsters open to the many dangers of growing up that they think they know about – but often don’t. At the heart of parenthood is the need to keep our offspring safe, while allowing them to become individuals in their own right. Out there, in the big wide world, lurk the dangers of alcohol, smoking, drugs and sex: dangers that we may know only too well.

Which approach (tight or loose rein) might best encourage young people to talk to parents about their problems, as they negotiate the challenges of their wider world? The more open families can be in terms of talking about the problems of growing up, the more likely it is that issues can be dealt with positively. But are young people secretly afraid of being judged by us? Even in families where there is love and security, might some young people struggle to be themselves if their individuality starts to take a different, or even deviant, turn, away from the family norm?

We can apply this thought to many aspects of life: religion, sexuality, career aspiration.
Religion has proved to be a huge source of conflict across the world – at its worst, causing terrorist activities. Amongst those people who believe strongly in a God of some kind, how far is that belief genuine – or indoctrinated from parents? If a child is brought up as a strict Catholic, having been instructed to attend Mass and Holy Communion regularly as a child – is that passed on as a habit not to be broken for fear of retribution? What proportion of the religious population of today have applied a rational and logical approach to their belief? These words are not meant to be provocative. They urge us to think about how far parents want their child to grow into a rational and free-thinking being – able to apply logical thinking to their responses and to the problems facing our world.

This brings me to education. How much of what is taught in school invites youngsters to challenge and interrogate information they receive and act according to what they truly believe? Not much, I suspect. School is still a place for mainly receiving information from teachers and learning it: albeit also a place where such information can be reflected upon, discussed to ensure it is understood and challenged without fear of judgement or dire consequence.

Take History, for example. Is my grand-daughter in Year 9 being invited to question events in the past: with regard to their current relevance: for example, Henry the Eighth and the religious consequences of his break from the Pope (and Catholicism)? Does learning about the slavery era include valuable discussion about its continued effects on racism? I hope it does.

I realise that I have deviated somewhat from the original meaning of the two ideas I started with: gardener and carpenter. On the one hand we do not want to raise clones of ourselves: as sheep merely following in our footsteps. On the other, as parents, we need to guide young people towards what is right for them as individuals, as well as what is right for society. We need to respect their differences in personality and characteristics.

Okay, so your young person might want to take up art, acting or music – while you might want him to follow a more reliable and secure career path, a profession perhaps, such as law, teaching, medicine or science. Yet, if they are to be happy, they too must follow their own stars wherever they lead. Life has risks.

So, I think, at the end of this brief exploration, I would now veer towards the ‘gardener’ end of the parenting spectrum if I had children who still need to be guided into adulthood. My children have turned out fine so I must have done okay. Above all, I urge all parents to work together with schools to help their child make the very best of their education and to succeed to the best of their ability.

Above all, parents need to encourage their children to think deeply and reflect on the problems currently faced by humanity. Let us not just hand down to them what we think and over shape their thinking (carpenter). The world is changing and the pandemic has taught us that we have to change with it. Issues of Black Lives Matter and climate change will not go away. We rely on our young people more than we realise.

Start by finding out WHAT your child learns and HOW: to keep that two-way channel. My books will help – Support Your Child with SEND (Book 1) and at successive Key Stages (Books 2 to 4), by Sylvia Edwards, are available from Lulu or Amazon in printed or ebook form. Visit my website:

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