So many of our kids never develop a real sense of agency - the belief that you are an independent, capable person who can have opinions and make decisions that will influence the path of your life and the capacity & confidence to actually take action on those decisions. I think this is a big part of why we see 80% of college students changing majors at least once, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and 61% of college graduates regretting their choice of major, according to a 2020 BestColleges survey. This is a big part of the all too common "failure to launch" problem too.
Because all of their time and effort is going toward their schoolwork & other structured, adult-directed activities
Because they have to spend all of their spare time & energy working to help support their family
Because they’re surrounded by a deficit culture that tells them that they can’t explore who they are because they’re too poor or dumb or don’t fit in to the community norms
That first one really gets on my nerves - and as someone who primarily works with upper-middle-class, suburban youth with well-educated parents acting with nothing but good intentions, that’s the one I see the most of. It’s also the one that seems to be the most intentionally done - all of these reasons are rooted in systemic, cultural, political problems, but there are also plenty of parents that have chosen to take a different path with their kids.
The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you’re going to be able to shape your child into a particular kind of adult… We’re so concerned about how these children are going to turn out that we’re unwilling to give them the autonomy that they need to be able to take risks and go out and explore the world.
The idea of Gopnik’s book is that there are fundamentally two different approaches to parenting (and teaching, mentoring, management… anything where you’re in a position of training and educating other people, really): you can be a carpenter, taking the raw materials you’ve been provided with and sculpting that to be whatever you want, or you can be a gardener, creating a supportive environment for your subjects to grow and develop in their own way.
It seems that modern American society has adopted that carpenter mindset, creating enormous pressure on kids - and their parents - to have everything figured out. But as it turns out, just because you have a plan doesn’t mean it’s going to work out all that well in the end. And even if it does, well…
Remember kids: if you study hard, get good grades, go to a good college, get a job, work hard, never take a sick day, live within your means and do what you’re told … then one day your boss might go to space
Dan Price on Twitter, right after the Virgin Galactic spaceflight
But I’ve found that the kids who grow up with gardener parents - or have plentiful access to gardener teachers or mentors - tend to be a lot happier, more confident in themselves, and grow up to live more fulfilling lives. Why? Because that lack of pressure gives kids room to figure out who they are and what they want to do, develop some internal motivation, and their supportive adults can help guide and challenge them to build their confidence - all the building blocks of executive function & agency that are critical to becoming a functional adult.
If your child is stuck in a directionless rut & needs a little nudge to start developing that sense of agency, let’s start a conversation and see if I can help!