top of page
  • Lemuel Tan

Being a Parent Vs Parenting

One of the things that I have learned through my career is that language has a subtle but powerful influence on how it impacts us. We are not talking about an American arguing with a Brit about the pronunciation of “too-mah-toe” or “too-may-toh”, what I am referring to is much deeper.

Did you know that the term “parenting” did not occur until the 1950s-1960s? It is indeed that recent! If you check Google Ngrams (an online search engine that charts the frequency of words found in sources of print between the years 1800 to 2000), you will find that the word “parenting” really started taking off in the 1970’s with a peak in the 2000s while comparing to the word “parent” which has its general highs and lows.

Ngram Search "parent" 1800 - 2000

Ngram Search "parenting" 1800 - 2000

Language is always evolving. It can feel strange at times when a noun becomes a verb, called verbing, for example: Google to googling, Youtube to youtube-ing, Skype to skyping, etc.

The term parenting is very much ingrained in our culture. We have books about parenting, parenting courses/classes, parenting blogs, etc. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines parenting as 1) The raising of a child by its parents, 2) The act or process of becoming a parent 3) Taking care of someone in the manner of a parent.

I like the innocent provocation from Developmental Psychologist, Alison Gopnik. In her book The Gardener and The Carpenter, she highlights that we have yet to make verbing statements such as wife-ing (doing wife’s tasks aimed at my husband) or husbanding (doing husband’s tasks aimed at my wife).

Think about it - when we say, “He is being a good/bad husband to me”, we are trying to tell others that the husband is being good/bad to me, there is an implied sense of relationship. Whereas if we were to say, “He is husbanding me”, there is an implied sense of task orientation instead of relationship.

This same task orientation flavour emerges when we say “parenting”. It has a sense of an outcome that needs to be achieved, a goal that needs accomplishing, something that needs changing. This is why the phrase “being a parent” provides a better relational expression instead of “parenting”. After all, we do not fall in love with someone and start a relationship with a goal to change the person. The changing comes as a by-product of a loving and healthy relationship.

According to Gopnik, the current parenting culture has some resemblance to that of a carpenter. If you have the right tools, have the right skills, follow the right steps you will make it through in shaping your child into a healthy adult. Gopnik argues that the current developmental psychology paradigm suggests that raising a child should resemble more of a gardener. Like a gardener, the parent creates a rich, nurturing, dynamic environment for the garden to thrive, the gardener will never truly know what is going to happen. It can be unpredictable on some levels creating tension and anxiety for the gardener at times. However, it is in the ‘unpredictableness’ that the child thrives through the experience of setbacks and challenges. This is not the same as neglect as the parent is always there to hold the child if needed. Parents can at times be uncomfortable with the unpredictableness of being a gardener resulting in the falling back and residing only in the carpenter role. A parent should honestly ask him/herself why am I doing this and for whose benefit is this for, the child or the parent? This is why being a parent is hard as it often unconsciously raises a lot of emotional and past issues that we are not necessary ready to explore.

I personally like the analogy of the carpenter and the gardener. However, I believe there are times when it is healthy to be a carpenter and there are times when it is important to be a gardener. In my personal observations, our culture does skew towards being a carpenter more than a gardener. Thus I would prefer the idea of “being a parent” – raising a child that is built on the concepts of relationships and being motivated by the relationship instead of a need to change bad behaviour or motivate good behaviour because I need to do it.

I have not been compensated or made any financial gains by citing the author or her book. However, if you are interested in the book, the link is below:

Disclaimer: The material on this blog is not to be used by any commercial or personal entity without expressed written consent of the blog's author. The article above is an opinion of an individual clinician and should not be taken as full clinical advice. The statements on this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any mental health or mental illnesses. Always consult your doctor for medical advice or seek professional therapy.

15 views0 comments


bottom of page