The Big Difference Between “Being a Parent” and “Parenting”


As a father to young children, ages four and two (and one more expected in June!), I am hyper-aware of my role as a parent. The well-being and future of my children are (mostly) in my hands. Each decision I make, each experience we share together, it all makes me wonder how I’m doing as a parent.

That’s why when I heard the episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain titled “Kinder-Gardening” in December 2017, I paid close attention.

The episode compares the traits of a carpenter to the traits of a gardener to explain the difference between parenting and being a parent.

As the episode explains, a carpenter can control so much of each project, things like “the humidity, the shape, the size, the color, how smooth the finish is or if you want to leave it rough or rustic.” Essentially, carpenters “draft plans and stick to them.”

But gardeners? Gardeners have to “let go.” As the episode describes, as a gardener “you can’t control the weather. You can’t control your rain. You can’t control the humidity. So there are probably, I would say, more than half of the variables for gardening, you have absolutely no control.”

Now ask yourself: which sounds like “parenting” and which sounds like “being a parent?” More importantly, which sounds more like a child and home, a cabinet in a workshop or a tomato plant in a garden?

As a parent, I often wish my kids were more like a cabinet that I’m building in my workshop. With well-laid plans, an exacting schedule balanced with art, exercise, and reading, good eating habits, and the best education around, I’ll be able to create the next successful politicians or doctors or writers, right? That’s “parenting”–treating our children like projects we can shape and mold according to our plans.

But I know (and you know, too), that kids aren’t carpentry projects. Kids are those tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs looking for fertile soil, sunlight, water, and the right balance of attention and freedom. That’s “being a parent”–providing the environment and giving the right kind of care so that our children can thrive.

Alison Gopnik, the main guest on the podcast and a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, provides more insight about the difference between “parenting” and “being a parent”:

“…if you think about it, parenting is a kind of strange word. After all, we don’t wife our husbands or child our parents. What we say is that those are relationships. I am a child, or I am a wife. It’s not a kind of goal-directed activity that I’m doing that has a particular outcome that I’m trying to achieve. And I think being a parent is a much better way of describing what that relationship is all about than parenting – than changing a child into something else.”

As I think about the difference, I think of all the times I’ve heard someone say (or read on someone’s Facebook page) that “parenting is hard.” But doesn’t “being a parent” sound even harder? When you’re parenting, you’re in control. Everything is up to you. But being a parent means you give up control, you let go a bit and see what happens. You allow yourself to experience and be okay with the surprises that come as a child grows.

As the podcast describes, “[s]urprises are what make gardening so frustrating.” Weeds will grow and rabbits will eat your artichokes. But “[s]urprises are also what make gardening so rewarding.” From one seed may grow an entire bed of flowers.

When I moved from suburban Washington, D.C., to Columbus, I hoped in part that I was moving away from a land of carpenters to a land of gardeners. After teaching high school for ten years in a suburb of D.C., I saw way too many stressed-out students struggling to thrive under the pressure and plans of the many carpenters around them. Turns out, the suburbs of Columbus have more carpenters than I expected. Thankfully, I’ve met my fair share of gardeners, too. That balance between carpenters and gardeners might be one reason Columbus is such a unique town to live in and raise a family.

As you go about your day today, spend some time thinking about the difference between “parenting” and “being a parent.” Are there ways in which you can let go of your plans and instead spend more time nourishing an environment that allows for growth and surprise? Even just changing your vocabulary from “parenting” to “being a parent” may give you fresh perspective on your role with your kids.

Don’t get me wrong, I struggle with the distinction. As someone who felt largely in control for most of my life, I understand the desire to parent. I worked hard in school, and I’ve accomplished much thanks to hard work. I also recognize that a neglectful gardener can have far worse consequences than even the most overbearing carpenter.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to see how much of my life was out of my control and how luck and circumstance played a big role in my success. I see the wisdom in letting go and being a parent.

Here’s to a fruitful garden full of frustrations to learn from and surprises to celebrate.

Want to listen to the full podcast? Click here.