Flipping through the channels one recent morning, I landed on a cable infomercial showing a 14-month-old strapped in his high chair, sippy cup by his side. His mother stood in front of him, running through a set of flash cards each printed with a single word.

“Monkey!” yelled the child gleefully. “Clap!”

A voiceover on the ad urged parents to grab the small window of opportunity and give their children the edge they’ll need for lifelong success. As seen on TV, it seems, even infants and toddlers need a competitive edge to succeed in life.
Enter Alison Gopnik, an influential child psychologist and philosopher whose research at the University of California Berkeley is changing the way we think about the lives of children.

In her fascinating and thought-provoking new book, The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik argues that instead of relying on the same old how-to-get-your-child-to-sleep parenting books and gimmicky get-smart-quick products, parents should simply embrace their children’s youngest years as a necessary time for exploration and imagination. She posits that young humans are “useless on purpose,” unable to care for themselves in even the most basic ways, so that they can focus on what Gopnik calls research and development. The most intelligent and flexible species, she says, are usually the ones with the longest periods of childhood.

“I want parents to appreciate the wonder and complexity of what’s going on in their children’s lives,” Gopnik said in a recent phone interview from her home in Berkeley. “This is not a pseudo science—do this and your baby will be smarter. I don’t want them to come away [from my book] with any kind of formula for making their child better!”
Still, Gopnik understands the attraction of books and toys promising smarter, more successful children. It’s linked, she said, to a fragmented society where fewer and fewer people have experienced caring for other children before having their own.

“It’s a fact that for most of human history, almost everyone becomes a parent and more significantly at some point before becoming a parent, they took care of other children,” says Gopnik. “Taking care of children was just part of what it meant to be human. It’s only fairly recently that you have people who have babies who’ve never taken care of babies before—even held a baby.”

The oldest of six children, Gopnik certainly grew up taking care of babies. Even as a young girl, she says, she was fascinated both by children and by philosophy. The daughter of two college professors, she was reading Plato at 10 and is considered a leader in her field of study. Her brother, Adam, is a well-known author and staff writer for The New Yorker. Another brother, Blake, is the Washington Post art critic. Yet for all that, she is strikingly down-to-earth, warm and bubbling with enthusiasm when talking about her work. The mother of three grown sons, she sees children not as research subjects but as an essential part of the universal conversation about who we are.

“We raise children, and live with them every day,” she said. “It always seemed to me, even growing up, that we should talk about babies with the same seriousness and importance as any other topic. I’m always surprised at parties that the conversation around babies is how to get them to sleep, and that’s it. Then it’s, oh, no, let’s talk about real estate or something grown up.”

In The Philosophical Baby, Gopnik argues that young children have been unfairly omitted from the broader conversation about human nature—consider this from the chapter titled “Babies and the Meaning of Life:

“What makes life meaningful, beautiful and morally significant? Is there something that we care about more than we care about ourselves? What endures beyond death?

“For most parents, in day-to-day, simple, ordinary life, there is an obvious answer to these questions—even if it isn’t the only answer. Our children give point and purpose to our lives. They are beautiful (with a small dispensation for chicken pox, scraped knees and runny noses), and the words and images they create are beautiful too. They are at the root of our deepest moral dilemmas and greatest moral triumphs. We care more about our children than we do about ourselves. Our children live on after we are gone, and this gives us a kind of immortality.”

And yet, she goes on, children are rarely considered or even mentioned in thousands of years of thinking about human nature and immortality. Shouldn’t we look to the creation of the next generation as part of what gives life meaning?

For all the heavy subject matter, The Philosophical Baby is never ponderous. In fact, Gopnik explores the subject of how children think with a fresh, enthusiastic and wry voice. She draws on memories from her own childhood, weaving in lively and even poignant details from research sessions she’s conducted over her years in the field and other anecdotes.

In a chapter exploring the purpose of imaginary friends, Gopnik recounts her three-year-old niece Olivia’s imaginary friend, Charlie Ravioli, who seemingly helped her understand the busy Manhattan culture in which she was growing up. Charlie Ravioli, you see, was not a very accessible friend. Olivia often left him pretend voice mail messages imploring him to call her.

Fun and fascinating, The Philosophical Baby is a must-read for anyone who wants to better understand child development and what it means to be human.

“It matters the way all science matters,” Gopnik says. “It matters for the same reason finding out about black holes matters, finding out about DNA matters. We have to acknowledge just how important a part children are of our lives.”

Amy Scribner is the mother of two young children who would probably prefer to chew or color on flash cards.

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