Thursday, 24 December 2009

The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik

Lowdown: Discussions on the theory that children are learning machines.
Us adults tend to refer to children as foolish creatures with not much sense that fool around doing their ultimately stupid stuff while we carry the burden of taking care of their every need. On the other hand, people like Carl Sagan view children completely differently: Sagan regards children as full of wonder, entities that want to know as much about the world as they can. Then, to Sagan's disappointment, they seem to be spoiled by the the system and come out generally bland and devoid of their former wonder. So where is the truth and which approach happens to be the correct one?
To the rescue comes Alison Gopnik with a popular science book entitled The Philosophical Baby. The book refers to kids up to the age of five as babies, and in a very simple and approachable style it lays down Gopnik's theories on what babies stand for and what motivates them.
At the core of Gopnik's theories stands one main claim: Babies and children are entities whose main purpose in life is to learn what life is all about. Everything to do with the way they live and act, the way their consciousness works and the way they treat others is a direct result of that main conclusion. It's their uselessness as kids that gives them the power to learn and adopt to life as an adult later; and once adults, their learning skills wane as their learning become their way of life. Of course, it's the theory's details that count, and Gopnik manages to successfully fill out a book discussing the implications of her main theory, even coming up to deep philosophical pondering about the meaning of life. And for the record, she managed to put me on her side.
Essentially, The Philosophical Baby is a book that mixes psychology and philosophy but relies heavily on scientifically acquired observations. In this the book differs significantly from most other baby guidebooks that are mostly driven by the whim of their writer, who seemed to have woken up one morning with an idea (often a stupid unfounded idea) on how to best raise babies/kids and thought the idea worthy enough to base a book on. The Philosophical Baby, on the other hand, relies on peer reviewed papers for its theories.
Another key difference between The Philosophical Baby and other kids books is that it does not pretend to offer you guidelines that would make your child a millionaire as it graduates from college at the age of seven. However, if you ask me, The Philosophical Baby's approach is even better: by telling you how the baby's mind works, it allows the readers to draw their own conclusions on how to deal with their children their way. You can draw conclusions on your child's childcare related policies, and you can even implement simple tricks to help your child learn languages quicker and easier. Or, to point at another example, help them learn to use their memories.
Valuable advice? Sure is in my book. Yet The Philosophical Baby is not a perfect read. Although it should be easily read even by those who are totally foreign to popular science, it is not a page turner. It is not a book that encouraged me to get back to read the next page the way, say, a nice thriller would. Or even the way the better popular science books do.
Overall: The best guide to children I have encountered thus far. Highly recommended at 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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