Parenting is Like Good Gardening: Tips for Family Flourishing by Dr. Sandra Wartski
Parenting is known to be such an incredibly important job yet often so elusive in many of its responsibilities, with duties continually shifting and the needs so individually based. There is virtually no training, no qualification test to pass, and no pay; yet, we all want to do the best job we can in raising our children. To assist in this life-long vocation, there are several evidence-based and experience-based parenting tips which have been shown to be part of successful family growth. Using gardening as a metaphor, several ideas for positive family flourishing are presented for consideration.
Provide the basics
Plants need food, sun and a place to grow. Humans have similar basic needs, though our current American culture promotes the idea that we are need more gadgets and require more material items to live effectively. While we cannot revert to times of yesteryear and must adapt to changing societal innovations, there are basics of development which can continue to be supported. Children thrive best when they are eating properly, sleeping adequately, getting outside in nature and feeling safe in their homes. Children also need to know they are loved and cared about, and they benefit from the face to face human connection. We humans are, after all, biologically wired to create and maintain safe, connected relationships to primary caregivers; in fact, it’s necessary for the survival of our species. Attending to such basics—even in the midst of more complicated needs—will support our children to further develop and bloom into healthy, solid adults.
Making a plan
Having a general landscape plan in mind helps to guide us in keeping the big picture in mind during each of the passing seasons. Just as knowing one’s temperate zones and soil types assists in knowing which seeds might grow best, knowing our own strengths, weaknesses and goals assists in parenting preparation. Many individuals may not have the benefit of doing this proactively before the children arrive, but increased awareness of our own impact can be valuable at any stage of development. Examining one’s own experiences from childhood and considering the parts which deserve to be passed on to the new generation can be thoughtfully supported. Consider what you liked about your childhood, remember caregivers who made a positive impact in our lives, and then determine which mindsets you would like to keep and which you would like to discard. Seek out ways to uphold the type of home environment which reflects values you consider important. By highlighting the core morals we wish to pass on and holding true to our broad goals for parenting, we can then more consciously provide a model of constructive parenting to our children.
Walking through a large nursery or a mature garden provides a renewed realization of just how many species of plants and flowers exist in our world. The shapes, sizes, colors, textures vary tremendously and all of them add to the beauty of a garden in the cumulative effect. Similarly, our children (as well as our spouses, co-workers, and friends) come into our life with different strengths and weaknesses. Life would be terribly boring if we all looked, thought and relaxed in the same way. Seeds planted may look the same to start, but there is often a wide variety in what blooms, as each seedling has a unique blueprint of growth already established within its nucleus. We do not get to choose what exact combination of traits may combine and shape the blossoming personality, just as the seedlings do not get to choose in which garden they are planted. Embrace the variety, look for the unexpected and seek out the spark of beauty in each child. A sensitive orchid needs different kind of care than a hardy lantana, but each brings forth different features. Find your child’s unique interests and help cultivate them. Noticing the beauty of a rose, for instance, doesn’t take away the fact that there are thorns on its stem; however, it does allow us to know how best to hold the flower while orienting to the positive.
Just as knowing where the garden begins and ends is necessary in terms of measuring for mulch or choosing how many bulbs to buy, clear boundaries and limits for children is critical for their life as well. Having some level of clarity, consistency and organization in daily life provides structure, meaning and purpose. Make simple house rules and enforce them. Set up routines for daily activities such as homework, bedtime and meals. Boundaries need also to be developed for areas such as communication customs, reward routines and plans for correcting negative behavior. Such margins help in providing a security and become part of a child’s own identity, assisting them to feel more skilled at setting boundaries related to their future work and their future relationships.
Bushes, limbs and branches may need periodic shaping. They may grow a bit askew or unbalanced, crowding into other areas or leaning too closely towards dangerous positions. With a supportive, loving approach, most growth can be re-shaped and coached back into more positive positions. Spend quality time with your child, an action which serves as the base for change. Move away from long lectures to more brief, targeted statements. Be straightforward and say what you mean, in a calm, neutral/natural tone of voice. Rather than vague statements which can be misunderstood or more easily ignored (e.g., “Knock it off”), use more direct and specific statements (e.g., “Stop teasing your brother please”). Move away from asking negative, rhetorical questions (e.g., “Why do you always do that?” or “How many times must I tell you?”) to more specific, constructive statements (e.g., “Please hang your jacket up when you come into the house” or “I’m concerned about your grades”). Shift from blaming to using more descriptive statements, using less of the “You always —” to more statements of “I feel — when —.” Catch your child engaging in positive behaviors and use encouraging words to build self-confidence and stand-tall pride.
Manage the weeds early
Those pesky weeds can really grow out of control but are so much easier to handle if they pulled out before they get too deeply rooted. Similarly, in life, there are negative events and troublesome times which do happen but are much easier to address if spotted early. Some families are lucky enough to have fewer weeds and others have many, but tackling them in a direct, up-front way always works much better than denying, avoiding or allowing overgrowth to overwhelm. Although habits or behavioral problems are easier to tackle if caught earlier, behavior change is possible at any stage. Parents themselves also need to periodically examine their behaviors which might be contributing to growth of more unwanted behaviors, including issues such as parental perfectionism, over-reactivity, guilt tripping, low patience or anger issues. There is no shame in having problems, and there is strength in seeking out the resources to assist in managing them.
Imperfection is a given, and stepping back for the larger perspective can help. There will be weeds that get through, tomato plants which don’t grow as tall as anticipated, and seedlings which don’t sprout as expected—despite vigilant efforts, watering regularly, and tending lovingly to growth. It’s not necessary to take this personally or obsess with a “coulda-shoulda” hindsight outlook. Step back to admire the larger view, notice the things going well and choose to accept with kindness the variance of success in our families. Continually uprooting perceived imperfections can hinder overall progress. Although there are behaviors and habits which might need direct alteration (such as aggressive tendencies), there are also others which might be better served with acceptance and modifications (such as morning grumpiness or slow to transition tendencies). Picking your battles is important. Using terminology oriented more positively helps the child as well as the parent, such as choosing to describe a child as intense, persistent and enthusiastic will be more effective than labels of obnoxious, stubborn, or loud. Gardens and life are not flawless, a lesson in itself which all children would do well to learn.
Seek out solutions
Just as having a garden flood or an infestation of beetles in is certainly not ideal, it also does not require panic or full upheaval of everything in the garden. Thoughtfully stepping back to problem-solve, seeking out supports and pursuing reasonable solutions will have much longer term success than any automatic alarm responses. If you become aware of a problem, for example, such as a child having not turned in a homework assignment or having been rejected by a friend group, begin developing a plan for follow up—without excessively harsh, sarcastic or knee-jerk reactions but with an eye towards positive problem-solving with your child. There are times when children and teens themselves often have terrific ideas about how to approach a tricky situation, and this is more likely to come forth more readily if a parent is using empathetic listening (e.g., “Wow, that sounds like a tough situation”) rather than if a solution or advice is immediately or angrily delivered (“You should have just done —!”). And children are much more likely to implement a solution if they have been a part of its development. Problems also have the hidden gift of developing grit, a valuable personality trait which comes through overcoming obstacles or challenges. Research supports that children who have been able to continue with determination and motivation despite experiences with failure and adversity develop traits of perseverance, hardiness, resilience, and ambition. Hardship is often where the real growth happens, both in the process and the outcome.
Till the soil
Tilling the soil in a garden helps spread around nutrients and reenergizes the soil. Similarly, there is evidence that changing up one’s environment every once in a while is valuable as well. While we humans like routines and structure, renewing our environment by adding in a new type of dinner, introducing a different family activity, or trying out a new vacation destination invigorates us with energy. Spruce things up with a bit of alteration and spice things up with a new flash of color. Although change can be hard, changing it up has value as well.
Just as a more mature garden needs less of a watchful eye, aging teenagers are hopefully increasingly independent and need less of the hour to hour supervision required by the younger set; however, there is need for continued monitoring and pruning. An older child may often appear self-sufficient and seem to be clamoring for privacy, but that same child may also speak up about a concern about friends or a worry about academics if parents provide a presence which lets the child know they are available and open for consultation. Finding ways to be checking in with the teen and being alert to potential conferencing opportunities allows awareness of status without hovering or hassling. Catching a teen who is veering off-course is much easier if done sooner rather than later. Be prepared to take advantage of those windows of opportunity, putting down whatever you are doing if your in-the-moment teen is suddenly willing to talk or asks for help.
Just as a vulnerable sapling or tomato plant might be given the support of a wire structure to hold it upright, parents can also sometimes themselves benefit from outside supports which assist in a child growing strong. Having the wisdom to know when a family could benefit from additional support is essential, whether through a tutor, therapist, or wise mentor. Parents themselves also benefit from allowing themselves to receive needed support, whether from other friends, support groups or specifically focused organizations. Providing this in different ways at various times throughout life remains an invaluable skill for the whole family.
Raising children can be full of challenges, worries and turbulent times but can also be a wonderful growth experience for all. Part of our job as parents is to work ourselves out of a job, with the hope that our children will be eventually transplanted to their own gardens, living happily in their own separate lives and homes; however, they will carry with them the experiences and the memories of the care provided during their time with their parents. Tending mindfully to the family garden supports individualized, positive development—for our children, our families and ourselves.
Licensed Psychologist, Silber Psychological Services
Immediate Past President, North Carolina Psychological Association
Member, American Psychological Association
National Register Credentialed since 1995