“Look, those tomatoes are red! Can I eat them?” Sprout asks me, hardly waiting to pop them in his mouth.
“Just wait to get inside for me to wash them,” I say, brushing aside the overgrown zucchini leaves as I walk towards the garden gate. He mock puts them in his mouth and I roll my eyes at him.
Getting inside, he hands me the tiny tomatoes for me to place in a small orange plastic bowl and rinse off. I hand it back and he sits down on the couch to chomp down. (Despite our “only eat at the table” rule.)
I reflect on how much he’s learned from spending time with me in the garden: knowing how to plant seeds, understanding the role of weeds, composting, and judging when vegetables are ripe. But I also think about the life lessons the garden has taught me that apply to raising kids.
Cultivate the right environment
A gardener’s job is more about cultivating good soil for plants to grow in than growing plants themselves. It’s all about creating the conditions for them to thrive: the right amount of light, nutrients, water, and warmth. Not too little or too much of any one element. If you’re thoughtful about where you place your garden and prepare the soil well, even a large garden doesn’t need that much upkeep.
Just like I can’t force the seeds to grow, I can’t have control over my children. Instead, I can provide an environment where they can thrive. To me, a child’s ideal soil is made of lots of hugs, physical and mental space to explore, play with kids of various ages, time spent outside, exposure to art and music, and quality time with parents and other caring adults. I hope that we can model and create circumstances that inspire a love of learning, enjoyment of nature, and compassion towards people.
While parents should try to provide as much of this as possible, they can’t do it alone. Fortunately, Chris and I have wonderful parents ourselves, a strong church community, a cooperative-style preschool, and friends that support us.
Get Your Hands Dirty
My gardening style is literally earthy; I’ve always enjoying playing in the dirt. I don’t wear gardening gloves because they make me feel clumsy. Rather than use a trowel, I often scoop potting soil out of the bag with my hands. After I garden, my hands and nails have dirt ground into them.
Similarly, you can never escape the mess as a parent. My kids have peed on me, sneezed ground bison on me, wiped snot on my shirt, puked on me, and spread poop to my hands. They’ve bit me on the nipple, finger, knee, and arm. I’ve wiped drool off of their chins more times than I can count. I have in fact committed the ultimate mom sin – using my own spit to clean my kids’ faces. (I swore I never would!)
I’ve looked like the walking dead after near-sleepless nights. I’ve been in my pajamas far too late in the day and changed into them far too early in the evening. I happily sit in the grass, watching my kids rip up weeds, pick up dirt by the handful, and inspect leaves. Getting dirty is what we do around here.
But it’s about much more than just the physical. Sometimes getting dirty as a parent means getting down in your mental and emotional muck. It means confronting your own worst tendencies so that you purposely don’t pass them on to your kids. It involves facing your nightmares head-on because what else are you going to do? When your children are in pain, it means just being there with them in that pain, listening. As one of my favorite bloggers, Beth Woolsey, says, there is tremendous magic despite and within the muck.
Making Space for Transitions
Respecting the cycles of nature works for both plants and children.
When you start seeds inside in the early spring, you need to harden them off before you transfer them to the soil. When they’re inside, they’re exposed to a single temperature with consistent water and light. If you take them from that controlled environment and immediately plant them outside, they go into shock. They either die or are much weaker than they would be otherwise. Instead, you’re supposed to “harden” them off, where you gradually bring them outside for a few hours at a time a day so they get used to their new environment.
Like baby plants, steady and gradual change is much better for kids than abrupt changes. By slowly exposing them to the challenges of the adult world, they can handle them better and have more resilience in the face of difficult situations. For us, a lot of this transition period is about setting expectations. We talk up what we’re doing for the weekend days in advance, so Sprout has a good sense of what’s going on.
Giving him a feeling of control over the situation helps as well. When it’s time to leave the park, I give him the “one last thing” warning so that he can choose for himself what he wants to do. Before Little Bird entered his life, we combined both of these approaches to get him ready to know what he could expect and do when his little brother arrived.
Don’t hold on too hard to expectations – you never know what will grow.
Earlier this year, I was in my usual late-spring despair about my garden. A deer had chomped my tomatoes, all of my beans had died, and getting vegetables at all seemed hopeless. But since then, we’ve harvested pounds upon pounds of zucchini, a cantaloupe, numerous peppers, and some cherry tomatoes. Baby corn is next.
While I could have written the whole thing off, I did some strategic fertilizing and watched as everything responded. Melons that I thought had all died reappeared. Tomatoes from last year’s compost started sprouting. The garden was growing in places I would have never expected.
And children are the same. If you have very specific expectations for your kids about who they’ll be, you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you are open to loving them for who they are – who knows what beautiful and wondrous things will grow?
While most of the plants in my garden only last a season, how I treat my kids will last a lifetime. Thankfully, they’re pretty forgiving and there are always more opportunities to get down and dirty.