“Parenting” should never have become a verb, Alison Gopnik argues in an article for the Wall Street Journal.
“After all, to be a wife is not to engage in ‘wifing,’ to be a friend is not to ‘friend,’ even on Facebook, and we don’t ‘child’ our mothers and fathers,” she writes. Yet, alas, we’ve turned “being a parent” into “parenting” as our understanding of the vocation has changed. Gopnik suggests that, because many modern parents start having children after they’ve pursued higher education and a career, their lens on childrearing is changed. They approach their offspring with a task-oriented mindset. They think of themselves as carpenters, she says, and treat their children like chairs to be built, maintained, and polished.
“The promise of ‘parenting’ is that there is some set of techniques, some particular expertise, that parents could acquire that would help them accomplish the goal of shaping their children’s lives,” Gopnik says. But this promise gives parents a dangerously flawed impression both of their children, and of their role as parents. Rather, Gopnik suggests that “caring for children is like tending a garden, and being a parent is like being a gardener”:
When we garden, we work and sweat and we’re often up to our ears in manure. We do it to create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish.
As all gardeners know, nothing works out the way we planned. The greatest pleasures and triumphs, as well as disasters, are unexpected. There is a deeper reason behind this.
A good garden, like any good ecosystem, is dynamic, variable and resilient. Consider what it takes to create a meadow or a hedgerow or a cottage garden. The glory of a meadow is its messiness: The different grasses and flowers may flourish or perish as circumstances alter, and there is no guarantee that any individual plant will become the tallest, or fairest or most long-blooming. The good gardener works to create fertile soil that can sustain a whole ecosystem of different plants with different strengths and beauties—and with different weaknesses and difficulties, too.
Perhaps the simplest and most profound reason this metaphor works is that children are living things, not objects. The more we see them as projects, inanimate or vacuous “things” we can control, the more flawed and potentially dangerous our attempts to raise them.
But when we understand that children are live, sentient, unique souls—with autonomy, with creativity, with passion and character and dynamism—we see them truly, and raise them differently. Because—as any gardener will tell you—caring for a garden requires humility and patience. We must recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each plant, and understand that no one approach will work with all of them.
This summer, I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s excellent book about gardening, Second Nature, and read a passage yesterday that fits in beautifully with Gopnik’s gardening allegory:
The more common varieties of garden failure … I divide into failures of under- and overcultivation. … Failures of undercultivation usually indicate that the gardener has been reluctant to alter the landscape to the extent his plants require; he has not sufficiently tamed nature. Perhaps because of his romantic notions about animals or weeds, he didn’t do enough to protect his plants from their incursions. Or he assumed the soil in its unimproved state was adequate to the needs of his trees or tomatoes.
… Of course the gardener can push nature too far, and when that happens, he is prone to … failures of overcultivation. The gardener who uses large quantities of fertilizer to coax quick growth from his plants will find them more susceptible to insects and disease. If he adopts an inflexible line on insects, he’s apt to spray so much pesticide that he deadens his soil; the bugs are gone, but suddenly nothing seems to grow very well. Plants healthy only to the extent they are wild—‘able to collaborate with earth, air, light, and water in the way common to plants before humans walked the earth,’ in Wendell Berry’s sensible definition. When cultivation is too intensive it compromises wildness and thereby courts failure.
… The green thumb is the gardener who can nimbly walk the line between the dangers of over- and undercultivation, between pushing nature too far and giving her too much ground. His garden is a place where her ways and his designs are brought gracefully into alignment. To occupy such a middle ground is not easy—the temptation is always to either take complete control or relinquish it altogether, to invoke your own considerable (but in the end overrated) power or to bend to nature’s.
The above seemed like a perfect description of the extreme dangers most parents are prone to: the excesses of helicopter parenting on the one hand, and the defects of heedless or even neglectful parenting on the other hand. The one threatens to choke out the life, autonomy, and freedom of the plant; the other leaves it susceptible to all sorts of soul-crushing weeds, pests, and dryness.
Yet between these two extremes, there is beautiful flexibility and diversity. Every plant and every gardener is unique. As our seedlings grow, they take on their own unique shapes, proclivities, desires. A rose and a carrot need completely different styles of care and attentiveness. The parent, like the gardener, must learn to see these differences as their children grow, learning to be attentive to the needs of their disparate differences, strengths, and weaknesses. Learning when to be firm and supportive, when to let go and allow a child to spread his or her wings … there are times and ways in which to do this, and it will look different with every family, as well as with every child.
Every parent’s garden is going to look a little different—and as long as it doesn’t fall prey to the types of excess and defect described above, that’s okay. Some gardeners prefer wildflower gardens, bushy and lush and very laissez faire; others cultivate manicured English gardens, with carefully trimmed shrubs and thoughtful, shapely plants. Each are beautiful, in their way.
Similarly, the fights parents often have regarding birth preferences (natural or epidural?), the care of infants (cloth diapers vs. Pampers, cheerios vs. gluten free, swaddling vs. no swaddling?), the education of their children (public school vs. private vs. homeschooling vs. unschooling?), and discipline (spanking vs. timeouts vs. grounding vs. no punishments?) are all, when done within moderation and for the good of their children, good and fine. The methods may raise different children—but there is beauty in diversity. Gopnik agrees with me on this point: “Should you co-sleep with your babies or let them cry it out? Should strollers face front or back? How much homework should children have? How much time should they spend on the computer? There is almost no evidence that any of this has much predictable effect on what children will be like when they grow up.”
There are some things every parent-gardener must do. They must care for the soil surrounding their plants (fostering a home environment that is safe, nurturing, supportive, and healthy). They must prune and weed around their plants (promoting healthy discipline and fostering social and educational atmospheres that help, not hurt, their children). They must water their plants (providing verbal, physical, and emotional cues that encourage their children and let them know they are loved).
If you’re doing these things, it’s likely your plants (a.k.a. kids) will flourish. They may turn out differently than you might expect—but as any gardener will tell you, just because you thought you’d planted a gardenia doesn’t mean you’ll be disappointed when it turns out to be a rhododendron. Each plant is gorgeous, sweet, and awe-inspiring in its way.
Gracy Olmstead is senior staff writer for The American Conservative.