Gardening Made Me a Better Parent

gardening-parenting illustration
Illustration by Olga Strelnikova

During pandemic, I started rage gardening—ordering English roses and installing trellises and even hauling carloads of rocks from a local quarry to fill in a formerly weedy area. I was angry about being stuck at home and mad at my kid for not meeting my expectations (hey he was frustrated at being stuck at home too). And what I thought was an escape from my parental disappointment turned into the craziest extended metaphor for what could be improved in my parenting style.

Because as it turns out, I’m not alone, having since learned that a top cognitive psychologist has actually written a book about how the life lessons you learn in gardening are actually applicable to raising a well-adjusted child.

Indeed, according to Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, the willingness to accept and nurture a child’s unique abilities, preferences and (gulp) intermittent failures is a lot like what a successful gardener does with her plot of land. In her book The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children Gopnik says that, these days, loving parents too often try to create a particular child (Social! Sporty! Suitable college material!) rather than easing up on the goals and embracing life’s messy unpredictability. In other words, you can’t carpenter your way into hammering out your idea of a good kid, but you can grow something unexpectedly wonderful. Every little flower just needs the right environment.

I’d read about child-directed parenting styles before, and cherry-picked some ideas that worked for our family, such as the jellyfish parenting resistance to overpacked scheduling. But a year’s worth of gardening (which, btw, intensely elevated my mood, health and general self-esteem) taught me in a much more tangible way how to work with my son, rather than against him.

So, in honor of spring, when those lucky enough to have gardens are tending them and those fortunate enough to have children are watching them (ahem) bloom, here are five gardening rules that double as parenting tenets.

1. Walk the Perimeter Daily (Look and Listen)

Is that potato vine successfully leafing out? Are those elephant ears looking droopy? What looks different today than yesterday? That’s what I’m asking myself as I take a quick walk around the garden with my morning coffee. Close observation isn’t a natural tendency of mine, but I’ve grown into it, as I’ve witnessed it not only allowing me to truly savor the day-to-day, but also as an early warning detection method (is that a spot on my lemon tree? Is my asparagus fern looking a bit too pale?). Similarly, that’s what morning school drop-off has become—a 45-minute experience of waking up my teen son, then noticing how he feels, noting the music he’s listening to in our car ride (high energy? mellow?), his level of grouchiness or animation. For better or worse, my son is about as communicative in the morning as a shrub, so I have to use similar powers of observation to assess his health and well-being.

2. Consult the Experts

Not proud of this, but my family is not unlike the formerly barren corner of backyard that until a few years ago was something I tried not to look at. An unpretty, scorched Earth patch, really. A long family illness left us all dazed, and let’s just say I had no idea where to begin in order to heal my son’s misbehavior and our family’s dysfunction—I just wished everything would sort itself out. Lucky for us, through a series of therapeutic interventions, community outreach, mental health consults, spiritual practice, the list goes on…we’re back on track. Not gonna lie, it’s been terrifying, painful and costly; however the wisdom both my son and I have gained is more precious than rubies.

Similarly, at some point during this five-year miasma, I just couldn’t stand looking out at that tangle of clothesline and rubble in the corner backyard. When I angrily started trying to work the sun-baked hard pack, my shovel’s wooden handle snapped. That’s because the task was impossible alone. But in the years since, I’ve intermittently scheduled garden design consults, installed property-wide drip irrigation and designed then constructed a 10-foot rose trellis. (Somewhere in there I flew to England to visit Vita Sackville-West’s fabled white garden for inspiration.) Just like with my family, I was terrified that everything I did was too little, too late and misplaced: Would that olive tree, the one I scrimped to buy, even live in that former scorched earth? Why is there no money-back guarantee?! Today that olive has grown taller, lavender is blooming and white roses are climbing the trellis, thanks to my persistent questioning of people with horticultural experience and training.

3. Don’t Let the Weeding Go Untended

‘Look,’ I can hear you skeptics saying, ‘this loosey-goosey “bloom where you’re planted” philosophy sounds great, but we’re raising future adults here, ones that can hurt themselves and others if they don’t follow the rules.” Ah, that’s where the weeding comes in. When my lawn’s errant blades poke up through the nearby flowerbed’s mulch, I pull them out, since it looks better that way and my lavender and roses need space and nutrients to grow. That’s because it’s my garden, and within natural limits, I get to have it my way.

Similarly, I set limits when my teen son wants to do any old thing like blow off his curfew, skim his homework or forget to walk the dogs. Following our metaphor, the weed removal here is, conversely, the set of consequences I lay down for him. He doesn’t get an allowance or video game play time if he doesn’t fulfill his end of the parenting-teen bargain. It’s all written out in a home contract that we developed with a family therapist and re-negotiate every few months as needed—because much like weeds, things are always popping up that require tending.

4. Make the Seasonal Plan

Type A’s, skip to the next bullet point. The rest of us clueless parents, circle up: Planning, contrary to being the unfun time waster that it seems, is really an investment in a peaceful day-to-day. I’ve learned this, surprisingly, not from years of scorn as the mom-who-didn’t-bring-snacks or as the person madly calling for summer-camp openings in June, but from my plants. When are you going to fertilize? What’s the watering schedule? Are these the right months for design or hardscape changes? All of these considerations are important in your garden, when you’ll need to order inventory or contract planters ahead of time. And somehow, my successes at thinking ahead in the garden have made me better at planning seasonally with my son. Previously, my fear of planning the wrong thing rendered me immobile, thereby making the problem worse. But I’ve since learned that it’s worth the up-front work to get a plan in place, even if it’s not the perfect plan. (After all, what is?) Today I make a few calls, bring up the topic, say summer plans, or possible birthday goings-on, with my son, keep calling, until we have our expectations set. And pro tip—I noticed I was confused about what time to fertilize and apply fungicide to my plants, so I got a planner...and my kid's assignments /appointments are getting logged in there, too.

5. Trust the Life Force

I was one of those children a friend nicknamed a “plug-and-play” kid—you basically left me alone with a book. I followed rules. I sought to please adults. My son, not so much. He loves to push boundaries and by nature has a rapid-fire and well-reasoned argument for anything he disagrees with. And here we are, together in the Age of No More ‘Because-I-Said-So’ Parenting. As a result, I’ve had to learn to listen to my son, then pay close attention in real time to what I’m hearing, without ratcheting my anxiety up to the what-if-he-doesn’t-follow-my-directions-what-if-he-loses-his-temper-what-if-I’m-a-terrible-parent-this-shouldn’t-be-so-hard level. The only way I’m able to survive and provide the emotional and material support he needs is through first being patient with the process. (Thank you, deep breathing.) I don’t know what the future holds, for him or for me. After all, as gardener Vita Sackville-West wrote, “no gardener would be a gardener if he did not live in hope.” Gradually, I have learned that what works with him is patience, like the kind that’s been so rewarding in my garden. I was told that a scrawny stick would become a handsome flower bush if I followed certain steps, and months later, it did. I look at that little bush today and think of how my kid is much the same, a growing work in progress that I need to have faith in, nurture and let show me what he’s got.

Because sure, I'd love to just walk out my door into a lush paradise without any work. Or have my kid just bound over the threshold with an A+ essay that I hadn't nagged him to finish. But in either case, where’s the satisfaction in that?

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dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...