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Are Parents Sculptors or Gardeners? Insights from the Parent Powerline
Saturday, October 15, 2022 by Becky Cerling Powers

When our first baby was born, I had the great good fortune to be friends with Ruth, a writer who was a dozen years older than me. Ruth had three big assets for me – she delighted in her four children, she was going through a mid-life crisis, and she stuttered.

Ruth’s practical approach and obvious enjoyment of her kids provided me with a wonderful role model. And because she was going through a mid-life crisis, Ruth was re-evaluating her life and close relationships. And because Ruth stuttered, she did more thinking than talking. When she finally decided to say something, her words were brief but powerful. Her pithy observations gave me lots to mull over.

Ruth’s parenting metaphor

Ruth was the youngest of 13 children, so she had been able to watch quite a few of her brothers and sisters raise their families before she started raising hers. She said she noticed that her siblings viewed their children as lumps of clay to be molded and formed. But she felt that was the wrong mental image.

Instead, she said, she viewed her family as a mystery garden from God and her four children as little sprouts in the garden. Her task as a mother was first, to figure out what kind of plant each child was. (Was she tending a rose bush or an apple tree? A field of onions or a grape vine?) Her second task was to provide the very best growing conditions for that kind of plant.

Molding or nurturing?

So when I saw parents trying to mold their child into a particular future (“My son is going to be a high school football star,” or “My daughter is going to be a nurse”) I realized it was like going into a garden and saying, “I’m going to turn this plant into a pecan tree.” That only works if the plant is already a pecan tree.

If the sprout is really a raspberry bush, parents will be frustrated when, instead of a tall tree with hard, crunchy pecans, they get a prickly bush with soft berries they are unprepared to do anything. They’ll be disappointed with their crop of sweet, luscious berries. And they’ll say stupid things to their raspberry bush like “Why don’t you produce pecans like your brother?” Instead of providing a trellis for their little climbing rose, parents with a molding mindset will  punish her for not staying in place.

So Ruth’s metaphor helped shape my parenting.

What my dad had to say

Perhaps Ruth’s observation made extra good sense to me because, although my parents used different words to express it, I now realize they raised their six children with the same philosophy. And I saw what healthy relationships they had with all their adult children.

“What should parents do to have a good relationship with their kids?” I asked my dad once when I was interviewing him for a Father’s Day parenting column.

He said, “First it’s important to have lots of shared activities.” So my parents did what they loved and included us children. Sometimes we were interested in doing those things, and sometimes weren’t. But either way, sharing a great variety of activities with us made it possible for my parents to do what Dad said was the second important thing: observe your children closely to discover who they really are – what their individual interests and talents are. Dad called this recognizing your child’s natural bent. “Parents,” he said, “need to do whatever they can to help their children follow their natural bent.”

Sharing activities and encouraging special interests

So my parents gardened, and we kids helped bring in the harvest. Mom showed us how to help her make homemade jellies, jams, and applesauce from harvested fruit. Mom liked to bake, so we all learned to bake cookies and cakes. She liked to sew, so she taught my sister and me to hem our skirts, make doll clothes and eventually use the sewing machine. Dad liked woodworking, but none of my brothers showed any interest until they were adults themselves.

My sister liked art and house design, so Dad encouraged her to take a drafting class in high school even though in those days, drafting was considered a class for boys only. My brothers liked sports, so Dad practiced with them and my parents cheered them at their games. They liked science, so Mom and Dad took them to science museums and my dad took them around to his construction sites and told them about engineering problems he had to solve.

Our whole family loved music. We sang in the car on long drives and our parents stretched their budget to give us music lessons. Often after supper Dad gathered us all up to sing while he played his mandolin, I played piano, one brother played bass fiddle and the other brothers played guitar.

How Mom and Dad encouraged my writing

They encouraged our interests. I liked to write, so they praised me by telling me specifically what they liked about things I wrote. For example, Mom might say, “I especially like the way you described the dog in your essay. It gave me a vivid picture and made me laugh.” They encouraged me to write to foreign pen pals, and my mom and I wrote to each other when I went to summer camp. I kept a journal, too, and my parents made my sister and brothers respect my privacy and keep my journal private.

In high school they encouraged me to join the high school newspaper staff and write for the school’s creative writing anthology. When a local weekly newspaper invited four students, each from a different local suburban high school, to publish a monthly column about what was happening at their school, my teacher got me the job writing the column about my high school. My parents cut out and saved my columns, showing me their interest in my work.

By my senior year in high school, I knew I wanted to go to college. But I had no idea what to choose for a major. I liked history and literature and psychology. What should I choose? Then my mom saw an article in the newspaper about a brand-new journalism scholarship, and she told me I should apply for it. I was positive I wouldn’t get it, but my mom wanted me to apply, so I did, using the newspaper columns my parents had clipped for the required samples of my writing. And I won the scholarship. So that’s why I majored in journalism.

My parents understood me much better than I understood myself. By steering me toward journalism, they gave me the push I needed to get the right kind of university training for the kind of writer I am.

Six kids, six different, fulfilling careers

My folks used the same loving approach with all six of their children. Today my sister is a well-known artist in Houston with her work on display in the Houston airport. I am a journalist, columnist, and author. One of my brothers is a geology professor who is in the National Academy of Sciences and made discoveries that people use in crime labs to solve murder cases. Another brother is a clinical psychologist. My next brother designs computer chips and helped send a spaceship to the moon. And my youngest brother is an English professor. Six different kids, six different professions, all of us enjoying our work and our families.

© Becky Cerling Powers 2021

Reprint with attribution only https://beckypowers.com/

This article is reprinted from Becky’s book: Sticky Fingers, Sticky Minds: quick reads for helping kids thrive 

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