The Gardening Metaphor That Will Make You a Less Anxious Parent

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My husband will always remember 2011 as the year of the spinach miracle.

We were living in Baltimore City, and he wanted to try his hand at growing vegetables in pots on our itty-bitty back porch. He planted spinach in the fall, with the intention of harvesting it before the bitter winter hit.

But when harvest time came around, there wasn’t a single green leaf to pluck. His city-living potted plant experiment had failed.

My husband was disappointed, for sure, but he quickly let it go and started daydreaming about a new round of plants for the spring.

But one March afternoon, before the chill of winter had even lifted, my husband walked out our back door, looked down, and did a double take.

There, underneath a thin layer of remaining snow, was a little pot overflowing with hearty dark green leaves.

Unbeknown to him, that so-called failed spinach plant had survived—thrived, even!—through wind and snow and bitter cold temps. It was such an unexpected victory. We smiled and laughed about it for weeks as we assembled many a spinach salad.

Little did I know years later that simple story would change my whole perspective on being a mom.

The Gardening Metaphor That Will Make You a Less Anxious Parent

The Carpenter Parent

I thought about that spinach recently when I listened to an interview with developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, author of The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children

Gopnik argues that the concept of “parenting” has evolved in recent decades to be a lot more action-oriented. We think of parenting as something we DO TO our kids—which is different from generations past.

The problem with this mindset is we can begin to see ourselves as carpenters and our children as unformed blocks of wood we must shape into functional members of society.

There’s a right and a wrong way to do it, so we’re told, and if we manage to chisel our children the right way…

…follow the right rules

…sign up for the best after school activities

…feed them only GMO-free foods

…send them to that top-notch preschool where they start prepping for the SATs at age 3

…dress them in the “right” clothes

…adhere to the proper screen time limits, down to the minute 

…cover our walls with stunning family portraits

…and manage to fold and put away their laundry on the same day

…we will carve them into healthy, secure, successful adults—and we’ll all get our happy ending, wrapped up with a pretty bow.

It sounds lovely!

But does it work that way?

Certainly not.

Does it at least make us calmer, less anxious parents? 

Surprisingly, no.

Carpenter parents seem to have every detail of their children’s lives nailed. But when no one’s watching, they’re almost always the frazzled-panicky-pull-your-hair-out-stay-up-until-2am-break-down-over-spilled-milk-stress-ball parents.

And understandably so! If we buy into the notion that the “right” ingredients lead to a desirable outcome for our children (and therefore the “wrong” ones lead to the stuff of parental nightmares) then naturally we’re going to bust our tails to do everything right!

But guess what? There’s a better metaphor—and a better way.

The Gardener Parent

As my husband’s spinach story proves, gardening is quite different from chiseling wood.

Anyone who’s planted a garden—or even just tried to keep a houseplant alive—knows that the process is not nearly so straightforward.

In gardening, there are some elements that are within your control, like pulling out the weeds and creating good drainage. But there are an equal number of factors that you surrender to the universe, like when that summer drought is going to end or whether the backyard rabbits are going to dig up your tender veggies for breakfast.

Sometimes the universe disappoints you with watery, tasteless tomatoes. 

But sometimes it surprises you with snow-covered spinach. 

All the gardener can do is create the optimal conditions for the vegetables or the flowers to flourish and then LET THE REST GO.

This, then, is how the gardening parent sees her role. Not as the ultimate influence on her children, but as the creator of a protected space in which her children can grow into their true selves.

Gardener parents are different from carpenter parents in that they don’t see their kids as blank slates just waiting for good parents to mold them properly. 

Rather, gardening parents are just providing plenty of sunshine, pulling out the weeds, and watching with excitement to see what unfolds.

Wait, How Does This Make Me Less Anxious? 

The key issue here is control. 

The carpenter believes she’s in complete control of that block of wood and is capable of turning it into a beautiful, sturdy chair.

In contrast, the gardener believes she’s only in control of a few things. On her own, she cannot create a bed of roses—and she can never be certain whether those roses will wilt or bloom. 

But what if being in control is what calms my anxiety?

In the short-term, maybe. For many people, feeling in control is way more comfortable. 

But here’s the thing: Even the carpenter parent doesn’t really have control. It’s just the illusion of control. 

What truly calms us is recognizing that our children’s life outcomes do not sit squarely on our parental shoulders. We can officially let go of the pressure to orchestrate a sneaky-clean existence for our kids. That heavy burden is lifted.

Now this doesn’t mean I’m going to be any less engaged as a mom. What it does mean is that I’m going to put my limited energy in what I CAN control:

– My attitude and emotional wellbeing

– My physical and mental presence 

– The general atmosphere of our home

– My willingness to be open, honest, and vulnerable with my children

And the rest? I can put down and let go.

The Best Part of Being a Gardener Parent

So much of our anxiety as parents comes from wanting to “do it right” so that our kids turn out ok. If we think like carpenters, we believe we have ultimate control over making that happen—which is a lot of pressure. 

But if we instead think like gardeners, we can put down the puppet strings and breathe a sigh of relief. The best part of doing so is the same as that snow-covered spinach my husband stumbled across on the porch.

When we give up the illusion of control, we get more than just emotional freedom as parents. We also get the joy of watching our children become who they truly are. 

They might not become what we envisioned.

They might not become what we thought we wanted.

But they will bloom into the people they are meant to be, and that will be beautiful indeed.

The Gardening Metaphor That Will Make You a Less Anxious Parent