A couple of summers ago, I planted some grape tomato plants in my garden as I usually do. I decided this particular year that I would stake them up with very strong and thick stakes, instead of previously tried (and untrue) methods to keep them up off the ground. I also decided for some reason to plant four of them in a square pattern rather than in a traditional row.
In the beginning, everything was fine. I tied each plant to its stake as it grew. But then our family went out of town for a week. The week before the trip I was preparing to go, so I did not go into the garden much, and of course the week we were gone I did not go at all. So you can imagine that when I returned I found that my tomato plants had grown quite a bit, and that the main stems were very thick and no longer pliable like they had previously been.
I so badly wanted the main stems to go up the stake that I began pulling on them to see if I could still make it happen. I was semi-successful with one plant, but another one started to break as I pulled on it. I decided at this point that my original goal was not worth it, and instead got out more stakes and sticks to hold up the main stems, as well as any additional shoots that were growing. It was a mess — with stems everywhere! It was especially crowded and tangled in the middle of these four plants.
Over the course of the summer I found myself grumbling often at myself for not doing a better job of training the plant properly when it was young. Whenever I would go into the garden to add more stakes to it, I would find myself thinking that this was such a great analogy for the often quoted Bible verse to “train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
Fast forward two years later to the present time, and I no longer want to use that analogy – because my own children are not so young any more. In some ways I feel like they (at least my oldest two) are like this plant. There are things where I can see that I neglected to “train” them on when they were very young, and I honestly feel that I have lost some golden opportunities. Trying to train them now often feels like I’m trying to pull on a mostly grown plant — there is so much more resistance, and if I pull too hard I fear “breaking the stem.” And so I find myself with similar (though much deeper) feelings of regret to those I felt with my plant.
With this perspective in mind, here are a few things I am learning:
1. Live in the present. With my plant I had a terrible habit of always thinking of either the past (“Why didn’t I do this differently when the plant was small?”) or the future (“next year I’m going to do this better for sure!”). Those thoughts were certainly OK to have once, but every time?? President Monson said once “learn from the past, prepare for the future, and live in the present.” It would have been much better to simply write down my improvement plan for the next year in a place where I could use it when the time came, then let it go, and focus in a more positive way on the situation that was right in front of me.
It’s the same with my kids. Instead of focusing on my past mistakes, it is better to see the situation as it is right now, and think about “what does my child need from me right now, in this moment?” In the same talk, President Monson also said,
“Sometimes we let our thoughts of tomorrow take up too much of today. Daydreaming of the past and longing for the future may provide comfort but will not take the place of living in the present. This is the day of our opportunity, and we must grasp it.”
2. Pay attention. I spent quite a bit of time with my tomato plants because they had so many stems that needed to be staked off the ground. This was good in a way, because it forced me to pay closer attention to them, which helped me to spot trouble before it got out of hand. I pulled off lots of little caterpillars and several of the big green horn worms. I also found what I later learned to be blister beetles, and was able to take care of them before they became totally out of control.
With my kids, it’s easy to get distracted by the day to day stuff that demands my attention and forget to really pay attention to some of the less obvious details in their lives. One example I will share is books. I’m fortunate to have two super-fast readers, and their teachers are thrilled by this and definitely encourage them to read as much as possible. But the “problem” is that they read so fast that it’s difficult for me to keep track of what they are reading, and I’m pretty particular about what types of books I do and do not want them to read! So, I went for a time where I wasn’t paying much attention to what they were reading, but recently I’ve realized the need to observe more closely and have asked them to always show me new books they are reading. It doesn’t undo all of the books they’ve read that I’m not familiar with or unsure about, but it does make for better decision-making going forward. And, of course “paying attention” applies to so many other aspects of parenting as well!
3. Sometimes “pruning” is necessary. It took me a long to time to admit it, but I finally realized that I was going to need to prune these plants. Because they were planted in a square, the middle was a tangled mess, and a lot of tomatoes were going to waste in there. That’s not to mention that it was a great hiding place for all of the pests because I couldn’t see clearly enough to get them. So I finally trimmed some stems and even pulled up one whole plant to make it so I could get to them. It was hard for me to be willing to do, but the situation was so much better after I did!
This would obviously be analogous to reducing certain things in my children’s lives that don’t accomplish what I know is needful for them. Maybe some activities outside the home, or screen time, or even stuff that they own. But I think it could also be applied to any of the difficult or painful rules or consequences that we as parents have to enforce. I think of the story “The Currant Bush” (I love this story!!!) where the bush seems to be upset because it was growing so tall and thought it was going to be grand like the fruit trees around it. But the gardener knew that in order to produce its fruit, it needed to be cut back. Later, it is quoted (and I wonder if my children will ever say to me), “Thank you for loving me enough to cut me down.” Even if they don’t ever say it, I can remember in my own heart that sometimes a little “pruning” is exactly what is needed.
4. Notice the good they do and give plenty of praise. I was so frustrated by the problems I felt my plant had that I must admit I forgot to be grateful for the good job it was doing producing tomatoes for us. But not my husband….he was always so happy anytime anything was brought in from the garden. Last year, he was the one who planted and took care of the garden (I felt that I needed a break from it). His wasn’t any more perfect than mine, but when I asked him if he was frustrated by it, he responded by saying, “all I care about is that I get food from it.” Then he proudly showed me all of the food he had just harvested.
About six months ago I came across a blog article titled “how to fix your child’s attitude.” It’s an awesome, uplifting article (in my opinion) about positive changes us moms can make that will in turn influence our children’s attitudes. One thing that she suggested was that if we are frustrated with our children a lot, to write down 3 things daily (or twice a day if needed!) that we like about them. I just loved this advice when I read it, but I’m sorry to say that I’ve only done it once or twice. I know this is something that I can do and also make a point to tell them some of the things I notice when the time is appropriate.
I also read this article recently about praising the child instead of just the behavior, as in “you are a helpful person” rather than “that was a helpful thing to do.” It’s an interesting article that suggests that children will repeat good behavior more often when their character is praised.
5. Stay focused on the main goal.
The most important job of a tomato plant is to produce tomatoes. Other things, like whether it is staked up perfectly straight, are secondary to this main objective. Likewise, with children the most important objective is teaching them what they need to know and do to return to live with our Heavenly Father.
My older children both learned to ride a bike later than most, and this was a source of embarrassment for me for a long time. When we finally got them started on learning, my daughter picked it up right away. But it was harder for my mathematically-minded son, and I didn’t know what to do to help him. I felt a lot of anxiety and guilt about this. So, I was praying about this one day, asking what I should do, and I received a very clear prompting that I should have him read the Book of Mormon. I thought to myself, “Huh? That doesn’t match my concern at all!” But I understood, and I immediately told him that I wanted him to set this as a goal and start reading it every night.
That afternoon, when my husband went outside to mow the lawn, I heard him say to my son, “Go get your shoes on and come ride your bike.” I hadn’t told him anything that I was feeling or about my prayer. When I looked out the window a little while later he was riding it all by himself!
So I try to remind myself when I get worried about my kids, that the most important thing is to stay focused on those things that will help them build their testimonies and eventually be able to live with their Heavenly Father again. Even when they make choices that pull them away from this, I can stay focused on it and use this focus to help me know what to do to help them make better choices.
6. Rely on the Atonement. And finally, it is good to recognize the need for and appreciate the Atonement. The reality is that my tomato plant was not trained upwards as well as it could have been. On the other hand, I have a friend who trains her plants beautifully! She attaches them to large squares of vinyl netting, and consistently prunes them and guides them upwards so that no stems cross over each other. This particular summer, when she went out of town for a couple of weeks she asked me if I would water her garden and pick any ripe produce in it. I was amazed at how easy (and joyful!) it was to pick her tomatoes – especially compared to the challenges I was facing with my own plants. But, the reality is that if I had taken the time in the beginning to do what she had done, mine would have been just as nice.
The same definitely applies to me as a mother. Although there are many things that I’ve done well when it comes to being a mom, I know of some specific things that would have resulted in different (better) outcomes right now if I had approached them differently when my children were small. Nice people may tell me to focus on the things I’ve done right and not worry about the other. Or they may simply tell me that I’m doing the best that I can, and I should be content with that. But I receive the most comfort by acknowledging my mistakes and seeking for the peace that only the Atonement can bring. One thing that I’ve learned in life is that the Atonement does not erase all of the consequences of our actions, but when we make the effort to repent and improve ourselves, we can trust that the Lord will help us be able to handle whatever we need to face as a result of our previous actions.
These are six things that I have learned from those super-sweet grape tomato plants. It’s easy when we are first starting out with something, whether it is our garden or just beginning our family, or anything else, to want everything to be perfect (including ourselves). But the reality is that there are a lot of obstacles to overcome, and in the midst of those obstacles we do not always make the perfect choice. The main thing to remember is to keep trying and to never lose sight of the final goal.
What life lessons have you learned from growing a garden or other plants?