May 20, 2014

Trial & Error: The Garden Plots of Parenting.

child garden hose water outside plant

Years ago, when I worked in downtown Boulder, I used to park my car on one of the side-streets and walk the few blocks to my office.

En route, I would pass a house with the most extraordinary garden in the front, billowing and fearless, like the gardens I remember from London when I lived there. It became a tradition during the warmer months to take a few moments to stop and appreciate this garden. The love, the attention, the nourishment required to inspire it all to grow so exquisitely.

One day, the woman who lived at the house was out front weeding as I walked by. I told her how much her garden meant to me, how the care she gave to her plants affected everyone who passed by.

I asked her if she had any gardening advice for a novice like myself.

Smiling and sweaty, she said, Trial and error. So much of what you see here now are what replaced other plants that didn’t do well in the same spot. You just keep trying things until something works.

I must admit, I was a little shocked. That’s it? Just keep trying new things?

It didn’t take long for me to realize what stellar advice this is, applicable to a wide range of situations. Perhaps most of all: parenting.

So many parenting successes stem from a string of parenting disasters and forfeits that simply did not work before. (I intentionally do not use the word failure, because it insinuates that something went wrong which is very different from something not working.)

Frankly, I think one of the great wisdoms in parenting is to be able to surrender and change the course when something is not working. Without judgment or expectation.

In a previous blog, I mentioned the stumbled-upon success we have had by including movement into Opal’s morning routine. Adding jumping jacks and obstacle courses to buoy the getting-dressed-brush-hair-clean-up process has been a grand triumph.

Today, we are tending to a different section of the garden: meltdowns.

I have written extensively about Opal’s meltdowns over the last few years (she is four-and-a-half now), the big emotions that hijack her right brain and take her for a frenzied ride until they spit her out, exhausted and warn.

The approach that has had the most success is to stay with her, to remind her that I am here, that I love her and that this will pass. Turning away—though it is the most instinctual thing to do—simply adds fuel to her distress. Punishment isn’t appropriate, because her thinking-brain is long gone.

I am always experimenting with ways for Opal to feel as if she is able to maintain some sense of power within these floods of emotion, because she often seems helpless, just waiting for these big feelings to have their way with her until they’ve had enough.

This week, we are practicing being present using the ever-available tools of our senses.

The first time went like this: we were playing her Clifford Boardgame. Something happened—could have been anything—and she flew off the handle, yelling, screaming, face turning crimson and shiny. It was not directed toward me as much as at the world.

A garbage truck drove by outside at that exact moment, perfectly timed and supremely loud. Louder than her screams.

Honey, I said. Do you hear that?

She paused. A garbage truck.

A-ha! A crack in the mortar! Glorious day!

Anything else? There was a pause in the wake of the garbage truck, in the wake of her yelling, to reveal a harmony of springtime birds.

Birds, she said.

And we went on like this for a short while.

What do you see? Elvis (our dog, always brings a smile), a pink tulip out front, mommy’s funny hair.

What do you smell? Toast from breakfast, (I handed her an unlit candle:) MMM, vanilla. What do you taste? (I handed her some water). Cold water. What do you feel? (She reached over to pet Elvis.) Elvis’ soft ears. Oh Juka, Oh Cheddar…

And off she went into her spoken-word zone of making up terms of endearment for Elvis.

The meltdown was all but forgotten.

Now, let me be the first to say situations are rarely this cleanly executed. But on those rare occasions when they are, when something actually works, I throw the roots of that moment into the garden soil just as fast as I can.


Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Dan Hughes/Flickr


Read 4 Comments and Reply

Read 4 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Heather Grimes  |  Contribution: 11,600