In previous articles, (Fear of Loss, Hope of Gain and Tend Your Garden) we explored what lessons could be learned from gardening and how these same principles (planting the right seeds at the right time) would yield success (good fruit) in our family “garden.” In this third article I will share one more analogy I learned from our garden that had a great effect on how we raised our children.
We bought a peach tree. When the nurseryman came to plant it for us, he pulled out his pocketknife and cut it back severely. I thought he had killed it. Surely his pruning was too severe. “No,” he said. “The tree needs to direct its energy to putting down good roots. Once those are developed, it can draw up resources to put out leaves and fruit when it’s time. If it tries to make leaves and fruit too early, it will not be able to sustain them.”
Then he staked the trunk of the tree with three soft ropes lashed to pickets. “Leave these in place for three years,” he instructed. “Adjust them as the tree grows, to make sure they give firm support but aren’t so tight that they’ll cut into the bark.” After three years we were to remove them. “If you leave the supports on too long, the trunk will never develop the strength it needs to stand firm on its own. It will be weak and dependent on the ropes.”
This is my theory (and you are free to disagree). When children are little, they need a rather small world so that they can grow rooted in God and family. They will need the resources of a loving family and a faithful Heavenly Father when they go out into the larger world. Trim early involvement in too many activities and too much socialization until they have the spiritual strength to sustain godly behavior. We do want them to be good witnesses and bear fruit for the Lord, but that has to be the overflow of inner strength.
When it comes to discipline, put a few firm—but gentle—guidelines in place early. In our house, there were only three major offenses: disrespect, disobedience, and dishonesty. Everything else was a childish mistake that could be discussed, but those three rules were non-negotiable. It was never okay to dishonor parents or intentionally make someone else feel bad about themselves. It was never okay to deliberately disobey, and it was never acceptable to lie. We adapted the house rules occasionally as the children grew, but the boundaries were always clear. In that way, we bypassed many discipline problems. Once in a while a child will test the boundaries to see if they are really there, but there is a lot of security when he knows in advance what is expected. It frees children to enjoy clear consciences and builds good self-images when they have done well.
When the time comes, do not forget to remove the ropes. That can be scary, but if children only obey because we force them, how will they learn to answer to God for themselves? I have seen many loving parents be lenient when their children are young and then panic and cinch down with restrictions during the teen years. That is a recipe for rebellion. Instead, we put firm boundaries and clear guidelines in place when our children were young and gradually loosened them as our children developed character and proved that they were trustworthy. Their teen years were not without mistakes, but that was a time when our adolescents could try things on their own while they still had the safety net of good counsel at home.
The nurseryman’s advice seems to have worked. Our children are now young adults, firmly rooted in their faith, bearing fruit in every good work, and standing firm in a real faith of their own.