When my twins (who are now 11) were about a year old, we lived on a 500-acre
former commune in far northern California. Surrounded by wild creeks and lush forest, we reaped the benefit of a massive garden filled with both annual and perennial vegetables, fruit and nut trees. My boys were like feral garden gnomes, roaming naked and muddy through the aisles, gleaning all manner of fresh (often not exactly ripe) food and stuffing themselves gleefully. Peas, tomatoes, green beans, yellow beans, cucumbers, zucchinis and summer squash, greens such as spinach, cilantro and fennel, and of course endless quantities of windfall fruit. They would try almost anything once; eggplant, kale, broccoli, even raw onions. Their poop resembled the scat of a wild bear or coyote, colorful and packed full of seeds.
This exuberance lasted several years, the two of them trailing after me with miniature trowels and rakes, “helping” by digging networks of trenches and creating dirt mountains. As they got older they graduated to helping with the harvest of tomatoes and peas, planting bigger seeds like beets, and eventually planting delicate seedlings, fussing over them like mother cats. They grew their own melons and pickling cucumbers at 8 and entered several vegetables in the fair when they were 9, coming home with a surprising bounty of cash prizes (though in reality, they had done a small portion of the actual tending). I felt satisfied that I had spawned the sensitive, earth loving, back to the landers I hoped to add to the population of white men.
As the years passed, however, it became increasingly difficult for me to deny their growing disinterest in gardening. At first, I was able to counter this with simple tricks. It was just a matter of making a game out of it or enticing them with a new tool or responsibility. Once I got them out there, I knew, they would lose themselves in the loamy sweetness of being a kid in a garden, the sheer joy of throwing mud at their brother consuming hours on end. It didn’t really matter if they actually accomplished a specific task, I told myself, it was enough for them to soak up the environment. But, slowly, I grudgingly began to recognize that even those attractions were not working. They just did not want to go into the garden, for any reason. Briefly (I hope ) I experimented with guilt – “you like to eat potatoes, right?”, coercion – “this is what it means to be part of this family- we work in the garden, together!”, even full-on bribery -“how much do you want me to pay you?!”
And, eventually, I have had to succumb. I have to accept that my feral, earthy children hate gardening.
So, now what? Last year I spent whatever time I had in the garden alone (having a baby that was still too small to romp outside). I missed their rowdy company, even though the quiet has its appeal. It was maddening to see them spending hours reading on the couch while I struggled to plant a few potatoes, all the while hauling an (often unhappy) baby on my back. The temptation to make it a requirement was strong. Gardening has always been a part of our lifestyle, something we depend on to keep the bills down. Its a huge part of my partner’s and my identity, our belief system that values connecting to the elements and understanding our food sources. It felt like a fundamental failure to see them reject it.
We tried making it part of our homeschool program, since obviously (to us) it has inherent educational value. This partially worked, since they seemed to decide that digging garden beds was at least better than doing math worksheets (the ever-present threat). However, it did not achieve either of two of our most important goals, cultivating (sorry!) a true love of gardening, or creating a joyful and empowered schooling experience, since it wasn’t a true choice.
We tried to be creative, to think of something that would entice their middle-grade practicality. We had raised goats and horses when they were too young to remember. So when we decided to delve into animal husbandry again, we saw an opportunity. Having an excellent poultry barn on our new property, it made sense to go into the egg business, and we thought the boys might relish the opportunity to try their hand at entrepreneurship. This too was an abject failure. Most of the chores were too physically difficult for them, they were terrified of the rooster, the eggs rotted when they were supposed to collect them. My partner and I sighed and quickly took over the business that was meant to be theirs.
Like so often with parenting, I am slowly accepting yet another thing I have to let go of. It’s harder than I want to admit. Even though I have a strong value in letting kids interests guide them, (and being an unschooling blog, most readers likely share that value), I have to remind myself occasionally of the effects of bludgeoning children into tasks they are not developmentally inclined to. For me, this is best accomplished by conjuring an image of a family I once knew, a family of seven children that were trying to grow as much of their own food as possible. I will never forget the day I walked into the community center they were using to can tomatoes and witnessed the mother screaming at her children, ordering them that they were not to leave the building until every last tomato was chopped and processed. The table was filled to the brim with boxes of the fruit and surrounded by angry, sullen children. I felt certain that none of them would ever so much as plant a flower, once they were on their own.
The other day I was talking with a friend about my disappointment in my non-gardening children. She told me a story about visiting her son in college recently and overhearing a conversation in which he proudly described his experience cultivating and cooking various foods. She found this surprising since she remembers him showing zero interest in the process. Her feeling was that although he was dispassionate at the time, he has retained some pride and knowledge about the lifestyle of growing and preserving food (which admittedly has become a sort of fashion statement recently).
This led me to consider a pattern I have noticed in my boys but had hitherto brushed aside. When it is time to bring out the seeds in the spring- as it is right now- the boys tend to participate in the conversations, looking up from their books to add a brief opinion here and there about which broccoli to start, or which type of grow light works best. Last year, although they rarely went into the garden (except to raze the ripe peas), they would show spontaneous curiosity about how the plants were doing, were the voles eating the carrots, did we think the squash would actually ripen before the frost? And I have noticed them jumping into conversations at the farmers market or permaculture center about various techniques they have learned, or bragging about their prize-winning cucumbers from 3 years ago.
Could it be that, although the actual labor of growing and caring for food is clearly abhorrent to them now, somewhere in their adolescent consciousness is a secret place for gardening? Could it be that, although it seems essential to their growing identities to reject the mundane parts of our lifestyle, somewhere deep inside they are nurturing the fascination and wonder they once had for the miracle of life? Could it be that, when their hearts and minds are ready to make their own mark on the world, this seed of wonder, of knowledge absorbed through the osmosis of childhood, will be enough to give them the head start I wish for them? Of course, I have no way of knowing, as is the way of parenting and of life in general. But, when I ask those questions, I think, maybe it could be.