It may seem like the last thing the world needs is another parenting style. There is attachment parenting and peaceful parenting; helicopter parenting and slow parenting; tiger parenting and elephant parenting; RIE parenting and the CTFD method. I’m going to sweep these aside for a moment and focus on an analogy: Raising kids is like raising wildflowers.
Wildflowers are not easy to grow
A lot of people think wildflowers are easy to grow. This is a common misconception among non-gardeners, not unlike the way some people think raising kids is easy before they have children of their own. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, what wildflowers need to thrive is “a considerable amount of early attention, and most of all patience.” In fact, “you should not expect to see blooms the first year, or even the second year with some species. But the reward is well worth the work and the wait.” Sounds a lot like parenting, right? LOTS of early attention. SO MUCH patience. Sometimes it feels like you will never see the blooms. But then you catch just a small glimpse of a bloom and it feels pretty amazing.
Wildflowers are resilient and adaptable
Once established, wildflowers are strong and resilient. Once you get past the early years, they don’t require constant attention. They can thrive in environments that would destroy other, more delicate flowers. You can find wildflowers peeking out from the dry cracks of desert ground, creating colorful displays in wet marshlands, and thriving in all conditions in between. Wildflowers have an astounding ability to adapt to their environments and are among the first plants to survive and thrive when the environment changes.
Another species with a remarkable ability to adapt to changing conditions is humans. Although our brains and biology prepare us for life in hunter-gatherer tribes – the life we lived for about 90% of our existence as a species – we’ve been able to adapt to numerous changes in the organization of life, from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution to the digital revolution. The change of pace has never been more rapid than it is today, which means that the ability to adapt to new conditions has never been more important. Thankfully, wildflowers are well-equipped to do this, given the right start in life.
Julie Lythcott-Haims, Stanford University’s former freshman dean of students and author of How to Raise an Adult, tells the story of parenting her two boys at an early age. She began her parenting years expecting the work of motherhood to be similar to a gardener shaping bonsai trees – constantly working to clip and prune them into perfect, pre-determined forms. After working with thousands of other people’s kids as they were entering college, though, she realized the bonsai method wasn’t the type of parenting that produced successful kids. Kids aren’t bonsai trees. They can’t be shaped into someone else’s idea of what they should look like. Kids need room to grow freely, explore, learn about their environment, and become their “glorious selves.” They are wildflowers.
A happy medium
In her book, Unequal Childhoods, sociologist Annette Laureau describes two distinct parenting styles. The first, concerted cultivation, primarily practiced by middle-class parents and above, involves the classic overscheduled lifestyle of tutoring, piano lessons, soccer, and swimming lessons in addition to school. These parents are raising kids the way a gardener cultivates a perfectly manicured flower bed: careful planning; preparing the soil; incessant watering and weeding. Parents are heavily involved in their children’s lives and there is little separation between the world of adults and the world of children. Adults take children seriously, reason with them, listen to them, and negotiate with them. This tends to produce kids who are well-versed in how to interact with adults and advocate for themselves. But there is a downside. Due to busy schedules and constant adult intervention, kids who grow up this way often lack the freedom to play with friends, develop close bonds with siblings, and make up their own games without a scrutinizing adult presence evaluating their skills. In short, they rarely get to just be a kid. Some also argue that this parenting style can lead to a sense of entitlement in kids.
The other parenting style Lareau describes is the accomplishment of natural growth. This parenting style is practiced primarily by working class families and relies on trust in the spontaneous growth and development of children into well-functioning adults, with adults stepping in to correct behavior when needed. Families adhering to this parenting style give their kids plenty of freedom to play and lots of opportunity to develop deep bonds with siblings, cousins, and neighborhood kids. They don’t micromanage their children’s interactions – they tend to swoop in to issue orders and make sure they are followed, and then swoop out again. They don’t spend a lot of time explaining things to their children or reasoning with them. These children grow up learning how to cope with hearing “no” and things not going their way, but the downside is they don’t always develop the communication and negotiation skills that can be useful for interacting with or advocating for yourself with teachers, professors, employers, health care professionals, or other people in positions of authority.
I believe a growing number of parents are realizing that we can capture the best of both of these worlds. I call it wildflower parenting. Wildflower parenting doesn’t involve the constant pruning necessary for a meticulous garden. It recognizes that little humans arrive in the world as themselves and no amount of weeding or watering will turn them into something else. Wildflower parenting involves plenty of opportunity for free play, imagination, and deep bonds with the ones closest to us. It means knowing that wildflowers are resilient, but also recognizing the importance of the environment for thriving and growth. It also involves taking kids seriously and preparing them for the new territory they will one day enter without us.
Wildflowers make the world beautiful
Wildflowers are part of a complex ecosystem that makes life possible, and along the way, more beautiful. Their beauty lies in being exactly who they are supposed to be. Some wildflowers are brightly colored, and others are subtler in their appearance. Some reach for the sky and others stay close to the earth. Some flower early in the season and others late. They turn out exactly how they should, and no one needs to stand over them, pruning and weeding and watering and pushing them to try to be just a little more brightly colored or to stop standing out so much. Wildflowers were never meant to be a perfectly manicured garden. And that’s what makes them beautiful.