Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Difference Between Plum Trees and Children

The keys to pruning are patience and timing. Good pruning can be the difference between a healthy, happy tree that produces abundant fruit and a tree that struggles to survive. I’ve read lots of articles and books on the subject in an effort to coax fruit from our little orchard of 13 trees. Alas, because I am more of a lackadaisical orchardist, than a rule-following orchardist, we have yet to have any significant yield from our little grove. Each year, about this time, I prune all of our now-not-so-little-anymore trees with the greatest of hopes. It takes me longer every year. I’m not sure if it’s because the trees have grown so much, or because I debate longer with myself about each cut.

This past Sunday as I tromped through the snow to take care of the annual pruning, I once again resolved to be better at caring for these trees. That pretty much involves fertilizing them and nagging my husband to spray them. And pruning them well.

I set to work pruning the dead and unnecessary branches. It’s not always easy to tell which ones should go. You want to train your trees to grow in a way that they can optimize the sunlight. So you remove branches that crowd or cover others. When a branch begins to grow upward instead of outward, you study the branch and seek out a “notch” (where a new branch will most likely grow) that is headed in the direction you would like to see the tree grow. You cut the branch just above the notch so that the tree will send the branch out in the right direction. Then you clear out all the “suckers” which are branches that grow strait up the center of the tree. They are useless freeloaders that only sap the trees resources. It can take hours to make so many important decisions. Some years I’m cautious and others I think just cut where it feels right and hope for the best.

As I worked, I began to think about how parenting is very much like pruning. When the trees are little you have to work hard to start them out right so that they will grow straight and strong. Sunlight, water, and fertilizer are a much bigger deal than pruning, but the little pruning you do is critical.

Sometimes you have to let a branch grow for a while before you can tell if it’s going to be one worth keeping. In the same way you have to let your kids try stuff even if you’re not sure it’s a good fit for them or whether it will be in their best interests in the long run. You can’t know until you’ve given them a chance to try it.

When you see a potentially fruitful notch, you guide the tree to send out a branch in that direction. In the same way, you choose schools, camps, classes, and experiences that will help your kids grow in a healthy direction, setting them on a course for success in the future. You can’t force a tree to grow the way you want it, but you can make it easier for it to choose that route.

As the tree ages, there are lots of suckers. I’ve pruned plenty of suckers from my kids lives too, things like junk food, too much screen time, and sloth (the inclination to lounge about on a beautiful day).

Sometimes the suckers come in human form. When another child seems to be pulling my child in the wrong direction, I have to find ways to steer him or her elsewhere. If I feel my child is not being treated fairly by a teacher, a friend, or pretty-much anyone, sometimes it requires that I stand up for them or teach them to stand up for themselves. Sometimes it means a lesson in tolerance or patience.

The thing about suckers with fruit trees, and with life, is they show up year after year. It takes constant pruning. Hopefully, my children will learn to prune them without my help so long as I am diligent about identifying and removing them even when it isn’t easy.

Where the metaphor fails is that children, unlike trees, have minds of their own. All we can do is prune them to the best of our ability, weighing each cut with our heart and keeping vigilant about suckers. In the end, they will grow on their own in the direction of their own choosing. But while they are young, while they are dependent on us, we must be wise and careful about our pruning, knowing that while our work may seem tedious and unappreciated at times, it is powerful.

As I stared long and hard at my plum tree – which is my most perfectly pruned and beautiful tree but has yet to produce a single fruit – I realized that much of this is out of my hands. I will continue to prune this tree and care for it and hope for it, but ultimately it’s between my tree and God.

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