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A Mom Watches Her Son Grow — in the Garden



My son, Henry, is a DIY kid. He has never been interested in sports or fast cars or superheroes. At 11 years old, he is passionate about engineering, cooking, carpentry, art and gardening. He is a creator.

If you have a child like this, I already know two things about your household: 1. You own many pairs of scissors but cannot locate any of them and 2. You are out of duct tape.

Before my two kids were born, I'd hoped to be the kind of parent who could step back and let them learn from their mistakes. I wanted my children to take chances and explore their world, following their curiosity, even if it led to failure. Then I had children and realized how difficult that is.

I have always been proud of Henry's curiosity and drive to learn how the world works. Once he repurposed the entire contents of the recycling bin to build a working gumball machine. I heard the rustling of detritus coming from the kitchen, followed an hour later by a delighted cry from his little sister and, "Mom, come check this out!"

But hands-on learning is messy, and occasionally expensive, like when he built a full-size, functioning water fountain — in his bedroom. Despite a liberal application of duct tape, it was not watertight.

Henry prefers to make salsa from scratch and is passionate about developing a new flavor of seltzer. Recently, he has wanted to formulate an original cookie recipe and to engineer a new ice cream maker (we already have one).

I have tried to teach him to clean up after himself, but inevitably these projects result in a puddle of tomato juice or a film of flour over everything and a very sticky floor.

Yes, he has learned from these explorations. But they have also turned me into the kind of parent I never wanted to be: a stifling nag. I find myself saying, "Just let me do it for you," or often just, "No." Instead of praising his creativity, I am more likely to say, "You are going to clean that up, right?"

Thank goodness it's summer and we can get out into the garden.

Henry has loved gardening since he was a toddler. When we first set up the backyard, eight years ago, I made three raised beds, two for a kitchen garden and the other filled with sand for Henry to play in while I planted. He wasn't that into the sandbox but was fascinated by what I was up to in the soil. I will never forget the first time he ate a green pea straight from the pod. His eyes lit up at its fresh sweetness, and the whole concept of the garden immediately clicked.

We replaced the sand with soil, and, ever since, the third box has been his to experiment in as he pleases. For better or worse, we now share this addiction for growing things. He is the only kid I have ever known who brought a potted tomato plant to sleepaway camp.

I give him guidance, of course. I explained the basics of growing plants. But Henry likes to do things his own way, so if he chooses to plant a towering sunflower a few inches from sun-loving carrots, I don't say a word.

In the garden, Henry can follow his own path, and I can be the parent I set out to be — which sometimes means letting him fail. Last year he learned the hard way that you either keep up with weeding or surrender the harvest. He also discovered that growing melons in Vermont is an exercise in heartbreak.

He has good instincts, though, and has already figured out that healthy soil is the key to everything. From his small plot, he's gleaned luscious tomatoes, abundant edamame and fat gourds. His missteps haven't diminished his interest; they've only strengthened his resolve to make a better plan this year.

Letting my child's curiosity flourish is simple in the garden. I am hoping when he is older that he won't remember me losing my temper about the hot glue getting on everything but will think of the two of us side by side, tending our plants in the sun.

Presently, I'm trying to think before I nag. The other day he came in from the porch and said, "Hey, Mom, come check out my new fountain," so I went outside to see the latest project.

"At first it didn't work," he said. "But then I cut out the hole in a different way and now it does."

I looked at his creation, made from junk from the playroom, an old water pump he got from his cousin and my best Tupperware. I looked at the store-bought, decorative box that was now cut up and soaked through with water. I looked at my son and said, "That is really cool, kid."

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.