Every winter, just before my mom and dad pack up and snowbird their way down to Florida until spring, they drop off a couple of plants at my house for safekeeping. Every year I tell them: Your plants are only marginally safer at my home than they would be had you left them to gather dust and dry out at your place. But somehow the plants survive (I suspect my husband drizzles some water on them from time to time), and every so often, my mom “lets” me keep one. I guess she’s optimistic about her plant’s chances for survival. More likely, she’s worried that without her intervention and generosity, I wouldn’t have any houseplants, about which she is correct. I’m taking mental inventory now, and, yup, all of the of the living green things in my house started their lives under my mother’s garden-club-level care.
Take my African violet, which sits on the dresser in my bedroom in a blue pot that matches the blue walls of that room (I mention this because that’s the reason this plant’s in there — not because there’s good sun in the back of my house and the dresser sits in front of a large picture window. All my plant-care efforts turn out to be purely accidental). I’ve had it for years now, so long I’m not even sure which I got first, the violet or my nearly nine-year-old.
The point is that I very rarely pay this plant any attention. Here she is, and please note the plastic-foam dessert plate I use as a tray:
Every few months — for years — this plant has appeared to be on the verge of giving up. You can’t see it in the photo, but trust me, it’s almost totally root-bound (a phrase I know thanks to, of course, my mother). It needs a new, bigger pot, some Miracle-Gro maybe, some more attention other than what I tend to give it, which is to distractedly pull off soggy dead leaves around the bottom and, every so often, dump the leftover water from my bedside water glass in it, which has more to do with not wasting already-poured water than it does with feeding my leafy friend.
I always believe my African violet is thisclose to death. And then this happens:
A bloom occurs. There are a couple of new buds there, too, and in a week or so it’ll be all pink and gorgeous again.
Seeing that bud this morning made me think about a kind of hands-off parenting. My mother tells me that African violets are pretty hardy plants (making them the ideal gift for me, it seems). Kids are heartier than we give them credit for, too. For example, my sixth-grader won’t wither and dry out today because he left his agenda on the kitchen counter. He’ll feel upset for five minutes and then he’ll write his homework on a piece of paper and that will be that. Yesterday I misinterpreted the morning sunshine to mean shorts weather, and it was pretty dang chilly — yet my boys, in their still-summer clothes, were fine, even though I had goosebumps on my arms all day long.
Maybe if I paid obsessive attention to my African violet, it would die. I would over-water it. I would overdose it with Miracle Gro. I would pinch its foliage back too far. And maybe if I pay just too much attention to my kids, the same thing would happen.
I don’t not pay attention, of course. I go over homework. I stay on top of school issues and send an email to administrators when I get wind of bus bullying. I clean wax out of ears and schedule pediatric appointments and I’m even going ahead with braces for Son #1 and the removal of the extra tooth growing in Son #2’s palate behind his necessary teeth (yes, it’s true; his teeth need pruning).
But as they grow I’m trying to leave them, more and more, to their own devices. To pack their lunches and make their beds and figure out how to settle their fights.
I’m calling it African-Violet Parenting. A little benign neglect and a glass of water now and then, and they’ll bloom on their own.
If they get root bound, say when they’re ready for college, they’ll actually want to go, freely and gratefully and hopefully.