The nurse at the pediatrician’s office asked my 11-year-old daughter, “Are you sexually active?” Not because there was any reason to suspect that was the case – we were there for a tetanus shot – but because this was one of the routine questions the office asks at each visit. She was required to ask; my daughter, flabbergasted, said, “No.” They moved on to the next question.
This is ordinary life in modern America. We chose our pediatrician, a Catholic, pro-life homeschooling mom, because we knew she would not press on us any immoral medical treatments. The standard intake questionnaire at the clinic she works for, however, recognizes that sexual activity among middle-schoolers is a significant problem.
Physicians aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed. Last month as my daughter and I stood in the parish parking lot, waiting on the carpool to the diocesan junior high youth rally, the youth minister lamented, “I wish more families would get their kids involved in church activities in middle school. Parents think they need to have their high school students involved, to keep them out of trouble. But the problems are starting much, much younger.”
My children have homeschooled their entire lives. We are selective about what we watch on TV, the periodicals we subscribe to, the music we listen to, the clothes we buy, the books we read, and even the catalogs we allow sitting around our home. Most of our close friends share our same general moral values and Christian faith. My children are sheltered. It pleases me that my daughter considers it absolutely abnormal – completely crazy – that an 11-year-old be sexually active.
Are my children too sheltered? I don’t think so. Rebecca Frech wondered recently whether we homeschooling parents – and other parents who are similarly careful about the education and upbringing of their children – are doing our children a disservice. Are we creating hothouse flowers? Are we rearing overprotected darlings who will wilt in the heat of modern American life?
I don’t think I am, though I do agree it is a concern among a minority of parents. I think the gardening analogy sums it up perfectly.
Life in the Garden
At every stage of a plant’s life, there is a range of ideal conditions. An ideal soil, an ideal amount of water, an ideal amount of sunlight. Gardeners strive to hit that ideal, but they must work within the limits of the land and climate they’ve been given. I chuckle at the elaborate instructions for protecting roses from northern winters – steps no southern gardener even thinks about.
The balance in gardening is the happy medium. We intensively cultivate certain fragile seedlings, and slowly harden them off as they get older. Some plants will always require more care and protection than others. In some environments, we must more actively protect our plants from the harsh climate, or take steps to counteract the strain of drought, heat, pests, and cold. In others, we can let the “volunteers” flourish on their own.
The ideal is not always possible. At the end of my driveway, a volunteer scrub oak is slowly maturing beside the mail box. It will always be a small, scrawny thing. It’s a variety that is adapted, more or less, for the miserable conditions in the worst of southern scrub land, but its cousins around the corner — getting less intense heat and better soil — will grow faster, larger, and with a more stately appearance. I’m not going to forgo the precious shade this little oak will give us, however. We’ll make the best of the conditions we have.
Romanticizing the epic struggle, however, is not good gardening and it is not good parenting. There is beauty in the windswept cedar clinging to a crag in the desert. Likewise, what is more heartening than meeting a young person who has survived and overcome grave abuses in early life and managed to turn all that evil for good?
But I am not therefore going to immerse my own children in the horrors of the modern age on account of the precious young mother at the crisis pregnancy whose courage and graciousness shine so brightly. She would be the first to say: Don’t do it this way if you can avoid it. Life is hard enough.
The single piece of fruit from that tree in the desert, surviving against all odds through storm and drought and searing heat and freezing cold, that fruit is precious indeed. But we can’t live on that. If we don’t wish to starve, we need fruit trees cultivated in skillfully-tended orchards. We need trees neither coddled nor abandoned, but pruned and watered and nurtured as their needs dictate, as best we can manage it.
As a culture, as a society, we need for most children to grow up in homes that are that fruitful orchard. The precise way we each parent our children, and the extent to which we shelter them, is going to vary. What are the conditions around me? What does this particular child need in order to thrive? Where is that balance, in my home, between the hothouse and the windswept desert?
We don’t control the world around us, but we can make decisions about how to respond to it. If I’m living in the moral desert, what little things can I do to shelter my child from, or strengthen her against, the scorching sun? If I tend to err the other way, retreating to the green house at the slightest hint of a chill, what can I do to “harden off” my child without hardening her heart?
How do you create that “fruitful garden” for your children? What steps do you take to protect or strengthen your child against the problems in our wider culture? How do you help your child mature into a strong Christian, capable of withstanding the storms of our times?
Copyright 2013 Jennifer Fitz