Tuesday Tip for Parenting — Tomato Staking

new logoIt can be rather difficult (at least over the long haul) to be a parent to five children. In spite of their shared genetic and environmental heritage, each of my children has been very stubborn about asserting their individuality. Just when I find a parenting technique that ‘works’ with one child, along comes another, totally different. It just doesn’t seem fair.

Fortunately, I’m blessed with a wife who assiduously devours parenting resources of all kinds. She reads books about child-rearing. She listens to parenting CDs and watches parenting DVDs. She reads magazine articles about child psychology. She even (gasp!) reads blogs about training and nurturing our offspring. Then she likes to bounce the various philosophies off me.

“I read the neatest parenting blog today,” she’ll enthuse. “They have some really good ideas … I’d like to talk with you about it some time this evening.”

“Um, OK … great!” I temporize. Rapidly, I switch into Supportive Homeschool Dad™ mode, which requires a cape, but fortunately, no spandex tights. (My apologies to those who are wincing at the image conjured up by my use of the phrase, ‘spandex tights’.) Mentally, I brace myself, because it usually takes a couple of hours to wring the maximum benefit out of each new discovery. As a homeschooling mother of five, Kathy is pretty immersed in parenting, and she takes it very seriously (in a fun way, of course).

One interesting concept we’ve encountered along the way, is the idea of ‘tomato staking’, as discussed in L. Elizabeth Kruger’s recently published book. (Actually, we haven’t read the book; Kathy gleaned this information off her website and discussion forum, known whimsically as The Woodshed.)

Dan the gardener
Daniel was very excited to be appointed Keeper of the Peat.

The basic idea is that as a parent, you should keep your children close to you, training them and correcting them as necessary, building them into godly young men and women. One problem Kathy and I encounter is that when a child comes to our negative attention, we tend to punish-and-isolate — that is, we send the offending child away as a result of their sin. “They need time to pray and ask God for forgiveness,” we rationalize. “Or at least if they’re going to sulk, they should do it where no one else has to pay the price.” But the truth is sometimes more sinister: we’re still angry at the child’s conduct (or they’re mad at us) and we’d rather not be around them.

Kruger suggests (and my sweet Kathy agrees) that it might be better to keep an offending child under close supervision (within a few feet) rather than sending them off to wreak more havoc. Some children, when corrected by Mom or Dad, will take out their anger and frustration on a sibling, if left to their own devices. Others will sulk in their rooms like Achilles in his tent, which rarely produces repentance or a positive change in behavior.

I’m afraid I’m over-simplifying, but another facet is a bit more proactive. “Why wait ’til your child gets in trouble,” proponents of this philosophy would ask. “Keep ‘em close and train ‘em up right, while they are still young.” Tomato staking has to do with spending lots of time in close proximity to children, teaching them in those more tractable moments, rather than abdicating their training to other influences, however worthy.

Planting the seeds
Painstakingly, we planted each of the peat disks with two seeds …

On Saturday, Daniel and I took Kathy’s van to Wal-Mart to get its oil changed, long overdue. While we were there, we browsed the garden center, since Daniel and I are full of money-making and money-saving schemes that have to do with growing things. We happened upon a cool seed-starter kit, and decided to grow our own tomato plants this year, instead of buying them from the local hardware store at $4 a pot. For about $10, we acquired enough seeds and little peat disks to start 72 seedlings.

We had a great time, when we got home, preparing the peat (it’s amazing how they soak up the water!) and planting the seeds. Now they’re under Daniel’s bed waiting ’til they sprout — we’re hoping to have enough surviving plants to generate a good, healthy crop this year. Kathy and I eat a lot of tomatoes, and they are not particularly cheap, even in season. Last year we garnered a decent crop, in spite of the cursed deer who ate the tops of most of my plants.

If only this were ours ...
Not our actual tomato harvest … sigh.

If you’ve ever grown tomatoes, you know that one of the main problems is keeping the vines up off the ground long enough for the fruit to ripen. Left to its own devices, a tomato plant will refuse to stand up tall, but will rather allow its branches to sprawl untidily across the ground. As the tomatoes grow on the vine, they are prone to rot and damage because of their contact with the ground. Small children who are sent out to water the plants routinely step on the fruit, and insects seem to delight in more convenient access to the crop. Sometimes the plants will start out with good upright posture, but when the weight of the tomatoes increases, the vines are bent and even broken. This seems especially likely in times of drought, when the branches weak and prone to be brittle.

A family project
Sarah and David could hardly stand being left out of this project.

Some gardeners put wooden stakes alongside their plants, and use plastic ties to affix the branches to the stake. Others surround their plants with metal mesh towers, training and supporting the vines as they grow upward. Either way, the intent is to guide and protect the vines, holding them to an upright standard. Kruger argues that parents who share their lives with their children perform a similar moral and spiritual function, fulfilling the instruction in Deuteronomy 6:6-9:

These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Staking Tomatoes
A basic tomato stake.

It was a good day. When my children are filled-up with time with me or with Kathy, their whole outlook on life seems to improve. They tend to be more trusting of my heart, and more submissive to correction. They are much more apt to be patient and kind, and often will serve with a more willing spirit. The only cost is my time, which is not so bad, since I really like being around my children when they are cheerful.

Caged Tomatoes
Some tomatoes are so fierce, you have to put them in cages.

Tomato staking is a good word picture for the way that we try to infuse our children with the best of our wisdom, discipline and love for God. Thinking of how Jesus worked with his disciples, and how God works in my life, it seems a good word picture for more than just parenting. How many times have I chafed at being trained to the standard as the Gardener binds my life to His stake through the Word and the ministry of the Holy Spirit?

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. — John 15:5-8

Project 366, retroactive, Day 82

L. Elizabeth Kruger’s book, Raising Godly Tomatoes, is available on her website for a discounted price of $14.95. Please mention that you read about it here — we’d like to build some credibility so we can, in the future, get a further discount for our readers.

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Scenes from a Birthday Party

One of the joys of being a large family is that we have the opportunity to participate in many different birthday parties over the year. There are slumber parties, pirate parties, pool parties, rock-climbing adventures, bowling outings, and Chuck E. Cheese extravaganzas, to name a few. I keep telling the children to stop making friends with kids who have birthdays, but they just laugh. “Silly Mom,” chuckles Sarah. “All the kids we know have birthdays!” It is never a good sign when you are out-witted by your five-year-old.

party time
Ready for the Party to begin!

This week Daniel, David and Sarah were invited to a Garden Party. How delightfully appropriate for this time of year, when Spring is in the air. At least it is here in WA. In Michigan, where my parents and siblings live, it is snowy and cold and there is not a single HINT of spring. Poor dears!

The children painted and decorated their clay pots, and then planted a flower in each one. Several of them even managed to plant the root part downward.

Sarah, Emma and Caedie

These girls are ready to paint, and they’re not choosy about what they paint!

They have been caring, tenderly, for their plants since they brought them home to live with us. As I am notorious for having a black thumb, able to kill even the hardiest plants, their flowers will only survive if I stay far away from them.

This morning, Daniel and Tim left the house on an errand. I can just imagine how their conversation went. “Maybe I should bring my plant with me,” Daniel worried. “What if Mom tries to water it or something, and kills it dead!”

“It’ll be fine. Mom’s not even going to be home,” Tim soothed. “She’s going to Costco, and you know that’ll take most of the morning.”

“Yeah, but what if she comes home early? It’s just a baby plant, and hasn’t even flowered yet!” Daniel is very attached to his plant.

Tim must’ve convinced him, because they left the plant at home. I carefully avoided being in the same room as it, lest it keel over and I be blamed.

david's plant doesn't stand a chance

Poor plant, it will never look this good again.

We can only hope they make it.

beautiful plants


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Smoke Screen Stewardship Questions

A little more than a week ago, I posted a blog which I whimsically entitled Daylight Savings Time. A rather feeble play on words, I attempted to explore an innovative new idea I discovered: saving money and getting out of debt. I was astounded by the number and quality of responses we received in the form of comments and personal e-mails. It turns out that a large number of people are rather passionate about this subject.

Fanatic about debt reduction
Not one of our actual readers.

“Whoa, there,” I thought. “Most of these people are serious about paying off debt. Some of them think we should actually get rid of our credit cards!” I pulled up a browser window and shopped a while at until I regained my composure.

Let’s face it: I like having credit cards. I like the feeling of power they engender, and the illusion of value and wealth. I enjoy the convenience and the ease with which I am separated from my money. I value the increasingly-worthless airline miles I earn when I engage in serious borrowing. I even like the mail they send me:

“Dear Tim,” they write. “We’ve noticed that you haven’t reached full indentured-servanthood yet, in terms of the amount you owe us, which is slightly less than Argentina owed to the World Bank in the late 90′s. To tempt you to be even more irresponsible, we’re raising your credit limit to ridiculous levels. You should rush out and buy a computer for every room in your house!”

As we read comment after comment, extolling the virtues of Dave Ramsey’s books and Crown Financial Ministries, we began to feel a bit convicted. “Maybe the time has come for us to actually make a change in how we handle our money,” I mentioned to Kathy, rather hesitantly.

Crown Financial
One of the Small Groups at our Church is doing a study using Crown Financial’s book …

“Sounds great! When shall we start? I’ve got our old budget (the one we started last year) right here! I’ve read three chapters of Ramsey’s book, and I have a list of things we need to talk about!” My wife is nothing if not enthusiastic.

I dragged my feet for a week or so, ’cause I like to play hard-to-get, but eventually she wore me down, and I agreed to spend a couple of hours talking about our financial future.

“I’m so excited,” Kathy bubbled. “My friend M. and her husband sat down the other night to talk finances, and they got into a big fight. I’ll bet we can do even better!”

Sure enough, we had a big fight about parenting before we even started talking about money, which demonstrated our superiority and, I felt, put things into their proper perspective. We came to a few tentative conclusions:

  • We need to stop using credit cards
  • We must build a workable budget that allows us to live within our means, and stick to it.
  • We should aggressively seek to set aside $1000 as an emergency fund, so unexpected expenses don’t ‘break’ our budget, or lure us back into deficit spending.
  • Once we’ve got the $1000 put aside, we can attack our smallest debt and work to pay it off as quickly as possible.

Don't run with those scissors, Dave!
Dave seems to have an answer for everything.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is not going to be a quick or easy path for us. To follow these simple steps, Kathy and I will have to change quite radically. We’ll have to learn to defer gratification, and to find joy in paying off debt, rather than in the acquisition of ‘stuff’. We’ll have to temper our generosity, and live under actual constraints. We’ll have to learn new vocabulary, as in “We can’t afford that right now,” or “We’ll buy that just as soon as we save up for it.”

A boy who needs a computer
“Afford? Saved? What do those words mean, Dad?”

It will probably come as no surprise to those who have been down this road, that even now, as we stand on the brink of making a decision to change our way of life, we are facing some considerable expenses:

Dental Implants for Fun and Profit!
Not my actual tooth.

  1. I’m in the middle of an implant process for one of my teeth that will probably cost me another $1800, after insurance
  2. Kathy faces a potentially costly dental process in the near future (cost unknown)
  3. Our van badly needs new brakes and other maintenance (ballpark $600)
  4. We urgently need to replace the roof on our house (probably around $14,000)
  5. We are in need of some homeschooling materials by the end of the summer ($600)

A shake roof replacement
Not my actual roof.

So, what would you advise?

(1) Shall we abandon our well-intentioned, but naive attempt to shake off our dependence on debt?
(2) Shall we satisfy these immediate costs, and only then embark on a course of correction (admittedly, with a much higher debt load)?
(3) Shall we stick to our guns and refuse to go further into debt, even if our safety, our health and the value of our home may suffer as a result of deferring these expenses?
(4) Shall we take some drastic step (sell our house & move back to the country, change jobs, get a second job) rather than accept additional debt?
(5) If we do borrow money to get through these expenses, can I sneak in the purchase of a new computer, since it would be such a small proportion of the money borrowed? (Well, OK, I think I know the answer to that last question.) :)

Examining my heart, I really don’t know if these are smoke screens or not. Each of the expenses seems ‘necessary’, and my spirit quails at the prospect of abandoning the alternative of credit (I’m afraid I’ve leaned on credit too long). Do I just need to trust in God to provide for each in turn, or is this a case where I can’t reasonably expect God to bail me out from a series of bad decisions? After all, it isn’t God who borrowed money to acquire ‘stuff’, and who failed to save for these kind of expenses. The roof, for example, is certainly not unexpected — we’ve known since we bought this house that we needed to replace it. Is it reasonable to live for years beyond my means, and then, suddenly, when I finally get the courage to change, to expect God to save me from the consequences of my misconduct?

Climbing out of debt
She makes climbing look so easy …

These are serious questions. I value the wisdom and encouragement of the many responses we received from the first blog, and I’m hoping that some of you will take a few more minutes to offer your insight.


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