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In an essay by Jen Nessel, she referred to children as “little bonsai projects” and it’s a great image. I’m going to suggest, as Jen does, that you put down your pruning shears and you let your kids grow “a little wild.”

Bonsai, in case you’ve forgotten, is the Japanese art of shaping small, young trees to resemble full-sized trees of ancient years. The trees used in bonsai are the same trees you might have growing in your own yard but the process of shaping them stunts their growth so they fit all their lives into small pots. Bonsai grow old but they never grow up.

The art of bonsai involves digging the tree out of its pot every year or so and cutting off enough of its roots to keep it small. Branches are wrapped in wire and the wire bent to force them into shapes the bonsai artist imagines. Unwanted twigs are cut off. Although bonsai are alive and look like miniature versions of full-sized trees, they are not natural. Bonsai is art.

So the question is: are you doing this to your child? Are you trimming and shaping her to fit your own vision of what she will be when she’s older? Are you lopping off this part or that part of her personality because it doesn’t match your plans? Are you keeping her snug in a too-small pot by cutting back the parts of her that reach out into the wider world?

It’s hard not to. We parents naturally want to keep our children safe by keeping them close.  We often keep them under wraps long after they are capable of doing more. Sometimes our motivation is to protect our kids and sometimes our motivation is to keep from having to bother with issues we’d rather not face.

If you let your children “grow a little wild” you put down your pruning shears and pick up your rake. You let them do what children do and clean up after them. You give up over-control and instead try to enjoy them for what they are: real human beings. Humans, like trees, grow happiest when they grow naturally.

It’s important to remind ourselves that only through doing new things and taking chances do children learn and grow. Too many limitations stunt a child’s growth. Perfect children that are miniature versions of adult people are not natural children. They’ve been twisted.

Make certain your own kids get to:

  1. Play outside with other kids just for fun, not as part of a sport or program.
  2. Read what they want to read, even if that’s comic books or fan magazines.
  3. Have some down-time every day to do what they like.
  4. Do something daring or exciting or a bit too hard.

I’m not saying you should have no rules, not at all. Rules and responsibilities are fine. But there’s more to life than always doing what one “should do.” This summer, make time for just a little bit of wildness.

What do you remember from your own childhood summers? Probably it wasn’t having every minute programmed for you or parents always telling you what to do. Probably you got away with a lot of things you shudder to imagine your own kids doing. As summer comes and school lets out, give your children a bit of an old-fashioned summer vacation. Try to let go, just a tiny bit.

See what your children grow into when you’re not treating them like bonsai.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Join Dr. Anderson in an online conference for teachers and parents. Find out more at Quality Conference for Early Childhood Leaders.