3 Reasons to garden with your son.
Boys today are suffering.
Allow me to be frank. They lack a sense of themselves, and of their place in life. You can see it in their eyes, and in how they dress, walk, and talk. And work; or don’t. Often they struggle with academics; somehow studying—at least the studying they’re doing—doesn’t connect with anything in their life. They simply don’t know what to do with the energy, the power, they feel within themselves. Wired for action, they prowl around looking for something, often they know not what. Or they think they know what—certain desires are obvious and insistent—but fulfilling those desires does not fulfill the person; it accentuates the void. Confusion gives way to the numbing paralysis of self-doubt, even loathing.
It’s hard to be a boy.
It’s also hard to be the father of a boy. Boys often make bad choices, for which they are responsible. But it is reasonable to consider how they got where they are, and what might help them get out of it. Fathers (and grandfathers, and uncles, and friends) need to step in. Not tentatively, but with both feet. Raising, mentoring a boy today will require more than we seem to realize. Perhaps much more.
What might gardening have to do with this?
The reasons are legion for just about everyone to engage in the ancient art of raising food from the earth. I will focus on three reasons that pertain in a special way to boys, given the current challenges they face.
1. Learning to be a husband.
The term husband is traditionally used of one who cares for earth and animals, as well as of the man in a family. The connection is not accidental. Similar dispositions should characterize both.
A husband is one who diligently takes care of what is entrusted to him. The Latin root of the word diligence is diligere—to love. We take special care when our affections are engaged. A husband is always a lover, and for him it is a gift that something or someone has been entrusted to his care, a gift he honors by the diligence of his caring.
Many different things can engage a boy’s affections. Gardening is well-suited to evoke and unite two: family and earth. The earth is what is directly cultivated; the family is who is served. Gardening is inspired by, and cultivates, both loves. Few moments can parallel the experience a boy has walking into the kitchen with a gorgeous—or not so gorgeous—tomato, the fruit of his own labor, to be bestowed on the woman he loves most.
Work has meaning for him in this context: these tasks have a specific relation to the flourishing of these people. And in the case of gardening, the tasks are usually uniquely pleasing, even if somewhat strenuous, and have a clearly discernable relation to the needs and happiness of people.
At the same time this work teaches the fundamental lessons of patience and perseverance. Just as the most important things in life are not achieved by the push of a button, the earth yields its fruit in due time, in proportion to the work put into it.
It is no accident that many of the most sage principles are expressed in terms that can most directly be learned in the garden. Indeed, boys will reap precisely according as they have sown.
2. Gaining confidence through competence.
It is an alarming fact that most boys today know how to do almost nothing, of either enduring worth, or reasonable practical significance. (The book learning of school—which certainly can have its place—often inculcates neither practical competence nor much interest in speculative matters.) But the most alarming thing about this fact is that deep down inside they feel it. As they look at the world around them they wonder, even if vaguely or subconsciously: what do I have to offer?
Cultural structures and habits relentlessly encourage boys to pursue what is useless, banal, or worse. As various means and gadgets of entertainment are constantly paraded before them, boys are encouraged to compare themselves to others in terms of what they own, wear, and play. The cycle becomes downright vicious as they turn more and more to these things as an escape from their growing sense of emptiness and incompetence.
And many adults still seem surprised that boys have no work ethic.
A boy certainly does not need to know how to do everything; but he does need to know how to do something. Of importance.Especially for others.
Gardening is perhaps the most remarkable of arts in this sense: no other art combines such ease of learning with complexity of perfection. Usually, that which is so easy to learn provides less satisfaction, and not much effort, in mastering. (Painting a fence is quick to learn; but there aren’t many books written on it, or clubs for practicing it.) Gardening offers the possibility of some reasonable success the first year, followed by the challenge of a lifetime to master. The gardener reckons with primordial forces that are often beyond his knowledge or control, but nonetheless within his ability to harness.
At the end of the day a boy needs to know that his self-worth is not tied to any particular thing that he does. That said, since boys naturally gauge themselves by their competence in the exterior forum, a developed ability in some area of obvious worth, can go a long way to giving a boy a sense of self-worth.
3. Discovering the joy of shared good work.
I think our culture has been missing a key truth: working together is the most obvious way of being-together with the people we love.
A few generations ago many if not most fathers and sons, and by and large whole families, were together for significant lengths of time, working. Regardless of anything else, I think earlier cultures got that right. Perhaps then they had no choice. Today, it will only happen as a result of a very conscious choice. There is at least a bright spot in this: when we do work with our sons they will know that we have chosen to be with them, even while so many other things beckoned.
Boys need to be around men, watching and learning; working. Like it or not, boys will tend to judge themselves through th
e eyes of other men. They need good men to be with them, pattern them, and give them a mirror in which to see themselves in the right light.
In spring the newly thawed, sweet smelling soil seems to call out to be touched, turned, worked. Something very deep within us echoes with the break in the weather. We know, we feel in our bones that it is time for work again.
This spring we can turn to our sons, grandsons, nephews, and neighbors. Tone will be important. We should avoid the why-don’t-you-get-off-your-backside-and-start-doing-something-worthwhile approach. Rather: Let’s do this together. Just because.
Let’s start a garden together. For I can think of few things I’d rather do, than cultivate something useful and beautiful, with you, son.
Dr. John Cuddeback, professor of philosophy at Christendom College, is a member of the Aleteia board of experts and author of Bacon from Acorns, a blog devoted to the oft-neglected "philosophy of household." He is also the author of True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness.