A lesson in the nature of nurture

My wife and I generally agree. However, we have had several discussions about philosophies of child-raising. She tends to be stricter, more demanding with our children than I do. As we looked forward to their adolescence, we tried to present a united front while we worked at settling our differences in private.

Then a few years ago I began planting walnut trees. "But, dear, you know nothing about planting and growing trees," my wife pointed out.

"I'm going to learn," I told her. "On-the-job training. The Montessori method. I'll learn by doing."

At first it seemed to go well. In the fall of the year, I gathered 400 walnuts from the trees of several neighbors, with their blessings. In early November, I drove to my acreage and trudged into the field carrying a huge pail of nuts and a bulb-planter. This is a tool that will nicely slice out a two-inch circle of dirt four inches deep.

Three four-hour trips completed my planting. I then began the careful coddling of my soon-to-be baby trees. I sprayed herbicide on a two-foot-wide strip on either side of each row of anticipated trees. After my trees emerged, I would not be able to use herbicide, so I planted straight rows, 10 feet apart for easy mowing of weeds and grass.

In the spring, I visited the acreage often, searching for tiny green seedlings. When they finally began to appear, I rushed home to announce the success of my venture.

"Did you say they're two inches high?" my skeptical wife asked. "I'd wait a few years before calling the project a success.

She was right, of course. My little trees needed much more coddling. I carried water to offer drinks to those slothful nuts that had not yet emerged. Eventually, I was rewarded with a 90 percent germination rate; 360 of the 400 nuts produced little trees.

Through the summer my trees thrived, and I delighted in visiting them. Winter, however, was hard on them and harder on me. Almost half of my trees were either eaten down to a nub by deer or girdled by rabbits eager for the taste of bark. I mourned briefly, but in the spring I bought seedlings to replace the trees that had either died from being girdled or, having been eaten by deer, were absent.

That second summer, I mowed when it rained and carried water when it didn't. As fall approached, I bought four-foot-tall plastic shelters to foil the rabbits and deer. Then I bought stakes to hold up the shelters in Iowa's fierce winter storms. I used six-inch pieces of wood to block open the shelters at the bottom to assure winter dormancy.

During the next growing season, my trees flourished, shooting up high above their shelters. I was pleased to see that, but then these tall saplings with heavy heads and slender trunks began to blow over and break off.

About this time, I discovered that most of the trees that had been girdled by rabbits or eaten by deer were growing up again from their roots. Furthermore, because I had not mowed around them, these trees were surrounded by tall grass. They towered high above the grass, but unlike my sheltered trees, these sturdy survivors had thicker trunks that withstood the strong and stormy winds that had overwhelmed many of my slender sheltered coddlings.

That evening I talked about my trees (again!) with my wife. "It seems," I said, "that trees are like children."

"Well, you've cared for them as if they were babies," she replied. "But how do you mean, they're like children?"

"They need a certain amount of care," I said. "They must have food, water, and some protection. But an excessive amount of protection and coddling produces weak trunks, unable to face the elements and fend for themselves. Maybe parents shouldn't try to protect their kids from all of the buffeting winds of winter.

"The hard part, though," I continued, "in raising either kids or trees, is deciding how much protection is enough. And how much is too much."

"You got that right, Daddy," she said, smiling and giving me a big hug.

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