Bonsai Parenting

You know when you read an article and you find yourself nodding along to it, like your favourite tune and then when you’ve finished reading it you want to high five the author? Well that’s exactly how I felt when I read an article based on a book called: How to Raise an Adult, by Julie Lythcott-Haims, in which, according to the article, ‘she is on a mission to wake up parents to the damage that well-meaning over-involvement causes’.

So often we read articles about ways in which we are damaging our children and think to ourselves: oh crap, yes. But here was one where I actually appear to be doing a great deal right – some of it by accident, some through not having the time to parent any other way and some of it by instinct.

I have 5 girls and a boy, two of which are step children. I guess you could say that I have had quite a lot of practice on how to raise an adult and I’m still learning on the job, often feeling my way in the dark and quite often feeling confused.

My step daughter has just graduated from University. There is no denying that she was my Guinea pig, but as she has managed to get through her degree and had an amazingly enriching time in the process, I guess that us parents may have done something right. Although, of course she must take a great deal of the credit, I think that we set her on the right road. The thing is though, there were so many times when I felt what we were doing was harsh – she certainly thought so and it would have been so easy to take another path.

I remember a time when she was 15 and she wanted to go to her friend’s house, but her dad and I were both busy at home and didn’t want to trek over there. We told her to get the train and buses and then walk the final leg. She told us that her friends could not believe that we were asking her to do this. I wavered slightly and questioned whether we were indeed asking too much. Don’t you find yourself doing this a lot as a parent? Questioning yourself and your decisions? Analysing whether it is correct and fair. I feel that this is one of the hardest things about parenting a teenager.

The day she had to move in to her University halls of residence was on a Tuesday. Both her Dad and I were working, so we told her that we had to take her up on the Sunday. She wasn’t allowed to move in early and so we deposited her and all her belongings in a motel, that we had got her to locate and book, and said goodbye in the car park. Due to work, we didn’t visit her again in the three years she was there. On her moving in day, she got a taxi to her halls and moved herself in. Harsh?  Necessary – and I am glad that it was. As Lythcott-Haims points out in her book, as parents we need to pull back, because by over parenting, we haven’t taught our teenagers to survive by themselves in the world. This lack of skills of independence is at the heart of the rise of stress and anxiety among students.

The evening we left my step daughter in the motel was the first time she had ever left home, but we knew that we had paved the way for her to be able to cope with the situation. When we got home later that evening, I saw she had posted on Facebook a photo of her bonsai tree, sitting on the window sill of her motel room. I could easily have seen it as a symbol of her being alone. Lythcott-Haims says that we have created ‘bonsai teenagers’ who are pruned to perfection, yet not hardy enough to survive in the world outside.

My partner and I make sure that our children work, cook, travel independently wherever possible and they have all had their fair share of disappointment. We try to let them experience it, rather than protect them from it.

So when I saw my step daughter’s photo of the bonsai, I didn’t see it as an image of loneliness, I saw it as her saying to the world that she is ready for a new life: the roots were firmly established and she was ready to grow.

I don’t think for a moment that we are doing everything right, but this article gave me hope, when sometimes I feel harsh. A teenager may feel hard done by, but it is our job as parents to stand firm and then they will flourish.



29 thoughts on “Bonsai Parenting”

  1. As a secondary teacher I’ve recently stumbled on something, we have a generation 11+ that at the moment are not at all resilient. Why? Because they have been bought up in captivity…sure they do activities after school – but parents pick them up and drop them off, they haven’t explored, made calculated risks and are unable to make decisions around there own safety – worrying. Can you link the article / book? my Twitter handle is whatmyfridgesay and I’d love to read it. Fab post #MarvMondays

    1. Thank you for your comments. I’m going to look further into what she says, as she speaks a lot of sense to me. She’s done a Ted talk which is probably worth checking out. It is a worry all this helicopter parenting.

  2. I love this article Alison. So we’ll written as always. You sound like you have done an amazing job bringing up your children.
    This post resonates strongly for me because as much as I know my parents did their best and I do love them, they did the complete opposite. They did absolutely everything for me even into my 20’s. So I have suffered with extreme anxiety all of my life. It’s not only crippling but it has prevented me doing so much. I’m not blaming them as I know they thought they were doing their best. But i struggle to be confident and independent even now at times. I’ve fought through it and I’ve moved away and am married with a baby but I really struggle . And my siblings, 28 and 30, are still living with my parents…
    It’s about striking a balance I suppose.

    1. That’s so interesting to hear this side of it and thank you so much for sharing it. I don’t feel amazing a lot of the time, but we muddle through! It’s that balance that is so hard to get. Especially when the media are so keen to tell us about the bad guys who are lurking on every corner. Have you written about your upbringing at all? It would be interesting to hear your experiences, juxtaposed with the idea of independence and how a different approach may have made you less anxious.

  3. This is great! I really feel teaching a child independence is so important for them! I never worry about my daughter being in a new place, with new people, sleeping over, or staying with a friend (she’s five so I have to draw the line somewhere…for now) but she just adapts and goes with it. I see some children get so upset about leaving their parents and mines just like…bye! Sometimes I don’t even get a goodbye. I’m pretty sure she’ll continue like this and grow to be independent and not afraid of change or meeting new people. #BigPinkLink

    1. I think that’s brilliant that at 5 your daughter is already showing independence. It will certainly stand her in good stead. Thank you for commenting.

  4. This is really interesting! I’m not sure where I stand on it actually as I definitely believe children need to play alone, to explore, to get outside and not be watched constantly. But I am very close to my family and I think I had a fair amount of independence as a teenager – it’s hard to say really isn’t it, maybe I didn’t! Anyway, when my parents dropped me off at uni 300 miles away on the first day of fresher’s week I found it very difficult to say goodbye and was quite upset. I had my flat mates there and we all started drinking as soon as they left so I still threw myself into it and soon began to enjoy myself but it was a terrifying day for me and I honestly would have been heartbroken if I’d had to stay somewhere alone the night before. However, that’s just me and maybe I should have been a little more independent! I know other people who had similar situations to your step daughter because they had chosen it that way – they didn’t want their parents coming to the uni at all. I think a lot of it is personality, too – some children and adults will be happier in their own company than others, and that’s ok. #bigpinklink

    1. Yes, I totally agree that it isn’t just about the way we bring our kids up that dictates how they are going to react in a given situation – personality certainly plays its part. You know your own children and what they are able to cope with. Two children in the same family, brought up the same way could act differently. To be honest, I’m not sure that my eldest would cope in the same way. Thank you so much for your comments.

  5. Firstly, it’s so reassuring to hear that even with your experience raising adults you still don’t have all the answers Secondly, I really enjoyed this post. As someone who goes from desperately wanting the kids to be strong, independent individuals to not letting them out of my sight, I really struggle to know what to do for the best. They are 5 & 7 so I know they are still young and as they get older it will be safe to step back a bit but it’s SO hard. My biggest fear is bullying. I know kids really need to be able to stick up for themselves but the thought of someone hurting them kills me!! I guess all you can do is try to prepare them by working on confidence and self worth.
    I was very independent as a kid/ young adult so had no fear of leaving home for uni (in fact it couldn’t come quick enough!!) so hopefully my two will be the same.
    I think you’ve done a perfect job preparing your daughter for the big bad world and I sense that she is more than happy to enjoy her independence. X #bigpinklink

    1. It’s definitely about finding the balance and of course, that’s hard. Particularly when you’ve got a teenager telling you the way they think it should be! I go with my gut instinct most of the time and when I don’t, it often transpires I should have! The thought of my girls being bullied kills me. Through my Taekwon-do we teach kids from 2.5 years how to deal with bullies. The most important thing we can develop in our kids is self esteem – this will take them far. Thank you so much for your comments.

  6. This was SUCH an interesting read, it literally had my emotions and opinions all over the place!! When you said that you’d dropped your step daughter off in a motel and left her to it, my initial reaction was shock. But then I thought that if she had been desperately upset about this situation/desperately anxious etc, then you may have taken different action. But it sounds like she was fine with it, in which case it would make perfect sense, and from the way you’d brought her up, it sounds like she’d have all the skills to cope. For my entire childhood, all I can remember is my gran persistently telling my mum ‘you’re mollycoddling them,’ about me and my brother. It meant nothing to me at the time, but she was so right. We were allowed very little independence, and wrapped in cotton wool over every situation. My mum was (and still is,) ridiculously anal about cleaning and tidying, and wouldn’t let us do washing, ironing, cleaning, because she couldn’t cope with it not being to her standards. I stayed at home through uni, flitting between my mums and my boyfriends houses, woefully ill equipped to look after myself. It speaks volumes that at 35, my brother still lives st home… I can’t stand all of this absurdity that currently exists in schools about there being no winners at sports day, so as not to upset anyone, and the other nonsense that exists to make children grow up entitled, with no life skills. Although I’m definitely trying not to be my mum, I don’t think on your level quite yet, I’m somewhere in between! It’s difficult at the moment though, as neither children are even school age yet, so I’ve got a while to go before I need to start getting really firm with them!
    Thanks for a very honest and thought provoking read!!

    1. I really appreciate all your interesting comments. I think it’s great if we can learn from our parents ‘mistakes’ because we certainly make them! It sounds as if your gran was right. Personality also comes into it and my step daughter’s personality certainly meant she was perfectly able to cope, but every child is, of course different, even when we’ve brought them up the same. I do try to give the girls independence and in many ways I’m hands off rather than hands on, but not always! Thank you for commenting.

  7. Independence is so so important and I think it’s great for children to know that we trust them enough to give them their independence. Thanks for linking up to #MarvMondays. Kaye xo

  8. I really enjoyed this post – such an interesting one. It’s such a difficult balance to get right, and I do think when it comes to teenagers it’s important to give the right level of independence. Looking back, I think my parents got it right with me – they allowed me enough free rein to make my own mistakes and I certainly felt well equipped for life when I went off to university. I’m a bit in awe of your step daughter moving herself in though – I’m not sure I could have done that! But then I guess it’s also about looking at the individual child and what level of independence is right for them. #MarvMondays

  9. This is such a hard one isn’t it? I know for a fact that I over parent but I can’t help it! My voice rings out when they climb above my head or start to kick each other in the head, I can’t help it. Maybe I need to take a leaf out of your book as I am
    Concerned how the eldest will fair at school?! Argh!! #bigpinklink

    1. Well, I do a, ‘Voice of Experience’ blog and I have covered smartphones and secondary schools, but I won’t be doing parenting, as I am still looking for many answers! Go with your gut and strive for balance and as they become teenagers – let them breathe…that’s as far as I get Thank you for commenting.

  10. Love your attitude and parenting style. I think letting kids set off out by themselves is really important and I intend to balance that by having my son know he always has somewhere to come back to for advice, help or support when he needs it.


  11. I read your post with interest. I’m a long way off the teenage stage but this post has made me question how I will parent at that stage. #MarvMondays

    1. Of course every child is different, but I feel the key to parenting all children, whatever their personality, is not over parenting. Allowing them space: to excel and to fail and communication. Thank you so much for your comments.

  12. This was especially interesting for me, Alison, as my eldest daughter moved into halls of residence last week. My approach is definitely to over-parent but thankfully life got in the way of me being able to smother her completely. She has two younger siblings and my husband and I both work and looking back, given my tendancy to control everything, I can see that has probably been beneficial. She is actually in Uni in the same city as we live and it would have been much cheaper for her to live at home. However, we all recognised that this was NOT the best decision for her and that she needed to live independently. I am still giving cooking instructions by FB messenger though – but hey I do like to feel needed! Great post – it made me think. 🙂

    1. Thank you for your lovely comments. I think that the way we parent is very much dictated by circumstance: where the child comes in the sibling order and work commitments of the parents, to name but two. I hope your daughter settles in well at Uni. My eldest is trying to decide what to do and where to apply at the moment. It seemed more straightforward with my step-daughter. They are just all so different. I think it’s my daughter who will be sending me cooking instructions, rather than the other way around! She keeps saying she doesn’t know how I’ll cope without her!

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