The proper care of seedlings

I was recently re-reading the ca. 4th-century BC collection of advice and admonitions attributed to the Chinese philosopher Mencius. When I came across the following famous passage, parenthood made me see it in a new light:

You must not be like the man from Sung. There was a man from Sung who pulled at his seedlings because he was worried about their failure to grow. Having done so, he went on his way home, not realizing what he had done. ‘I am worn out today,’ said he to his family. ‘I have been helping the seedlings to grow.’ His son rushed out to take a look and there the seedlings were, all shrivelled up. There are few in the world who can resist the urge to help their seedlings grow. There are some who leave the seedlings unattended, thinking that nothing they can do will be of any use. They are the people who do not even bother to weed. There are others who help the seedlings grow. They are the people who pull at them. Not only do they fail to help them but they do the seedlings positive harm.

I’ve sometimes felt, these past few months, that a lot of parenting seems to be just a kind of witnessing. We try to keep the baby fed and comfortable and entertained, but for the most part she grows and unfolds independent of anything particular that we’re doing. Suddenly she’s able to hold things, or she starts trying to sit up–and it happens roughly when the books say it’s going to happen. It’s just what babies do. I remember when I first saw our neighbors’ baby Iris crawling. I exclaimed, “That’s amazing!” Because it really was, to see a kid who’s always had to be carried from one place to the next suddenly mobile. “Yes,” replied her father dryly, “amazing, and yet typical.”

As Mencius says, it’s obviously bad to “not even bother to weed,” but less obvious is how you can hurt the seedlings by trying to hurry them along. I can anticipate that there will be times when, standing by in this mode of alert, supportive witnessing, I will be sorely tempted to try to intervene. But I’ll have to try to remember not to be like the man from Sung.

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