On Tomato Staking Toddlers and Teenagers

When my children were little, I remember feeling a sense of confusion when it came to training and disciplining my busy toddlers. Toddlers freak out with all the little bodily changes and independence they are beginning to experience. Curiosity gets the better of them. They have to be told a million times not to touch certain things, not to throw their toys (or food), and to be gentle to the dog. I have had a few young ones enjoy dumping Duplos or a billion sheets of toilet paper into the potty. Sometimes they hit or bite and somehow find a hidden Sharpie and create new artwork on my yellow walls.

About twelve years ago, I read an article by a mother of many children who said that when her young ones are out-of-sorts emotionally and are finding difficulty in following the rules, she would recognize that they needed to be “tomato-staked”.

When tomatoes are growing, they will begin to fall over and not grow upright if not held to a stake or tomato cage. They need close boundaries to keep them growing strong and fruitful. I use cut-up strips of old T-shirts to tie my tomato plants to their cages when they begin leaning towards a strange direction.

When our children are misbehaving or making poor choices, our natural inclination is to send them away from us. We send them to their rooms or to a time-out spot. Sometimes this is a suitable action when we need some space to calm down. Other times it is only a temporary bandaid, and when the child comes out, all of the bad behavior starts up again. We get angrier and they get worse. Everyone’s emotions are fried.

Tomato-staking means that we choose to keep the child near.

We recognize that they are struggling and decide that what they need is touch, vigilance, and to be a companion in our work. They aren’t left to deal with all the crazy emotions alone, but are kept near to be loved, calmed, taught, fed, and led. The big emotions calm down. The sneaky behaviors end. And the frustration the mother feels towards the child slowly becomes compassionate again. I have used this technique on and off many times over the years, and the results have also been fruitful.

So if this works for a toddler who is feeling all the feels, then why wouldn’t this work with a teenager?

Last week I was struggling with one of my teens. He was moody, argumentative, critical of his siblings, and being deceptive about computer use. I was feeling pretty frustrated and like we were going around the same mountain again and again. It’s easy for me to pull the authority trump card, get louder, remove privileges, build relational walls. Anger and bitterness can fester under the surface. The road can be rocky and awkward and maddening.

I sat in my frustration and thought, “What is my goal here?” Relationship.

I started with compassion.

Remembering teen hormonal changes and their power, the fight for independence, the deep sense of insecurity, the fears, the comparison: IT’S SO DANG HARD. Birthing into a young adult is messy and fraught with mistakes and immaturity, and instead of shame, they need so much care and reassurance. The struggle with identity is huge.

Since we felt at odds with each other and I wasn’t trusting him to be with siblings with all the big feels, what did I do? I tomato-staked him. He spent the afternoon with me. I bought him lunch at Chick Fil-A (an aside: food with teens heals many wounds). He went with me to a friend’s house to help her with some decorating ideas. Then we went to meet another friend to look at a space for an event. Having just the two of us in the car together helped us to enjoy one another, to laugh, to be near.

By the end of the day, we both felt calm and connected.

And I am reminded that God is the same way. When I am a giant brat, He draws me close. When I am faithless, He is faithful. He never drives me away and is not angry or harsh with my disobedience or immaturity or hormones, but kind, compassionate, long-suffering and corrects me gently. He tomato-stakes me with His love and grace. His presence is always near. When you feel the depth of the love of the Father, obedience becomes a want-to and trusting becomes easier that His plans are good and right.

It’s certainly not an A + B = C because there are no guarantees in parenting. But nearness, calming presence, unconditional love, laughter, and some fast food sure does help.