Lessons from a Tomato Plant To Take Back to School

Many summers ago we made an unsuccessful stab at growing tomatoes in containers on our kitchen deck alongside the flourishing basil and mint. This year, I decided to try again with a different strategy. The seedlings’ label told me the plants would grow to 18 inches. Surprisingly, the exuberant stalks grew to well over 3 feet. Oddly, no fruit appeared. Well, almost no fruit. A couple of green cherry tomatoes hung on the robust leafy vines week after week, never turning red. One day, I noticed the bag of soil I had used when potting them, tucked under the porch deck. Organic “top” soil the bag read. Fertilizer! Hmmm, lots of nutrients for showy plants, but not for bearing fruit. The next weekend, I began the tedious task of scooping, spoonful by spoonful, as much of the fertilizer as I could extricate from the roots. I replaced the fertilizer with organic soil. Within a couple of days, the tomatoes turned red! And more fruit began to sprout from the flowers, as if they’d been straining to get started and finally, now, had what they needed to grow.

In my personal and professional life, I often find myself thinking about what we need to thrive, to heal, to grow. As the tomato plant reminded me, some nutrients promote leaf growth while other nutrients encourage fruit growth. As we head into “back to school” season, what nutrients do we and our children need to flourish?

Carol Dweck, psychologist, researcher and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, says we need a growth mindset. Children and adults with a growth mindset love a challenge. They have a passion for stretching beyond their comfort zones, for sticking with it even when things don’t go well. They understand the transformative power of effort. And, they value what they do, no matter the outcome. Sound appealing? Want this for yourself and your kids?

Developing a growth mindset is a worthy goal. Praise as a strategy can help foster this mindset–but not just any kind of praise. We live in a fertilizer rich culture when it comes to praise. Many parents attempt to give their children the gift of permanent confidence by praising brains and talent. “You’re the smartest!” “You’re the best artist (or athlete).” Unfortunately, the research shows that this type of praise can have a stifling effect on children and adults. Lots of leaves, not much fruit. Imagine a child who is been praised for her smarts. “Oops, I don’t want to take a risk here. Everyone thinks I’m smart–but if I speak up and say something that sounds stupid, well, they won’t think I’m smart anymore.”

Here are some ways you can foster a growth mindset.

Do your own work
• Purposefully engage in developing your own growth mindset. Read Dweck’s book to learn more about how you can apply it at work, in relationships, in coaching, and in parenting.
• Value mistakes as growth opportunities. Role model by sharing what you’ve learned from your mistakes.
• Practice your own growth belief system: It’s not that I’m not good enough (or smart enough or talented enough). It’s about learning a new skill; trying a new approach; doing something a different way. It’s about effort.

I remember Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon. He once said “If I wasn’t dyslexic, I probably wouldn’t have won the Games. If I had been a better reader, then that would have come easily, sports would have come easily… and I never would have realized that the way you get ahead in life is hard work.”

Realistic & Helpful Praise for effort, applying skills, and growing Carol Dweck emphasizes the importance of praise that is realistic and focuses on effort and learning. Here are some of her examples:
• “You really studied for your test and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, you outlined it, and you even tested yourself. It really worked!”
• “I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that math problem until you finally got it. You thought of a lot of different ways to do it and found the one that worked!”
• “That picture has so many beautiful colors. Tell me about them.”
• “The passion you put into that piano piece gives me a real feeling of joy. How do you feel when you play it?”

Words for the child who tried, but it didn’t work out as well as she or he had hoped:
• “Everyone learns in a different way. Let’s keep trying to find the one that works for you.”
• “We all have different learning curves. It may take more time for you to catch on to this and be comfortable with this material, but if you keep at it like this you will.”

Value Failure
A colleague of mine, dean of a prestigious medical school, welcomes the incoming students every year with these remarks, “One of your biggest problems is that you haven’t failed enough.” Is he serious? Absolutely. The path ahead for these students is filled with profound challenges and inevitably some failure. For students who have known much success, these failures can be devastating. However, a growth mindset allows setbacks to provide personal and professional insight, valuable lessons not achievable any other way. As Thomas J. Watson once said “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” For parents, this is a tough one. We want to protect our children from the disappointment and consequences of failure. We long to sweep them up and out of the way of suffering. But trying to protect them from all “failure” robs them of a chance to grow and learn. So breathe. And be there to talk with them and encourage them when they haven’t achieved their goal.

Dinner Table Questions
Share a meal and promote a growth mindset while you’re at it: Encourage everybody to share.
What did you learn today?
What mistakes did you make that taught you something?
What did you try hard at today?

Keep a Journal
Write down the constructive feedback you gave today.
Write or draw about your opportunities for learning and growth.

Remember the tomato plant. Figure out what kind of environment you and your children need to grow. Leave room for the priceless lessons in failure and mistakes.


An earlier version of this article was published in The Orange Cat.

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