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Children's Voice Article, May/June 2002

Executive Directions

by Shay Bilchik

I always look forward to the change in seasons and the boost that comes from the light-filled, warm days of spring. The Floridian in me is a bit more at ease when the temperature tops 70 degrees, and, most importantly, spring gives me a chance to get back into my garden.

As my family and I have moved to different houses, I have always taken great pride in their gardens. When we bought our house in Miami in the late 1980s, I took a full week off of my job as a prosecutor to landscape the yard. It was no small undertaking. I went to a nursery field in South Dade County and picked up trees, plants, and flowers, and hired two people and a backhoe to help me with the job.

The next week, I went back to work, and after a few days a confused neighbor asked my wife, "I know your husband is a landscaper, but where does he go each morning in a suit and tie?" I took it as a great compliment.

I have been far less successful in my gardening attempts at our current home outside of Washington, DC. When we moved in, I spent hours in the garden planting day lilies, tulip bulbs, azaleas, and flowering trees. Although the climate and plants were new to me, I assumed what worked in a Florida garden would work in a Maryland garden. I was wrong. No sooner had I gotten everything in the ground than the squirrels, rabbits, and deer that also share my wooded neighborhood began to take a very active interest in my work. The squirrels managed to find all of my freshly planted bulbs before they ever had a chance to sprout, and the deer would wait until flowers were just on the precipice of a full bloom before devouring them. I was not amused.

My neighbors were sympathetic and offered "remedies," like sprinkling the garden with soap and hair. It made a mess, but it made no difference. One neighbor assured me that hot pepper plants would keep the animals away. The critters in my yard, however, seemed to enjoy the new spicy treat I had planted for them. Through trial and error, and further suggestions from my neighbors, I eventually learned what kinds of plants didn't interest the neighborhood wildlife. The garden now isn't particularly spectacular, but it is still standing.

In many ways, my parenting experiences have been similar to my gardening ones. Both involve time and nurturing, providing the best possible environment, and keeping predators at bay, but they are also similar in less metaphorical ways. With gardens and children, what works for one often fails with another, you find yourself caught unprepared for each new threat, and they're rarely predictable.

I thought I had all of the tools necessary to make my garden a success-water, dirt, sun-how hard could it be? I think many people approach parenting the same way: love, diapers, bottles-how hard can it be? Well, I'm not sure any parent has yet come up with the words to accurately describe how hard it is, or how amazing, but the truth is no one comes automatically equipped to be a great parent. Every caregiver needs help, guidance, support, and encouragement to do this most important job well.

A few months ago, the League began a series of planning meetings for an exciting new effort. Building on the success of our positive parenting curriculum, CWLA's Crittenton Child, Youth, and Family Development Division has begun an initiative to help create parenting-rich environments-communities in which parents and caregivers can get the support, information, and resources they need to be effective and to make parenting more enjoyable.

During the meeting, some staff members shared experiences similar to the one I had with my garden, where neighbors and community members had reached out with needed help and parenting advice. One new mother on staff is part of a neighborhood group that meets regularly to share tips, problems, and advice. The group, which also provides a social outlet for parents and kids, has created its own parenting-rich environment. Others, however, said they have trouble locating resources and support, feel isolated, or can find little information or help on raising their older children.

Parenting is hard, and our communities should do so much more to support every family, not just those at risk. Although this effort is still in its early stages, the League hopes it will help prevent many of the problems that result from families lacking the knowledge and support to parent as well as they can. As we move forward, we will be engaging input and support from our members, other organizations, and lots of parents to help us identify what communities need to be parenting-rich environments. We hope you'll get involved.

For more information on CWLA's parenting-rich environments, e-mail parenting@cwla.org. And if you have any advice on gardening in a wildlife-rich environment, please send it my way.

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