It's a gardening term that is used to describe the period of time during which tender indoor-grown plants are slowly acclimated to the harsher (windier, colder, sunnier) conditions they will face when they are transplanted into the great outdoors.
It's also a term that occurred to me today when thinking about how I am raising my children. If you asked my children, I'm sure they would tell you the ways in which their lives have been difficult: the many moves of a military family, a divorce, a new family to adjust to, and a cranky, often distracted mother who believes in the value of chores, discipline, telling the truth, and keeping your word.
But the truth of the matter is, my children's lives have been easy when measured against children in the rest of the world. They have never known real hunger, never been homeless or unwanted or unloved.
And yet, I don't shield them from the realities of life. We have had many discussions on many, varied topics--politics, abortion, gay marriage, women's rights, to name a few. They know I will never shy away from a question or give them a non-answer like, "I'll tell you when you're older." I don't believe in that. In fact, sometimes they have to stop me from giving Too Much Information ("T.M.I., Mom, T.M.I.!"), so strongly do I believe in being open and truthful with them. Granted, the answers vary according to age. The youngest can't begin to fathom the things I might tell the oldest, and so I answer accordingly.
Recently, though, I've been thinking about this attitude of mine. Reassessing, if you will. Mostly from an innocent comment made by a friend who suggested that children shouldn't have to be exposed to hospitals and sickness and death. That seems to be the prevailing feeling in America: Let them be children a little longer.
Here is where my gardener's knowledge kicks in. (Yes, I am far too prone to attributing the traits of the natural world to humans--a sort of reverse anthropomorphism, if you will, but bear with me.) Even the healthiest hothouse plant needs time to adjust to the natural world. Too much sun too suddenly will burn its tender leaves. Too much wind will flatten its fragile stems. Too much cold, too soon, will cause it to shrivel and suffer.
So it is for a child, raised in an idyllic cocoon, who is suddenly launched into the world alone. So, like the attentive gardener, nurturing and strengthening his prize plants, I am hardening off my children. Last week I took the children to the nursing home to visit my husband's ailing father. Before we got there we talked about what they would see and smell and hear: legless people in wheelchairs, people aimlessly wandering the halls, people talking to themselves or crying out, and a smell unlike any other smell. But we also told them that they had no reason to be afraid, that these were all just people, people who had lived long lives, had children and grandchildren, and even though they looked different on the outside, inside they were all just people. And we warned them that Grandpa would look very different from what they remembered, that he might moan or cough, but that it was okay, that he was still Grandpa underneath and he could hear them and if they talked to him or touched him, it would make him very happy.
The children were amazing. My youngest introduced himself to the legless man in the neighboring bed and the two of them ended up having quite a conversation and sharing a package of chocolate doughnut holes. All of the children spoke to Grandpa (no questions, only statements) and touched him in very tender ways, rubbing his feet or touching his hands. While we were there his blood pressure returned almost to normal and he slept peacefully without coughing, for the first time in days. It was obvious to everyone, especially the kids, how much they had helped. And when it was time to leave, every single one of them was reluctant to go and wanted to know when they could come back. I can't think of a better affirmation than that.