“Tomato Staking”  

I recently heard this term in an online discussion.  And it’s not talking about gardening, but a parenting style.  Curious, I looked it up.  It seems to have been coined by Elizabeth Krueger, author of Raising Godly Tomatoes.


Tomato Staking. The idea of being your child's support and shaping their growth by always being present. This idea is widespread in the traditionalist conservative christian parenting community. There are good points, but is it gentle? What would you do with these ideas a a gentle discipline, peaceful parent? The answer is Lamb Carrying.


Her concept is that a mother should act as a child’s tomato cage, directing the child’s growth and formation.  How? By keeping children close at all times. Never allowing independent unsupervised play, at least not until the child proves himself trustworthy.  This way, a mother can “correct” unwanted behavior immediately, with a spanking, every time.  The child never “gets away” with anything, and will soon be trained to be compliant and trustworthy.


You know what?  I actually do something very similar!  Well, they would at least look similar at first glance. But the reasons are so vastly opposite, that if you dig deeper, they are two separate things.  Let’s call what I do “Lamb Carrying”.  But we’ll get to that in a minute.  First, let’s look at what is wrong with the Tomato Staking approach.


What’s wrong with tomato staking?


First off, it’s a punitive system.  The whole point is to have the child always nearby so you can wait in anticipation for the slightest offence, then get ’em.  If your husband insisted you stay by his side constantly, so he could correct you at the slightest fault, what kind of relationship would you build with him?  It wouldn’t be one of love, respect and connection.it would be one of fear, resentment and self-doubt.


Does that accurately represent the relationship God has with His children?


Also, this method of parenting doesn’t change the heart.  Sure, after a while, your kid will probably learn to modify his behavior to avoid being punished.  But is that holiness?  Or is doing what Mama says, purely to avoid something unpleasant, honestly just selfishness wrapped in pretty packaging?  I’d rather try to teach my children to LOVE what is good, rather than love themselves by avoiding getting into trouble.


So what is Lamb Carrying?


Do you know why Jesus is often pictured carrying a lamb on his shoulders?  


A good shepherd would keep all his sheep together and lead them only where it was safe.He would provide for them. Protect them.  Teach them to follow him.  


Sometimes though, a particular sheep just wouldn’t stay put. First the shepherd would bring the sheep back gently, remind the sheep what was expected, where she belonged.  But if the sheep continued to wander and endanger herself, something more drastic was needed.


The shepherd would take the errant sheep, and break her legs, making the poor thing completely helpless.  Now, the sheep couldn’t feed herself.  She couldn’t find water.  She couldn’t find shelter. Left alone, she would die.


But the shepherd didn’t leave her there.  This was not meant to be a punishment.  Not a retaliation. He had a much greater purpose.


Once the sheep was totally dependant, the shepherd lovingly placed the animal on his shoulders. And there she stayed! He fed her.  Cared for her.  Nursed her as she healed.  Most importantly, he built a tender relationship with her.  As the sheep spent time with the shepherd, she came to love him.  She learned to trust him, learned to follow his lead.  So that when her legs had finally healed, she stayed at the shepherd’s side willingly, following his commands.  She wouldn’t wander and get herself into trouble anymore.  She was too strongly attached to him.


When one of my children is having a chronically rough time behaving… And I mean a really, ridiculously, horrendously, insanely, hair-pulling-out-ly hard time…  I resort to Lamb Carrying.


For example, the last time I used this, my 5-year-old kept hitting.  It had been 2 or 3 days of constant hitting.  We were under some extra stress, and I just wasn’t getting through to her.  She would just hop up from a “time in” snuggling with me… and go hit her sister again!  Constant.  I knew she was stressed and just couldn’t handle life right now.  So here’s how Lamb Carrying plays out:


Tomato Staking. The idea of being your child's support and shaping their growth by always being present. This idea is widespread in the traditionalist conservative christian parenting community. There are good points, but is it gentle? What would you do with these ideas a a gentle discipline, peaceful parent? The answer is Lamb Carrying.I will tell the child that since she isn’t being able to be meet the expectations of being a big girl, I can’t trust her like a big girl.  I tell her I need to treat her like a baby, because it isn’t safe for me to give her big girl privileges.  She must stay with me.  Right by my side.  For the rest of the day (longer if older)  If I’m doing dishes, she’s doing dishes.  If I’m rocking the baby, she is rocking with us, or at my feet.  If I lay down for a nap, she is with me.  Always.  Every second.  I need to feel your hand holding my skirt. Babywearing is especially helpful if the child is small enough!


Like the shepherd, I take away her independence (without any actual bone breaking!)  And it hurts.  She doesn’t like it at all!  But It’s a necessary step for what comes next.




Lamb Carrying is NOT a punishment!  Consequence, yes.  But the intent is not to cause suffering.  We are hitting the emergency reset button on our relationship.


Like the shepherd, I don’t neglect this suddenly dependant lamb.  I nurture.  I nurse.  I love.  I teach.  While we are washing those dishes?  We are singing songs and talking about the science behind bubbles.  While I am rocking the baby?  We are telling stories, memorizing poems, and giving silly names to the birds we see out the window.  And teaching?  Well, having her with me lets me address the things she is struggling with in my non-punitive ways. For example, I can intercept her hand if she tries to hit someone, instead of watching it from across the room. We are two people, on the same side, both working to help her get through this tough time.  Also, it is so very important to extend some extra grace during Lamb Carrying.  Do not acknowledge every tiny infraction!  Let some disrespect slide.  We are working on our emotional connection, not policing for perfection.  The Shepherd doesn’t punish the lamb for bleating in her pain.


How long does it last?


For us, our 3-year-old usually feels (and therefore behaves) better after a few hours.  The 5-year-old took 2 days one time.  It could be longer with older children.


Remember, this is not a punishment.  It is not a grounding.  Although it seems similiar on the surface, the goal is not to make a child “pay” for an offence and “learn their lesson.”  The point is acknowledging that your child is not being able to meet your expectations, and removing them from a situation they are currently incapable of handling (having big kid privileges.)  Once the child is reconnected to you, once their love cup is full again, they have more emotional stability.  And more desire and ability to meet your family’s expectations.


Isaiah 40:11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.

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