I have tremendous respect for arborists. It always grieves my heart when I see a tree that’s been butchered by someone who doesn’t know how to prune properly. Expert advice is so readily available, both online and from trained professionals, that it seems a pity not to use it. Trees can be greatly damaged—even killed—by improper pruning, and conversely, they can thrive and reach beautiful potential in the hands of a caring expert.

We’re no different. Whether we’re shaping a young life as a parent or teacher, or simply working on ourselves, many of the same principles apply. And while tree trimming is usually best done in wintertime, people-pruning is best done year-round, a little at a time.

Recently I had the great pleasure of spending an evening with two environmental horticulture experts and arborists, and as we talked, I was continually struck by how much we can learn from nature, as we correct human behavior and guide growth. I was also reminded of the wonderful allegory of the tame and wild olive tree, from the fifth chapter of Jacob in the Book of Mormon, and the many Biblical teachings about trees and vineyards as well. I think the Lord wants us to be wise stewards of the earth, to know about gardens, grafting, orchards, and trees. Here are just a few lessons we can learn from these wonderful creations:

  1. Don’t prune just to prune. Many people snip away, simply because the tree is being a tree. It wants to grow, so why hold it back? Unless a tree—or a person– is posing a hazard, why not let it fulfill its potential? Too many parents try to push a child into a mold that doesn’t fit, forcing him or her to play a certain sport or choose a certain major, when they should find out just who this little person is meant to be. Maybe their talents lie in “out of the box” areas, and would thrive if encouraged to follow their dreams. Imagine trying to prune a weeping willow into the shape of a pine tree, and how much beauty would be lost in that foolish endeavor.
  2. Never prune more than 25 per cent. Even a tree that needs major cutting back will be healthiest if those cuts are controlled, saving some for future years so as not to kill the tree by too-severe pruning. Likewise, when we have to correct the behavior of a child, we’ll be more successful if we give instruction in manageable pieces, rather than overwhelm a child with more changes than anyone can grasp at one time. It’s the same with ourselves; so often we set unrealistic goals and resolutions, which can only result in failure and discouragement. We’re wiser to take baby steps, and adjust our actions gradually.
  3. Remove the small, weak twigs from main branches. Sometimes we need to clear out these stragglers, to permit more sunlight and air to penetrate the crown. Likewise, our lives get cluttered to the point of strangulation with extraneous hobbies, commitments, and distractions from our central purposes. We need to take occasional inventory to see if the light of truth is able to get through, or if we’re succumbing to texting, videogames, gossip, and a host of other “weak twigs.”
  4. Have a plan. Think carefully about the result you want, before you fire up the chain saw. Too often we jump in and start hacking away, without a grand plan. Then we step back, and “Oops” comes to mind. Healthy shaping is done from the inside, not by “topping” a tree. Topping disfigures a tree, and encourages water sprouts that rob it of nutrients and spoil its appearance. There are better ways to reduce a tree’s height. Human beings, as well, grow best from being shaped from the inside. How often is a child berated to the point of breaking his spirit, when loving direction could have encouraged the growth we really want. Such a child can wither in weakness, or can even resent the correction, rebel against the message, and become a “topped” tree at risk for emotional disease and unwanted growth in exactly the wrong areas.
  5. Establish a central leader branch, and prune back competing limbs. By adhering to the gospel, it’s easier to establish our priorities and focus upon them, even when distracting offers compete for our attention. Cutting back these “wannabe leaders” helps your tree grow straight and tall. Misdirected, diseased limbs are lopped off for the same reason. And by properly identifying those parts of our life that can crowd out and misdirect eternal objectives, we can avoid allowing them to take over.
  6. Leave a branch collar when you remove a limb. This means no flush cuts, flat against the trunk, but leaving a little “shoulder” at the base of the limb. In addition, when clipping off a heavy branch, make a cut partway down first, so the weight of the limb won’t snap and tear. By supporting the limb this way, you avoid a jagged wound that is not only unsightly, but subject to disease. Similarly, we get better results when we support the person we’re correcting, even if it’s ourselves. It’s not always easy to curb a natural behavior—even if we can see the benefit– but with support instead of recklessness, we can manage the change more easily. When someone is there to help us through the improvements we need to make, we feel loved and understood, and we’re more willing to continue the battle.
  7. Remember that pruning is to stimulate growth in the right directions. Sometimes God needs to prune us back when we have not regulated ourselves and followed the path he knows would be best for us. Sometimes we chafe at that correction. Just as our children don’t always agree with the consequences of their actions and may try to wrangle out of them, we sometimes beg God to go easy on us.   But if we open our hearts and minds to his wisdom, and if we remain humble and teachable, we can reach potential we never imagined. His pruning, of course, is always perfect and results in improvement. This should be our goal as parents—not to punish, but to teach and motivate, to encourage progress in the right direction.
  8. Nourish the tree. If you have snipped a plant—or a person– so severely that it has stopped growing, it has begun to die. And we all want healthy, thriving loved ones. Many trees can be revived with nourishment, sunlight, water, and loving attention. They can become the dazzling canopies of shade, the bearers of luscious fruits and blossoms, and the visions of beauty that have inspired poets since the dawn of time. As children of the same loving creator who made trees, we have even greater potential. We, too, can flourish and succeed, if given the same emotional nourishment, loving support, and tender care. Joyce Kilmer once wrote, “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree,” — what might he say of you and me?


Watch the music video of Hilton’s song, What Makes a Woman, from her new musical, The Best Medicine (with music by Jerry Williams). Her books are available on her website, here. Hilton currently serves as a Relief Society President.