Chicken Herder

I take back everything I said about being slow and reasonable. If you’ve been dreaming of chickens, and you have small children, go now. Build that coop.

When our ladies first arrived, into my hastily thrown together crate coop and the inevitable glitches of such haste started rolling in, I felt the cold shadow of regret. After thinking about it so hard, had I failed to keep my head in the end? The constant trouble of a poor set-up loomed and I felt tired. The hens were pickier than I remembered, they wouldn’t even eat the chard stems I had so been looking forward to feeding them. Bah. I considered cursing the universe for taunting me with those stupid, perfect crates. What’s the big deal anyway? Eggs. So what. I can buy them just as good at the farmer’s market, for hardly more money. Was this just a big waste of my time, when I could have been using my “vacation” for more vacationy pursuits?

But. I was leaving out one very big piece of the puzzle.

Kids.

I mean, I had thought about how the kids would enjoy having chickens, and how they would provide valuable life lessons about where our food comes from, etc, etc, but I had failed to realize the immensity that keeping hens had to offer for a 3-going-on-4YO. Her role in this life is revolutionized. With no formal training, and very little fanfare, my little girl has become a chicken herder.

A few days in, I mentioned that checking for eggs could be her job. I’m always looking for good chores for her, and as I suspected, she stepped up eagerly. We put a special latch on the coop door that she could open, so that she could check for eggs all by herself. On about the fourth day, she leapt out of bed in the morning. ‘I have to check for eggs!’ she yelled, big bright eyes shining as she ran out the door. I stayed in the house, to give her the opportunity to accomplish her task alone. A few minutes later she came running back in, ‘Mama, mama! The chickens are out of water!’

You know when you watch your kid learn something that, before having kids, you had never given a single thought to? Some small skill that seems totally mundane, but when you watch it unfurl from the sea anemone of infancy, just blows your mind.

I can’t think what the word is for this new skill. It’s more than just initiative. I had given her a job, and she had done it, and then looked around with a critical eye to see what else was needed. Her little brain is learning to link things up, make sense of disparate parts, realize problems and troubleshoot them. Gulp. My little girl. Growing up.

Every day she collects the eggs, brings them into the kitchen, puts them in the egg carton that is strategically placed where only she (and not any shorter members of our household) can reach it, then marks down how many on a piece of paper taped to the fridge. She lets the ladies out into their yard in the morning and shuts them into their coop for the night. She knows she is not allowed to open the gate into their yard unless they’re all in their coop. I watch her surreptitiously through the bedroom window when she goes out by herself. She takes it all ever so seriously and carefully follows any rules I have laid out. Which, have you been reading this blog? is not exactly as per personality. She’s usually more of a make-a-rule-and-you-will-live-to-regret-it kind of kid.

But the chicken herding is real. Kids aren’t stupid, they know when we give them bogus tasks and bogus rules. The chickens are real live animals, smaller than her, dependent on her. People talk about getting their kids a pet so that the kid will ‘learn to take care of something’ as if it’s a hard lesson we have to teach them, but I think that puts the wrong spin on it. I think a pet gives a kid the opportunity to take care of something, to be genuinely needed, to rise to the occasion. Which are all enormously important sources of joy and satisfaction to people of any age.

Pets are well and good, but what I have realized is so fantastic about the chickens is that, not only is she taking care of creatures smaller than her, but she is taking a genuinely useful place in the workings of our household. She takes care of the chickens, they lay us eggs, she collects the eggs, we eat the eggs. At the store this morning she said happily, “We don’t need eggs.”

the herdess waits patiently for her charges to file in for the night

I don’t know how I feel about enforced chores for kids. We haven’t quite gotten there yet. I didn’t have chores when I was growing up, and I ended up with a damn good work ethic, if I do say so myself. But, of course it can go an awful lot of ways. Having kids has definitely given me some utopian ideas– like, the best way to foster a love of something is not to force it, but to allow a child to discover it on their own. We shall see, as things unfold. Certainly the best possible way for a kid to discover the meaningful-ness of work on their own is to have the opportunity to do work that has genuine meaning.

It’s not that easy to provide such opportunities in today’s household. Kids used to be honestly needed. By 4, they are amazingly capable, and I can see how this would have worked, in ‘the old days.’ I can see how she has this blossoming desire for responsibility, coupled with the ever-present drive to challenge herself. If I genuinely needed her to, I think she could take reasonably good care of her 1.5YO little brother. Which sounds crazy by modern standards, like, someone call Child Protective Services. And I don’t leave them alone, of course. I don’t need to. But sometimes I wonder if we would all be better off if I did.

Her chicken herding services aren’t genuinely needed either. I could easily do it myself, and I’m sure we all know that. But at least it genuinely needs doing, at a level she can understand. Not like the abstract chore of picking up her toys. It might not be my ideal survival family education, but it’s the best thing we’ve got going at our house.

The shadow of regret was in fact just a cloud passing over. Instead I can hardly believe I was considering not getting chickens. The work of the coop, the cost of the feed? An insignificant price to pay for such an incredible learning opportunity. Let alone the selfish pleasure of watching my little girl master new skills and think creatively as she joyfully takes on her first big responsibility.

Thank you for slapping me till I took notice, oh Benificent Universe!

18 thoughts on “Chicken Herder

  1. I love this post, and totally agree about giving kids chores with meaning. That 3/4 age is so amazing, they just wanna do like mamma do. Carpe diem, I say: give ’em shit to do! We stress to Bella that she’s part of our team and her contributions are important. The chicken addition to our fam has had a similar effect. It’s also made our home far more popular for the neighborhood kids. Before I was just that weird lady who didn’t have fruit snacks or goldfish crackers. Now we’re the chicken house. Good stuff.

  2. OMG! That is just the CUTEST pic! Love it. The Universe is magnificent isn’t it? Now I’m jealous again. Wish I had thought of chickens when mine were that little. I don’t think they’d go near them now. Although my older son has a Buddha like respect for all living things. He won’t even kill spiders for me. He gathers them up on a piece of paper and sets them free outside. He’s my gentle giant. I think he would have LOVED taking care of those chickens. Good for you CJ!

  3. We hatched chicks from fertile eggs in an incubator. The process turned out to be surprisingly stressful for me and part way through I wondered who I was doing all this for – the kids weren’t all that interested. But watching them hatch was fantastic for us all. A couple of weeks ago they started laying and like your little girl, my boys love to collect the eggs.

  4. That was such a great post. Especially warmed my heart on this -4C morning. I have just come in from the chickens after breaking the ice and giving them fresh warm water. The beaks are still going in but I don’t think they are drinking anymore, just warming their nostrils!
    I admit a mother fail here. I tried chores and it was a lifetime of whining and frustration. I don’t think I was constructive enough or or super enough. My brother has got it right with his kids though. They are not perfect angels but they do get the concept that chores are teamwork in action. If they neglect a chore the team starts to suffer. I think he used the “right” kind of chores. I think I failed because I was just trying to get a bit of help out around the place.

    1. again i have to say, not to underestimate Nurture, but don’t underestimate Nature! i just don’t believe it’s so simple as that you’re brother got it “right” and you had a “fail”
      you’re brother might have gotten kids with a certain inclination. his seeds fell on fertile ground. these things snowball.

  5. yep – chickens are great. I must admit my boy 5 gets a wee bit enthusiastic every now and then when we have visitors but most of the time it is amazing. ah the journey and the company – oh so good!

  6. Well said, CJ, as usual. That’s EXACTLY what happened to us. Building the coop and taking care of chicks we were wondering what the hell got into us. But now… oh… it’s so great. The kids (3 years into our chicken raising adventure) STILL love to go get the eggs, throw out scratch, find snails for the chickens to eat… oh, they just love the chickens. I do too, come to think of it. Hard to imagine not having chickens now.

    I’m on the fence about chores too… although my 7-year-old is asking for them… and I’m trying to oblige. Right now it’s clearing the table after dinner and putting her clothes away when she changes (which is often!). I often wonder if I’ll look back and I wish I was more strict, but for now I use the “we’re a family, so we work together for the good of all of us” a lot, trying to make it more about family and community rather than “do this because I said so”. Shrug.

    1. 7 yo asking for chores? lay ’em on! i’m a big advocate of figuring out ways for kids to help, even if it’s more work for you. i believe (yet to be proved though, ask me in 12 years) it pays off later. they are born with a desire to be involved and help, nurture it while you can! it won’t last!
      clearing the table and putting away clothes doesn’t challenge a 7yo though. kids like to be challenged. might i suggest thinking out something that would be at the edge of what she’s capable of? preferably with a tangible and immediate product… that’s one important problem with our dumbed down modern households. not enough challenging, meaningful work.

  7. That is a beautiful thing! My daughter is nearly 18 months and we’re considering getting a couple chickens. Maybe in a year the timing will be perfect!

  8. That’s it. I’m sold – I’ve been sitting on the fence re; should we or shouldn’t we? But, when we get back home I’ll be getting onto the job.

    And – the topic of chores for kids has been on my mind a lot lately. We’re staying with my in-laws at the moment. They managed to bring up four of the most helpful kids loaded to the eye balls with initiative, and they never enforced jobs, just suggested and modelled. I had a chore list to tick off daily and I failed to look after myself for about ten years after i left home!Hmmm, wonder which method works?

    1. don’t forget about Essential Natures though. not that what parents do isn’t important, but what you start out with influences all that follows.
      did i just imply you are lazy by nature? hmmm.

    1. no, i don’t think about my “influence” much. i can hardly believe i’ve found readership, let alone influence. maybe i seem like a real writer, but i’m just lil ole me. masquerading.

  9. A great post – all four of my kids are home for the summer (age 21 to 8) and they have chores. Cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming, and taking the trash & compost out. I would go insane if we didn’t all pitch in.

    And eventually, it carries over into other areas. Mr. 8-yr old said today, “We can’t let the team down!” I don’t know where the sports metaphor came from – we were talking about piano lessons – but I agreed – and we went on.

  10. Hey, I hope you don’t mind but I’ve linked this post in with one from my blog, because I just loved your chicken herder post. Come check it out, when ever you have the time!

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