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.


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!