Friday, July 07, 2017

A Chicken For Every Child

This is my three-year-old niece Violet.
She's crazy about our chickens. She knew the name of our rooster - Andre Poulet - before she even arrived at our home in Nova Scotia (she and her six siblings, along with her parents, are visiting from Georgia). Every time he crows, she shouts, "Andre Poulet!"
She believes he is calling to her. 

In the photo, she was meeting the chickens for the first time. For the last few months, she informed us she intended to chase the chickens and to hold them. I had to break the news to her: we don't raise chickens who like to be cuddled. Instead, she had to be satisfied with some petting. I think she found the chasing more interesting.
We fed bread to the chickens and a few of them will take it from your fingers so Violet was shocked at how sharp their beaks are. She inspected the end of her finger very carefully, looking for blood, then tossed all her bread away and told them to "Go get it."
Yet when it came time to collect the eggs that evening, she trotted into the coop without hesitation. I tell you, this girl is fearless. Under Andre Poulet's reign, our chickens go to bed early (before the sun sets) so they were already sitting on their roosts when we arrived.
Violet thought that was amazing.
"Jump to me!" she shouted, standing under them with her arms upraised. "Jump to me and I will catch you!"
Sadly, no one took her up on her offer.
And when it came time to collect the eggs, she didn't hesitate to thrust her hand under the bird sitting in a nest box to see if there was an egg under her. Then she sat down on the floor of the coop, which is covered in shavings clumped up with dried poop, in order to look at the eggs in her basket.
I was enthusiastic about getting chickens back in 2008 but I don't think I was ever THIS enthusiastic.

I'm working on a theory that one of the issues with "youth of today" is that they don't live on farms. So that's a broad statement, very generalized at this point, but this is what we're missing now that we're vacating our rural areas, and leaving the farms behind. 
I think it's important for children to have chores, to have work to do, to have responsibilities. I think it's essential for children to be responsible for another life. I think children, even if they live in a city, should, at the very least, have a couple of chickens and a small garden. (Apartment dwellers will have to be creative or perhaps join or start a community garden.)

Children need to take care of something that depends on them for life. A chicken that needs fresh water and food, eggs that need to be placed carefully into the basket (not dropped) so that they don't break, plants that need fertilizer and watering and de-bugging.
They need to experience the satisfaction of a job well done; not a video game level completed or a Snapchat streak maintained but the before-and-after of a coop cleaned out or a garden weeded, an omelette made from fresh eggs and just-picked herbs.
Children need to experience life and death through the natural world, where it is normal and hands-on and oh so bloody real, not through Disney movie and the Family channel. There is no need to shield a child from a chicken that has been near-fatally pecked by the other chickens because there is the joy of watching her survive and heal and thrive as a "pet". Nor should we shield a child from the dead hen or rabbit or stillborn baby goat. As sad as it is to witness the death of any creature, children understand the cycle of life with far more equilibrium than adults give them credit for; and often, with their unique brand of wisdom.

These kind of experiences are different than feeding the cat and cleaning the cat litter, different than feeding and walking the dog. I haven't quite worked out how but it is. Yet any chore, any responsibility is good for a child. It builds confidence, it builds knowledge, it builds problem-solving skills.  Chores and responsibilities involving more than just setting the table or pushing the green bin to the curb, that involve animals and plants, make children smarter, healthier, and more resilient.
And, generally speaking, children with gardens and chickens, with goats and bunnies, with cows and horses, don't have time to get bored. They don't have time to get into trouble or make really bad decisions; they're too busy watching those freshly-hatched chicks.

My riding instructor told me how good it is for young girls to work with horses, and my three-year-old niece fearlessly -- far more fearlessly than I did nine years ago -- fetched eggs out from under a hen. The life skills learned in a barn are as important as the knowledge gained in a classroom, and the life lessons discovered by working with animals and growing vegetables will leave far deeper impressions than any Disney movie.

"Jump to me and I will catch you," Violet said. Fearless, confident and able to deal with the disappointment of a chicken not doing what you want it to do. Because that's life.

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