Raising Chickens and Children
Our motto states that here on Phillips Farm, we are raising free-range chickens, ducks, and little boys. Raising chickens and children have some similarities: both thrive with wholesome natural food, both need exercise, fresh air, and sunshine for good health, both like cherry tomatoes plucked straight off the plant through the garden fence…
All kidding aside, we have seen through years of raising chickens for eggs as well as having backyard ducks, that there is so much to be learned in raising chickens and children together. There are, of course, the concrete lessons. For my three-year-old niece, it’s something as simple as which chicken is a boy and which is a girl? How do we know by looking at and listening to them? What do chickens and ducks eat? What do ducks do when it rains? Is it the same or different from the chickens? At her young age, it’s all about observations and wonder.
As she gets older, she may begin to get into more complex topics like how and why do the birds communicate with each other? Do they have relationships or social structures like we do? How are the birds adapted to survive in winter? Is their behavior different season-to-season? Having real animals to interact with and take care of will provide opportunities for deep and meaningful, first-hand knowledge.
It has become clear to me, however, that it is not these concrete lessons that are the most valuable outcome of raising chickens and children together, but rather the character development and hidden lessons it provides.
Here are the top three things I believe can arise from raising chickens and children together.
Lesson #1: Self-Control
My niece fell in love with our birds sometime during her second year of life. When very young children want to be out in the coop or otherwise near your birds, there are some essentials to consider. Are they through the stage of putting everything in their mouths? If not, they should not be allowed on the ground near birds as there are many possibilities for disease or sickness from putting bedding, feathers, or excrement in their mouths.
Children who struggle with following directions may find real motivation in the desire to be around animals. I’ll give you an example: Bailey, my niece, is a spirited child. Like most children, she has her moments when she simply doesn’t listen. One day when we were out in the coop together, she started throwing food all over the place. I told her to leave it in the feeder. When she continued, I explained that it was important for the birds to have clean, dry, food so she would have to stop or we would have to leave the coop and go inside. She wanted badly to stay outside so she listened. Motivation to be out there helped her learn a small lesson in self-discipline.
Another example of learning self-control and gentleness is in holding animals. Children seem to have an innate love of tiny creatures. Baby ducks have always been the most enticing at our house. Holding them is a privilege though as we have to do it properly to keep them safe. For little Bailey that meant a lot of showing and repeating the important things to remember: two hands, gentle (no squeezing), and don’t drop it. If she broke any of those rules, I immediately took the duckling back and went over it again. Over time, she internalized the self-control to hold the babies safely all on her own, even as a toddler.
My stepsons continue to work on building the impulse control to resist the urge to chase the birds around. Even if you have kid-friendly chicken breeds like the Orpington chicken, they are still naturally prey animals. Just like adults, children must learn to approach birds and enter the coop with calm energy. Ducks can be particularly terrified by being chased, and they are susceptible to leg injury if running to escape a screaming, high energy child. I explained to our boys that not only can it cause immediate harm like a broken leg, but chasing also has lasting effects on how the birds trust humans. They can learn to see us as predators instead of caregivers. It may seem like harmless fun, but it isn’t.
Finally, learning to collect eggs with care and gentleness can help build self-regulation and controlled movement in a concrete way. Eggs break when squeezed, thrown, or whacked together. They crack when carelessly dropped into a basket. You can’t swing your basket or you will send the eggs flying. If we break all of our eggs, we won’t have any eggs to enjoy for breakfast. These are all lessons my sweet niece had to gain through firsthand experience. In order to help her learn while also protecting most of my eggs, I got her a tiny egg basket of her own. It only holds about five eggs maximum, limiting how many she was handling since some days, initially, they were all broken by the time we got inside.
When I was teaching her to collect eggs, I made sure she was fully attentive. I told her, “We have to pick them up gently.” I showed her what it looked like. Our nesting boxes are fairly high off the ground so I handed her one egg at a time to set in her basket, repeating, “nice and gentle” as she set it in with the others. Often times you could hear her repeating this mantra to herself. Over time, through many experiences, she has gained the calm and self-control to collect a huge basket of eggs without breaking any. And she’s still only three!
Lesson #2: Empathy
Each spring when our neighbors’ new chicks arrive, their granddaughter, Eva, always picks the weakest, strangest looking one to claim as “hers.” She loves that chick like nothing I have ever seen before. She swaddles it and carries it around with her. She prepares special treats for it like soaked grains or chopped greens. She even makes beautiful homes for her chicks out of dried birdhouse gourds. That child has a huge heart, which may not have had the opportunity to develop so fully or show itself so prominently if she hadn’t had exposure to animals.
Animals, be they birds or something else, give us exposure to something pure. I firmly believe that pure, sweet connection at an early age opens your heart to empathy and compassion throughout your life. When you love something deeply, you want to understand it, help it thrive, and make its life happy and healthy. Our world might be a better place if we had more of this going around.
Another experience that helps build empathy for other creatures is for a child to get to witness a broody hen tending her babies. Seeing how she instinctively knows what they need, how she protects them and snuggles them, shows how some things are universal like the love and care of a mother. How neat for children to get to recognize that familiar relationship in another species and to see that we are more similar than they perhaps thought.
Lesson #3: Selflessness & Responsibility
When children live on a livestock farm or even just keep backyard birds, they see that animals require care no matter the weather, even on holidays, whether you’re feeling good or not. Taking care of another living creature requires responsibility and selflessness. They depend on us, and we have to put their needs before our desires. I have to go out and make sure the coop is locked up even if I’m tired and it’s very cold and rainy. What a valuable lesson for children to see and begin to live, especially in a society of selfies that so often preaches the notion that we are each the center of the universe. Experiencing putting the needs of their animals before their own wants, may well serve our children to engage in more loving, generous relationships later in life. Who wouldn’t want that for their children?