The Beauty of Keeping Chickens with Kids
Like most mothers, when we first suggested raising chickens in the backyard, I wondered if it was the right choice for Tad. He was about to turn two, he still didn't really have a grasp on the idea that animals were living things, and he had a LOT of energy. He still does! Now, six months later into having our flock, and I really can't imagine what he would be like without them around. Maybe a little less enthusiastic about heading outside for chores?! From the minute we brought them home to now, I know that we made the best choice. He has learned and grown so much by caring for his girls! I'd love to share some reasons why I think raising chickens with a child, even a toddler, can be really awesome!
It was in April that we brought the chickens home. You can read about that experience here. I remember sitting in the car holding the box, watching Tad reach and reach desperately for the fluffy cargo that was inside. There was a tiny panic; what if he can't figure out that these are animals and not toys?! Or what happens if he walks over to the brooder one day and one of the chickens is dead? What do I tell him, and how will that affect him? But even as we set up the brooder and piled in our little feathery poofs, he watched gleefully as they poked and hopped about. It was true love. Not every single day is wonderful, not by a long shot! We still have lots of moments where we have to remind him to be more gentle, to not kick at the chickens, to help us collect eggs or feed them when he's not in the mood to. It's a process, and it's not perfect. But even on the frustrating days, it's fun to see how these chickens have made our lives so much happier!
On the day that I took these photos, I noticed something Tad said that I had not taught him to say. As he climbed up into the coop to collect eggs from the nesting boxes, while I snapped away, he carefully cradled this little brown orb in his hands and said, "Thank you, chickens!" It was the most precious thing, and I realized that by showing him where the eggs came from and that he had to care for the animals that made them, he was very quickly learning about gratitude. Raising chickens is not cheap, and it takes patience and hard work. It's not until that first egg comes that you realize how much goes into making your breakfast in the morning. By raising livestock that can feed you eggs, children learn first hand where their food comes from and how long it really takes to get there. Even when you don't think they'll care or notice, you realize that they do! I hope we never take our food for granted ever again. Our tiny flock works hard to make eggs happen for our family!
The chickens need food, water, shelter, clean bedding, time outside to free range, check ups for illness, and Tad's favorite... treats! As a parent, I don't really dedicate myself to one certain style or environment, but we are definitely not a family that follows specific learning routines. We do similar things each day, but for the most part, every single day includes a new adventure. I feel that it is necessary to be adaptable because every single day Tad changes, too! There are days where he wakes up with more words, feelings, and actions than the day before. It's amazing! With that said, we try to keep the chickens as something that he can rely on to be there even on our wildest days. Every day is not the same, but we try to go out and check for eggs in the mornings and afternoons. We make sure they have food together and fresh water, we let them outside to search for bugs, and Tad gets to give them a treat and some cuddles. He's a little too small to really help me clean the coop, but he asks all of the time, "Can Tad do it? I want to do it!" and by the time he's big enough, I am sure he will not be saying that any longer!!!
I love witnessing the two sides that make up being a toddler! Tad is wild, rambunctious, loud, outgoing, and friendly. He loves meeting new people, running, not listening, jumping, tumbling, and getting dirty. There's never a dull moment, and there are rarely quiet ones. But sometimes, when he doesn't think I am watching, I will see the sweetest side of empathy come out. Since our chickens have started laying, they will present themselves to us. This means that they squat low to the ground and spread their wings; basically this is pretty common if a rooster were around that was ready to mate. For us, the action just makes it easier for us to pick the chickens up or pet them. This is my new tactic for getting a wily hen back into the run at night. Now that he can more easily pet them, it's fascinating to watch Tad squat down next to one of the chickens and whisper in her ear, "It's okay. You're so good. You're a good chicken." Just melts my heart! Having any sort of pet is a great way to teach a child empathy; they have the ability to care for another creature just as you care for them. I love seeing his bond with our flock!
Life + Death
One day, our chickens will move on from this life. I really don't look forward to the day myself, but I also worry about how Tad will take it. If it happened sometime soon, while he's still in this surreal world of being a toddler, I am not quite sure if he would even notice, or at least not hold onto the loss for very long. The average backyard chicken lives to be around 5 or 7-years-old. Sometimes chickens can live to be well over 10! I know by the time Tad is 7 or 8, and we lose a chicken, it might affect him differently than if he were small. But it will happen, and he will learn to mourn the loss of a tiny friend. The nice thing is that we'll have each other to lean on when it happens. I have heard that flock members will also mourn a loss, or visit dying chickens as if to say goodbye! Isn't that interesting? Whatever you believe in when it comes to life after death, this is a great way to ease a child into seeing how the cycle of life works. A chicken is born, cared for, lays eggs, and returns to the earth.
I love watching this boy grow up. Motherhood isn't always easy or perfect or even fun. There are many days where I wonder how I could possibly be doing the right thing, if my kid is normal, and if I am spending enough time teaching him how to live life in the best way possible. What I am learning is that just by living myself, by sharing my daily passions and routines with him, he is picking up on things that I did not pick up on as a child. Or perhaps I did, they just didn't stick with me. I had an amazing childhood, one where I was connected to nature, but lost that somehow as I got older. My goal is to implement that knowledge of plants and animals while I can without letting him realize that we are learning. How do you teach your little ones about the natural world around us? Is it important to you? I hope so!