Thursday, September 20, 2012

What are you, Chicken?

It was time to let the chickens out. Every spring I coop them up in their pen for the duration of the gardening season, and every fall I let them loose again to eat the grubs and turn the soil. This past spring we introduced twenty new chicks to our brood. They had grown in to beautiful and interesting hens. This time around we ordered not only for egg production, but for aesthetics, choosing different colors, hair styles, even chickens that appeared to be wearing Ugg boots.  

When I opened the gate for the first time, late on a warm and windy afternoon, the old girls raced out and didn’t make it further than ten feet from the pen before applying beak to ground and getting right to work. The new hens watched from the doorway in a state of shock. There’s a world outside these walls? They clucked their concern and waited for the other hens to return. They even poked their heads out the door before scurrying back to the safety of the pen. 

The kids and I watched, calling, “Hey what’s the matter? Are you chicken?” The chicks were not tempted by our taunts and remained firmly planted in the safety of the familiar. 

It’s hard to leave what you know. Besides that, what’s the motivation? They had plenty of food, a soft place to lay eggs, a big yard to run around in, and a cozy house to roost in at night. Why leave? So they didn’t for the first four days that the gate was open.  

But then one ventured forth in to the wild blue yonder. The others cackled and fretted, but soon followed her out in to the world. Sometimes taking a leap of faith requires a leader. Or at least a guinea pig. Once you see someone else do it and survive, it doesn’t seem quite so impossible. 

This philosophy has inspired all kinds of creatures to do things as crazy as start a business, try out for a team, perform in public, marry, or have children. Others have done it before us, so we can do it too. 

But what about when the first one out of the pen is eaten by a fox? Or captured by a hawk? Or gets lost and can’t find its way back to the hen house?  

Amazingly, chickens, like people, don’t focus on these catastrophes. Chickens, to my knowledge, don’t have the capacity for imagination or empathy. They don’t care that the other chicken didn’t make it and they can’t imagine that a hawk might come for them too.

People are not chickens. Truth. Our fears have nothing in common with poultry fears. Many of us are afraid to leave the pen because it could lead to failure or rejection or embarrassment. For some, those fears trump even the fear of boredom, mediocrity, or repetition.  

My three kids each fall somewhere different on the chicken and the pen spectrum. One of them never even notices what the other chickens are doing. He ventures forth following his own lead. He is not easily embarrassed and would consider boredom a failure. He tries all kinds of things while his parents are stunned in to submission. We are not like him. At least, I’m not. When I was a teen, I was never brave. I walked to my own drummer, but quietly while no one was noticing. This child of mine doesn’t concern himself with how he should dress or act or speak. His curiosity drives his decisions about his personal time. He would most likely be one of the first out of the pen, were he a chicken. 

Another of my brood is somewhere on the outside of the fence also, but she would not follow any other hen out. She would go out her own way, perhaps flying over the fence or tunneling under. She would not let expectations dictate her actions. She does wrestle with her own fears once free. She does not like to fail or lose or be made a fool. Lucky for her, she is a fairly competent chicken.  

What she does better than most is to lead. So once she has successfully scaled the fence, she will go back to help a few others get out too. She is very un-chicken like in this way. Chickens may stick to their flock, but they could care less about the individuals in that flock. Not my chick, she’s watching the others. She worries about their well-being, wants their company, and craves their support. 

My last little chick is still learning to trust his abilities. He needs to see the leaders go first. He is willing to follow and to learn from them. Next season, he will be the first out of the pen, I just know it. 

All of our children will leave the pen some day. Our children must learn to believe in their own abilities to handle what they may encounter outside of the comfort zone of their chicken pen. They must be equipped with confidence, competence, and the ability to ask good questions.  

We must encourage them to take risks, rather than shielding them from every danger. Helping them learn to trust in their own abilities by allowing them to use them. Mostly, we must teach them to be curious about what is outside the pen. 

How do we do this? I have a few ideas, but must confess right upfront that this is an ongoing experiment for me as my chicks have yet to truly fly the coop. 

I believe we must let them make their own decisions as often as possible. As a young parent I believed whole-heartedly with the “give them choices so they feel in control” parenting philosophy until it became ridiculous. Truly, children don’t need a choice at every meal. I finally hung a sign that says, “Dinner Choices: 1. Take it. 2. Leave it.”  

But I do believe we must let them make their choices (and endure the consequences) when it comes to school work, what to eat or not eat, and who to be friends with.  

My oldest child’s first grade teacher said something on back to school night that has stuck with me all these years. She said, “If you sit with them and make them do their homework now, you’ll be doing the same when they are in high school.” I’ve never sat with my children while they do homework. Now, I have been blessed with children with no overwhelming learning disabilities, so that helps, I know. 

I do believe that all kids want to do well in school. And I also believe that kids sometimes battle with parents just because they can. If you draw a line in the sand over homework, I promise your child will cross it. They don’t want to fail. Trust me, no one does. Now, does this mean I never mention the H word to my children? Nah. But I do restrict their computer time (Windows 7 makes this very simple), and provide them with a “clean, well-lighted place” in which to work. I told them all at the beginning of their academic career – “I will never nag you about your homework unless you give me a reason to nag.” And for the most part, they haven’t. 

Food can get trickier, it being my own holy grail of sorts. I prepare a dinner five nights a week and my two older children prepare one dinner a piece one night a week. In the beginning we helped them, but slowly we are backing away and letting them take the lead. What is served is the only option. If you don’t want to eat it, that’s your choice. You can help yourself to something else, but it must be healthy dinner-worthy substances. They choose their own snacks each day. This gets a little hairy when they snack on too much and don’t want dinner, but allowing these freedoms provides the impetus for us to discuss all sorts of food issues like snacking vs eating a meal, what makes a healthy meal, not getting enough protein, eating while distracted, eating because you’re bored, and why exactly your stomach hurts. 

I don’t like every kid my kids are friends with. Who would? I’m not Mother Theresa, I don’t like everyone. I do talk to my kids about the friends they choose. I ask what they like about their friend. We talk about the interactions they have with their friends, and I tell them about the people I encounter. I’m open about my frustration with some people or my disappointment with others. I also tell them what I love about my friends and sometimes offer comparisons about my relationship with a particular friend and my child’s relationship with one of their friends. “She’s like your Linda,” I might say to my daughter when talking about a friend you can tell anything to because my daughter knows how close I am to my oldest friend Linda.

These seem like such small details of parenting – homework, food, friends, but truly they are the building blocks of life. They are the training ground for work, well-being, and love. Three things that can make or break the happiness we all seek for our children. If we control and dictate their behaviors when it comes to these areas of their lives, how will they have the confidence or competence to survive outside the pen?  

I want my children to step out in to the big wide world confident in their own abilities, knowing they can handle all that life throws at them. I also want them to know I believe in them and I trust them to lead their own life wherever it takes them. Even if it is far away from the hen house.

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