While we are still in the depths of Winter here in Virginia, we homesteaders often start thinking about Spring, seeds, gardening and new life on our homesteads at the beginning of January. We've made our New Year's goals and wishes, and now it's time to implement them. We are doers, not just dreamers, and we make things happen.
But not all of us have spare time to work with. Many of us, like myself, are parents. Parents of newborns and toddlers, while delighted in their children, just don't have enough extra hands to get everything done in the time frame they wish. And let's not even talk about when Spring and Summer actually begin.
Preparation and planning are key this time of year for parents of little ones, but so is involving and training them. Here are a few things we've found help us train our child to be a mini-homesteader, even at a very young age. Not only will this help you have better efficiency on the homestead, but it will also allow your little one to grow and learn amazing new things.
Even a two-year old child knows whether they are wanted or not. And while many may scoff at the idea of allowing a two-year old to help you dig in the mud, bring you small pitchers of water, and tend to the chickens — it is completely the norm on a daily basis here. And you know what, they love it. But let's start from the beginning — it doesn't just begin when the seed planting and other Spring chores begin, it begins during the preparation period as well.
First and foremost, patience is a virtue. If you have a newborn or child that isn't walking yet, I hate to tell you this, but you'll probably just have to strap that baby to you and submerge them into your daily chores — however, this might be the easiest of all ages, and they will begin to take a natural interest in your daily routine.
For toddlers and older children, keep in mind that you aren't just letting your child help, you are literally training your child on how to become self-sufficient, reliable, disciplined and diligent. These are character traits that they will use throughout their lives, not just in homesteading and self-sufficiency. Patience, on your part, is a huge necessity. But, I promise, the outcome will be totally worth it. Your training and patience methods will depend upon your child's personality and age. You know your child better than anyone. Never force your child to do something they don't want to do, otherwise, they will never take interest in it. For children that are willingly eager, run with it. For older children that might not have any interest at all, take this as an opportunity to teach them on an educational level rather than just hands-on involvement. Offer them free worksheets and garden journals as an educational resource. You can find many of these for free online. This is also a great project if you homeschool, make it part of your curriculum. Explain to them the importance of self-sufficiency — not that they have to do it, but that it's a skill that is beneficial to them now and in the future, and it is a skill that came naturally to their great-great-grandparents.
Second, involve your children (toddler and older) in the seed buying and planting process. Allow them to pick out at least one seed packet at the store or in a catalog. Even if it's something off the wall or that you didn't plan to plant (as long as it is suitable for your zone and preferably a transplant) — who knows, you might end up liking it! The key is finding something that they want and that they will be passionate about planting and tending to. When ready to plant indoors, set out several planters for your child. Allow them to fill them with dirt while following your instruction. In the coming weeks, whenever it is time to tend to the seedlings, involve them in every step. Do not do their work for them on their seedlings — their seedlings are their project, not yours. Give them responsibility over it. They will imitate what you do under your guidance. When it comes time for the plants to be transplanted, from beginning to end, involve them -- again, allowing them to own and be responsible for their own plants. It is their responsibility to transplant, prune and harvest their crop (yes, even a toddler). The best part might be getting into the kitchen with them and letting them help you cook and preserve their harvest.
In the beginning of the process, your child may eventually become impatient, as we often do ourselves when we are excited about new growth. Share in their excitement and in their frustrations. Don't just blow them off. While it is necessary for your child to want to be involved, it is also necessary for you to share all of the emotions, strengths and weaknesses with them in their involvement.
My son takes more interest in tending to the animals than he does in gardening, and rightfully so. He's a bull in a china cabinet but he has a tender soul. When we first got chickens, I hated letting him collect eggs because I just knew that he would break half of them on the way back up to the house. And the very first time that happened, I still remember it so clearly. He was so proud of himself. He had carefully walked all the way up the hill with his eggs, meticulously paying attention so that he wouldn't drop them. He finally made it into the house and was ecstatic to show me what he had collected. He was hiding one of the eggs in his little hands behind his back and said, "Mom, guess what I have!" I turned around, and as he quickly pulled his hand from behind his back to show me the egg, his hand stopped, but the egg didn't. Splat...right there all over the kitchen floor. His precious little heart was just broken and those big crocodile tears began. I knew then, just how important it was that my reaction not be one of condemnation, but of grace, followed by an encouraging hug and a "you are so big and helpful and you'll do better next time, I know it."
I get it, I do. Many times we don't want to allow our younger children to help in other homestead chores because they are just too complicated and time consuming. Gardening is simple, other things are not. But keep in mind that a ten year old will not understand and be efficient in helping you with larger jobs around the homestead unless you involve that ten year old when he is a younger age. Here are a few age specific jobs that might help you involve your children a little better. Please understand that you know your child's mental maturity, so these are just age ranges.
Learning things by mainly watching rather than "hands-on".
• Collecting eggs with supervision from the chicken coop.
• Helping with the garden -- planting, watering, harvesting with supervision
• Feeding smaller homestead animals with supervision (chickens, dogs, barn cats)
• Crocheting and other crafts
• Watching while preserving and canning
• Cleaning up around the homestead under supervision, this includes household chores (vacuuming, sweeping, folding wash rags).
All of the above, plus...
• Collecting eggs from the chicken coop (unsupervised)
• Helping with the garden -- tending to plants under supervision but independently.
• Feeding medium sized homestead animals with limited supervision (tamed goats and livestock, chickens, etc)
• Learning how-to and milking animals under supervision.
• Cleaning up around the homestead, unsupervised for small jobs (leaves, cleaning small coops/stalls/hutches, etc), supervised for more complicated ones. This includes household chores (helping with laundry, helping prep meals)
If you have been doing all of the above with them, then they can move on to these next steps. Do not allow an 8 year old to do the things listed in the next level if they do not have the basic concepts and experience as mentioned above.
• Collecting eggs, feeding animals, cleaning coops/stalls and gardening independently and without supervision.
• Helping with the preserving and canning process independently and with supervision for more complicated projects.
• Milking independently with you there beside them in case help is needed and to ensure that milk is being extracted properly. If you have multiple goats or cows to milk, get them set up and then milk alongside your child. This gives them independence but also allows you to supervise.
• Helping tend to new livestock births with supervision.
• Aiding in the breeding process of livestock, incubating eggs independently with guidance, tending to smaller young livestock independently (chicks, rabbit kits, etc.)
• Tending to household chores -- doing laundry (washing, drying, folding), preparing and making age appropriate meals with limited supervision, sewing and mending clothes.
These are just a few idea's to get you started. Each homestead is different and each child is different. However, the ultimate goal is starting young (with patience) and allowing that to grow into a very handy helper and a self-sufficient child. Not only is it about having your children help around the homestead, it's about teaching them life skills that will be so beneficial to them throughout their lives. It's about giving them responsibility and fueling their desire to learn. And honestly, it's about spending time with them and teaching them. The best way to learn is to watch and be submerged into it. Do not underestimate the ability of your child. If they are never given the chance to have responsibility, then you cannot blame them when they are older for not efficiently taking on responsibility. At the same time, do not overwhelm your child. Allow them to do the things they are passionate about, while watching what they aren't as passionate about.
All in all, make planning for Spring and upcoming projects fun for your kids — and I promise, you won't regret it in the long run!
Amy Fewell is a work-at-home mom, homesteader, blogger and writer. Her and her family live on a mini-homestead in Virginia where they raise Icelandic Chickens, standard Rex rabbits, ducks, and more! For more information about their homestead, visit them online at The Fewell Homestead and on their Facebook page.