Give kids responsibilities that will help them thrive while learning self-reliance.
“My kids dawdle. They don’t want to do the work around the farmstead that needs to be done. How do I get them on board?” You can see the yearning in the eyes of such parents, who hope their children will embrace a work ethic and a love of self-reliance and sustainability.
For adults whose recreation and entertainment is milking cows and weeding carrots — we actually find it therapeutic — our offspring’s reluctance to join in with similar gusto can often result in frustration, tension, and disagreements. If I could offer a guarantee of success in this regard, I’d probably be a full-time family coach giving seminars around the country. I’m no expert, but I do benefit from having a farm where four generations currently live, work, love, and fight. Please indulge me in giving some advice on this subject, based on my experience.
Three things that drew me into a love of chores and hard work as a child stand out vividly. First, my parents allowed and encouraged me to develop my own chicken business when I was 10 years old. When I say “my own business,” I mean I was the sole proprietor. If friends visited the farm and asked about chickens, Mom and Dad deferred to me. I can’t remember either of them explaining the chicken operation to anyone. They would come and find me to give me a platform for explaining the business. Day-to-day operations? It was sink or swim on your own, buddy. Certainly my folks were there to console me when a predator wreaked havoc. But they didn’t pick up the pieces if I overslept or failed to take care of things. I had to hustle to meet schedules. I had to fit my life around chores.
That personal ownership taught me responsibility. If I neglected a task and lost a day’s production, that cost me. I never got an allowance; all of my spending money came from the chickens. I learned how precious and difficult profitability is. Mom and Dad were shepherds for me, but I had to rustle up my own feed. I think too often we parents don’t realize how much our children can do, and how early they can do it.
I’m a firm believer that the ideal age to learn self-reliance and to start a business is somewhere between 8 and 10 years old. If you wait too long, other interests will crowd out the entrepreneurial window of opportunity. It’ll become “uncool.” Youth leadership organizations, such as 4-H Club and church youth groups, see a falloff in participation as childhood curiosity fades.
Because my chickens were my business, I had to care for them, market the eggs, order feed, and clean their quarters. If I didn’t do it, it didn’t get done — and nobody nagged me about doing it. “But I have to remind my child every day to go do their chores,” laments a parent. OK, turn your child’s chores over to them as a small business. If they don’t want to run that business, let it die. Or, pay them a caretaker’s fee. Few things fire up a youngster more than some money jingling around. Clearly identify the responsibilities and compensation for starting a small business — let them help decide what’s fair so they have ownership — and then get out of the way. They’ll either thrive or shrivel; if personal ownership and compensation won’t motivate, neither will nagging.
The second thing that stands out in my memory is that as a child I knew very well that the farm captured my dad’s complete attention and imagination. The farm was never a chore; he never complained about getting up early or staying up late to get stuff done. In addition, the farm consumed our recreational time and provided a sacred calling. We took picnics to the woods and stopped the tractor to enjoy sunsets. We celebrated the farm.
Do you know how many people spend big money to have a farm experience? Agritourism now fully supports or supplements thousands of farms. Urban dwellers desperate for a visceral touch of farm life drop thousands of dollars to spend a couple of days doing what we farmsteaders get to do free of charge every day: gather eggs, milk a cow, plant carrots, and can applesauce. To us, these are chores; to them, our chores are the coolest thing since sliced bread.
My parents’ interest in farming, from production to processing, made each day a theater of drama and discovery. Child development books will tell you that more is “caught than taught,” and for me that was certainly the case. My dad’s zest for innovation and ecological discovery was contagious. My mom made everything by hand, and her canned goods in the basement sustained us. We didn’t do ballet, Little League, or takeout. Not that I’m opposed to any of that, but because we lived in the country, we enjoyed the country. We didn’t live in the country acting like we lived in the city. We couldn’t do it all, so we didn’t even try.
I see country families ripping up the road every day heading to this activity and that activity. Listen, a farm provides enough entertainment and awesome discovery to satisfy any child’s spirit. Building dams in a creek full of crawdads. Fishing in a pond. Taking a nap with a lamb. Eating a juicy tomato straight off the vine. These activities and surroundings are plenty. Generally, if parents are enthusiastic about something, their kids will be enthusiastic about it too.
The third experience that encouraged my own self-reliance was my dad’s indulgence of my fledgling and clumsy construction projects. He was a journeyman patternmaker for an auto-manufacturing company between high school and World War II. He made his own chisels. His handmade wooden toolbox, with calipers, gouges, and scribes, is practically a shrine in our farm shop. We don’t touch it — it’s too sacred. He could make anything, even furniture, and was a true master craftsman.
Me? I’m nothing. Oh, I’ve built plenty of stuff, but it’s not pretty. But growing up, I never, ever remember Dad making a derogatory comment about my 87-degree angles, my crooked gates, my slapped-together projects. He encouraged and complimented. Not until I was older did I realize how difficult that must’ve been.
I always tell my bride of 37 years, Teresa, that I’d love to build her a house one day, but then I quip, “But you wouldn’t want to live in it.” It would be like the nursery rhyme’s crooked little man in the crooked little house. Dad’s ability to praise in the face of substandard craftsmanship enabled and empowered me to pursue projects I never would’ve pursued if he had constantly complained about my bent nails and shoddy workmanship. Don’t dampen your child’s spirit with a “not good enough.” Of course it’s not perfect; your first project probably wasn’t either.
My upbringing planted a love for the farm and an insatiable quest for innovation in my soul, for which I’ll forever be grateful. As our own children came along, Daniel started his rabbit business at 8 years old, and it’s still going strong after 28 years. Rachel started her baking and craft businesses when she was about 6. Both of them hit 20 years old with $20,000 in their bank accounts — none of it was allowance.
Now, our grandchildren all have their own small businesses. Travis is 13, and he started his duck egg business at 10. Andrew is 11, and he started his sheep business when he was 9. Lauryn is 9, and she started her exotic chicken business when she was 8. If someone wants to see their animals, I don’t show them off; I find the appropriate grandchild to occupy that stage (and I beam from backstage). And guess what? They treat Grandma and Grandpa to ice cream at the baseball game. How about that?
One final idea for transforming children’s chores: Try not to give time-oriented tasks; give task-oriented tasks. If you say, “Pick beans for 30 minutes,” where’s the incentive to hustle? If you say, “Practice the piano for 30 minutes,” where’s the incentive to achieve? Consider clearly defining all tasks with a beginning and an ending without regard to time. You can offer appropriate incentives as a reward for finishing. That way, you’ll incentivize efficiency and completion. When we only specify a time frame, we teach dawdling and poor work habits.
Farming is theater, vocation, and discovery. Brainstorm how you can shift your language away from complaints and groans to a more can-do, enthusiastic attitude. Restructure children’s chore ownership and incentives to create personal responsibility and reward. I can’t guarantee it will work, but the opposite doesn’t work a lick. As someone blessed to live with four generations occupying the same place, I know that harmony of purpose beats every how-to project out there. In the end, owning a pretty garden or a healthy cow won’t matter if your home is a place of tension and frustration. I hope these ideas will encourage you to cultivate a team spirit for your kids as the foundation for a healthy, self-reliant, sustainable farmstead.