Building up a homestead is challenging under any circumstance, but when you work full-time and you have young children at home, “challenging” might just be the understatement of the year.
My husband and I purchased our homestead a short year ago, when our son was 5 and our daughter was 1. We both run nonprofits in our adopted state of Vermont, and though I get some time off in the summer, we do most of our homesteading chores after the kids go to bed. It is not unusual to do them by the light of our head lamps.
There are some days, however, when homesteading is a family affair and we get to share our love for this place with our kids.
In the year that we have owned the homestead, informed by the 5 years of suburban gardening with our son in tow that lead up to it, we have developed some tried-and-true philosophies when it comes to homesteading with kids.
Reign in your romantic expectations for full-family homesteading. Kids are kids. We cannot expect our children to love every minute of working on a homestead, and it would be unreasonable to expect them to spend every minute doing so.
On most nights, we try to give our kids the attention they need after being away from us all day before attempting to accomplish chores. If we absolutely have to get something done, we will “divide and conquer,” making sure our kids have attention from one of us while the other mows or chops wood.
Choose exciting projects to involve the kids. While we don’t expect our kids to participate in every project on the homestead, we do try to find projects that will excite them and get them involved so that we can plant the seeds for future appreciation for our land.
We have learned that our 6-year-old loves to feel strong, so we involve him in projects that allow him to demonstrate his strength — like shoveling compost into his own wheelbarrow or moving logs. We comment frequently on how he is building his muscles and on how much he has accomplished — we’re certain our daughter will want to do the same when she is older since she tries to do everything big brother does and usually succeeds.
When your kids are helping, don’t aim for perfection. With all of our willpower, we resist the urge to tell the kids they are doing something wrong or should do it another way. We’re trying to let our kids develop their own love for the land, and lecturing them about proper watering techniques will probably build resentment instead.
Instead, we hand them the hose on a gentle setting and let them go wild, not bothering to worry about whether they will need to change their clothes or whether they are watering everything perfectly. We can always follow up to fill in the gaps.
If we’re worried they’ll cause harm, we restrict their watering to a certain area of the garden that is more resistant to their not-so-gentle touch.
Resist the temptation to spend money on “kids” equipment. You’ll find kids gardening tools and equipment in all sorts of places, from miniature shovels and rakes to miniature versions of farm equipment — there’s a cartooned version of almost everything. But let’s face it, most of it doesn’t work very well or breaks if a child tries to do real work with it.
Likewise, half of the pleasure that kids get in helping their parents is from using the same equipment that the adults are using (within certain safety guidelines, of course). Children will learn more and be more confident if we trust them to use adult tools to accomplish adult chores in reasonable, kids-sized chunks.
For example, buy a small but sturdy real-life wheelbarrow instead of the flimsy plastic ones that can’t actually carry dirt, and invite your child to move sawdust or light topsoil with it. They’ll feel more empowered and important, and you’ll get much more bang for your buck.
Find creative ways to engage kids while you are working. If we absolutely must get work done while our kids are around, we try to create a play space or activity that will keep them engaged while we are working.
Take a page from the research on outdoor play and develop a natural outdoor play space near your garden — natural “equipment” like logs, rocks, pieces of wood, or string can be made into magical creations by creative kids.
For more ideas, visit websites and social media spaces dedicated to outdoor play for kids. Some of my favorites include Wilder Child and Timbernook. Food can also be a great source of entertainment. We often pack a picnic lunch with our kids to take down to a blanket in a shady spot of the garden.
It may take some time and practice for your kids to develop the free play skills necessary to keep busy while you are working, so be grateful for even a few minutes as you start using this strategy.
One of the primary reasons we purchased our homestead was to create a place that would be better for our kids — a place where we could provide for them and also help them to develop a sense of connection to the play where they are growing up.
We don’t want them to view the homestead as something that takes their parents’ time and attention away from them instead. These strategies are helping us to find that balance, all while realizing that we have the rest of our lives to build our homestead but only a few precious years when our children are young.
Carrie Williams Howe is the Executive Director of an educational nonprofit by day, and parent and aspiring homesteader by night and on weekends. She lives in Williston, Vermont, with her husband, two young children, and a rambunctious border collie. Carrie has a PhD in educational leadership and is passionate about being an authentic, participatory leader in various settings. She is a contributing editor at Parent Co Magazine. Connect with Carrie on The Happy Hive Facebook page.