As I sit down to write this article, I have just come in from doing the morning “chicken chores” with my three-year-old twin boys. My older son is taking out the trash and doing the morning egg run. My youngest daughter is out feeding the hogs their breakfast. My oldest daughter is in the kitchen, cleaning up from her mom’s early morning canning of tomatoes from the high-tunnel. My wife has gone off to work at her day job, and I have (obviously!) just settled myself back down to the keyboard to ply my chosen trade. It is a great morning at the homestead, everyone is at their assigned station, and the team is working together to meet our goals. It is 7 am on a Sunday morning, and while most American families are just rolling out to greet their day, homesteaders and farmers are working on a cup of coffee and contemplating the second half of their day.
At times, this lifestyle seems idyllic and almost easy. The work is hard at times and never done, but we have created a haven from the rat-race, buffered ourselves to some degree from the rising cost of groceries, and built a life that will sustain us, come what may. Easy and idyllic, right? Not always, especially when kids are entered into the picture! Although everyone is on task at the moment, the world is so full of distractions and diversions for youngsters that achieving this state is sometimes a battle, sometimes a holding action, and on rare occasions, a full scale route and retreat for mom and dad. But moments like this, and knowing that we are preparing our kids to move out in the world with traits that will help them to achieve any goal, makes the war worth fighting.
When I was asked to write this article I thought “Sweet, this is what I am doing anyway so it should be a no-brainer! Money for nothing.” The truth of the matter is that it is a very tough subject, almost impossible to research, and wrought with intangibles. So, I am forced to fall back on personal experience, defining what I consider to be the core values of homesteading, and writing about how to impart them on the young.
Our family has not always been a homesteading family. My older kids spent the first part of their lives in suburbia. There they learned the ways of suburban youth. TV, video games, constant distraction and entertainment, and few if any responsibilities outside of school work. Our twins were born on the farm, and homesteading is the only life they have known. The twins love chores, they love taking care of the animals, working in the gardens, and they live for anything that requires the use of a tractor. These boys revel in responsibilities and take great joy in any accomplishment, large or small. The older kids are getting it slowly and are a great help most of the time, but there are moments when they fall back on their suburban ways.
So, what are the principals that the twins grasp naturally and the older kids are having to learn? I have done some soul searching and have come up with a short list. These are principals that I feel are at the heart of homesteading, that must be imparted on children if they are going to one day continue the lifestyle, and that will give them a leg up in life if they choose a more mainstream path. They are: work ethic, personal responsibility, teamwork, self-reliance, and respect for the living world. These principals are at the heart of homesteading and are the cornerstones of any successful life.
A good work ethic flows naturally from the other principals on the list. It says that you will do your best at any job, even when the boss isn’t watching. It says that you will finish your task, even when there is something more fun calling you. It says there is no work that is beneath you when it needs to get done. These ideals can be imparted on kids. The best way to get your kids into the mindset is to lead by example. Whatever your job or task of the moment, attack it with joy, gratitude, and determination. Show your kids your willingness to defer gratification until the work is done, show them the satisfaction you derive from any job well done. Then give them work of their own, and show them the rewards of their labor.
For example, tell your son or daughter that they will get their allowance or wages after the chicken coop is cleaned or the grass is mowed. Then sweeten the deal by telling them that if they finish in time, you will take them to the park or a movie, or play a game with them. Then follow through, reward work, and encourage good work. Your kids will gain attitudes that are quickly vanishing in our current entitlement society. Always make them feel good about a job well done (even if it isn’t “well done”, let them feel good about their efforts. “Constructive” criticism can have the opposite effect of the intent!).
Personal responsibility is another vanishing trait in the current generation of children, and even among many adults. Again, lead by example. Show your kids how you take responsibility—for your job, for your home, and for them. Show them that you place other things before self, that there is time enough for self after obligations have been fulfilled. Then assign them certain chores that they are responsible for. These should be things that they are required to do without prompting, and should not be large burdens, but small things designed to foster the attitude of responsibility.
Hold them accountable for these things. Hold them accountable for their studies, hold them accountable for the condition of their room, hold them to a “no excuses” policy where responsibility is concerned. My older son takes out the trash and waters the meat chickens in the afternoon. My youngest daughter feeds the pigs, rain or shine. My older daughter milks the goats. The twins do whatever I do, and remind me of the things I forget. The little ones hold me accountable and never allow me to shirk! Make your kids feel good about themselves for shouldering their responsibilities, through praise and recognition.
Teamwork is the anchor of any family’s accomplishments as a family, even more so as a homesteading family. Include your kids in the work, particularly as the tasks change through the seasons. When you sit down to a meal that came out of your land, remind them that “We grew this” and make them feel that you couldn’t have done it without them. A family working together is stronger than the sum of the individuals, and kids need to know this simple truth.
Self-reliance is practically a lost art. Teach your kids that their entertainment and happiness are not the rest of the world’s responsibility. Teach them how to grow food. Show them that when something breaks, they are not at the mercy of repairmen and that they can roll up their sleeves and fix it themselves, even if they have to learn it as they go. Show them that your life is not spoon-fed to you by others, and that there is very little you can’t do for yourself if the need arises. This attitude inspires a sense of security, serenity, and confidence.
The last principal on my short list is respect for the living world. Kids need to know where food comes from, that meat used to be a living creature. But they also need to know that all life has value, and that even the animals destined for the table need to be treated with dignity, respect, and concern. We strive to give all our critters a good life. We appreciate them for the sacrifice they make in sustaining us. It is important to teach your kids that actions in the world have consequences. Spraying your garden with toxic chemicals may increase your yield, but what does it do to the rest of the world? A respect for life can inform many of the decisions that your kids may have to make in their lives, not just on the homestead, but in their business and professional lives. Imagine a world in which all big business executives have been raised with and retained a respect for the living world—what a difference that would make in the direction society has taken!
Skills are important on the homestead. But skills can be learned at any time. You only get one chance to instill principals in your kids. If you work the principals I have discussed into your kid’s lives, they will pick up skills along the way. If you infuse them with the right principals, they will excel, whether they choose homesteading or not.