Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Little Red Hen Is A Jerk

When it's going well, we're approaching each day, each project, each activity as an experiment, if for nothing else than to stave off the bane of rote for both the kids and me.

It was in the spirit of this that I read The Little Red Hen at our closing circle. To summarize for those few of you who don't know this old folk tale:

The Little Red Hen does all the household work, while the Goose, Cat, and Dog (in our version) each decline to help out, saying, "Not I," each time she asks. When she finds a grain of wheat to plant, her lazy housemates continue to say "Not I" as she does the work of tending, harvesting, threshing, milling and finally baking a loaf of bread. The big finish is that when the Hen asks the others if they will help her eat the freshly baked bread, they all say, "I will," only to find that the long-suffering Hen has decided that since she did all the work, she gets to eat all the bread.

Last year's group rebelled against the whole concept, recoiling at the idea that the Hen would withhold a slice of bread from her friends. The response lead me to speculate that the kids were probably just not quite developmentally ready for the concept. Some readers agreed suggesting other stories or other versions of this story that did a better job of getting the message across, some blamed the illustrations in our version of the book, while many sided with the kids, one reader even writing that her teenage son after reading the post responded quite succinctly, "The Little Red Hen is a jerk."

It was with this sentiment echoing in my head that we read the book yesterday. But first I wanted to make sure the kids really understood the story I was reading, slowing down to emphasize at each stage that the Hen was laboring away, while the others gossiped, primped, and lazed. I don't always read our books with this much focus on meaning. Usually I'm just trying to put on a good show to wind up our day, but as I read, it dawned on me that lacking knowledge of cultural judgments about these "negative" traits, the kids might well be interpreting gossip as talking with friends, vanity as good hygiene, and laziness as taking a nap, all fairly positive things, things for which they receive praise.

Even as I read yesterday I considered stopping to have a discussion about gossiping, vanity and laziness, but dismissed it almost as soon as the thought entered my mind. They have the rest of their lives to form these judgments and they'll do it without my help. Instead I tried to remain focused on the key issue: the Hen is doing all the work while the others are saying "Not I." A couple times I even stopped to point out the expression on the Hen's face, "She looks like she's working really hard," and "That would be a lot easier if someone helped her."

But when I got to the end, there was still a chorus of: "Why isn't she sharing?" "They're hungry!" and "She should give them some too!"

Last year's experience had prepared me for this. I flipped back through the pages to remind the kids that there was more to the story than the picture at the end depicting the self-satisfied Hen surrounded by her mournful housemates, but to no avail. 

"Maybe they were too tired to help." 

"Maybe they were busy." 

"Maybe they forgot." 

"Maybe they were sick." 

"Maybe they were hurt." 

"Maybe they didn't think it would be fun."

I know my English professors would have wanted them to support their theories "from the text," but in the real world those would all be legitimate reasons for not helping, ones we've all used in our lives without sacrificing a slice of bread at the end. Maybe young children are naturally communists. I don't, of course, mean big state Leninist commies, but on the deeper, personal level. Maybe young children do understand we all sometimes do things for others without any expectation of a reward or any other kind of return other than the sense of satisfaction of having accomplished something. It's the same sentiment that's behind those little gifts children bring me unprompted; pictures to hang on my wall at home, pretty leaves or flowers they've found on their way to school, buttons or do-dads or parts of things that they hand to me saying, "This is for you." It's a very anti-capitalist notion, a Christian notion, a Buddhist notion, a Jewish notion, an Islamic notion, this idea of doing pure good. It stands outside of our cultural version of exchanging this for that, tit for tat.

No one is making the Hen do the work. It's a self-selected activity. She asks for help, but she never warns anyone that the consequence of not helping is no bread. In fact, she doesn't even tell them about her plan to make bread. In all the pictures, she wears an expression of cheerfulness. Is it surprising that her friends didn't feel a compulsion to pitch in? Can you really blame the others for assuming that she, like them, was simply following her own heart?

If the Goose made some new friends through her long chats at the fence, would she refuse to introduce them to the Hen because she didn't help? Maybe the Cat, through her daily regime of grooming and hygiene, will discover that regular hand washing helped keep her healthy. Would we think it was okay for her to hold that important information to herself? Or what about that well-rested Dog, what amazing dreams he must have that can be woven into stories to entertain the others during those long winter months when the wheat doesn't grow. (Admittedly, the Dog's the hardest one to defend.) 

The point, I think, that the children, over the course of two years, have been trying to make is: who knows what activity, if pursued with a passion, will lead to something that will benefit us all? And if we make that discovery, shouldn't we share? Yes, we adults all know that hard work and planting seeds and so on will lead ultimately to a loaf of bread, but apparently none of the characters in the story do, nor did the children to whom I was reading the story. And while there is nothing in the text that leads us to believe that even the Hen herself knew what she was doing, if she did know all along that she was heading toward that loaf of bread, putting on that cheery face, while making a show of all her hard work, then planning to punish the others with no bread . . . Well, then she is a jerk.

So maybe young children really are communists at heart, or at least they understand this story at a level far deeper than simply commerce.

Of course, it's more likely that they, being children, view the Hen as a mommy figure. In their lives this is what parents do. Performing chores around the house is part of their role, which makes it even more understandable that when she refuses a slice a bread to her "children," the kids are upset, shocked, and confused, further cementing The Little Red Hen's status as a jerk.

UPDATE: This post generated a lot of comment both here and around the internet. Here is a follow up post that carries on this discussion.

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Amie Plumley said...

This post was so timely for me! I read The Little Red Hen to my 3 year old last night and he had the same reaction - why didn't the hen share? I tried to explain, but then realized I really couldn't. I had never really thought about it before. I like your thoughts.

Laura Camp said...

I agree, this is a difficult story for young children, and your analysis definitely makes me wonder about the value in such a seemingly selfish story. In my experience, I try to help the kids identify with the friends. "If your friend asked for help, what would you do?" Such questions put the focus back on how to treat your friends, and not on the hen's ultimate decision not to share. I also ask kids if they were the hen, what would they do? And often many of them say they would share, but some say they would not. I point out that both answers (or anything in between) are fair in different ways, and that it's up to everyone to decide for him/herself what's the best thing to do.

BTW, I just discovered your blog and I LOVE it! Thanks so much for writing!

Anonymous said...

In my French version of the little red hen and in Byron Barton for example...the hen keeps the bread and shares it with her chicks...

den said...

Always thought provoking, Occasionally eye opening.
Loved this post.

Annie's Alphabet said...

hahaha.....I just read the story the other day. I was also thinking she was sort of mean. I remembered why I didn't like the book and why it had been so long since I have read it.

Aunt Annie said...

I think the story of the Little Red Hen is a relic of a bygone age, when children were drilled in the importance of hard work alongside their daily prayers and so would understand the implied 'moral'.

But this is the age of learning through play and not inflicting our own priorities of work on little children, who are using play to develop their brain function. Some stories we just have to let go of, because they've passed their use-by date. I simply don't use that story any more... I've learned (by my mistakes!) the habit of reflecting on what the story teaches implicitly BEFORE turning myself into children's target practice! :D

Great reflective writing, Tom. Love it.

Hillaryof toysnaturally said...

I wish I could say something intelligent and thought provoking, but I can't right now so here's honest...I really liked this post, and loved your wonderful reflections and insites!

Anonymous said...

So many perspectives explored in this post! A great reminder to think (and talk about) about how they're interpreting the story.

I had this same type of discussion with a group this year about Jack and the Bean Stalk. I kept thinking that Jack was such a jerk for stealing the giant's stuff over and and over. The kids had a great conversation with me about it. Would love to hear what your group thinks about Jack's antics.

Kristin@Sense of Wonder said...

This is funny because I friend of mine and I were just debating this exact story. She felt that the hen should share, I felt that the hen was perfectly justifiable in not sharing. I'll have to forward this to her and let her know we are not the only ones having trouble with this story.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

I have thought similarly when reading The Little Red Hen. My children enjoy me telling the story (with flannel pieces on a flannel board), I think for the cumulative effect, and sometimes I use the story when preparing to bake, just for understanding of where flour comes from. But at the conclusion, my children seem to just not see any justice in the hen withholding the bread. I also feel it's a little cruel, and maybe even not at all what we want to teach young children. In a way it follows a Calvinist work ethic, rather than a compassionate view of how to live, in our world.
We want more for our children, I think.
However I continue to tell it, as my children do enjoy it.
(I just told this story again the other day, so this was current for me.)
I enjoyed your thoughts on it.

Christine Natale said...

If The Little Red Hen found the grain of wheat and decided to grow it and process it in secret without telling her friends and offering them the choice to share in the process of production, she would have been a jerk. If she offered her friends the opportunity to help and they took it and worked with her and when the bread was ready, she ran away with it, she would have been a jerk. If she physically, ideologically or morally forced her friends to help her with the production, then gave them each a few crumbs and ate the rest of the loaf herself, she would have been a member of the 1% we are fighting. If she never asked her friends to help her, then gave them the bread and felt herself abused and misused, she would have had a martyr complex. If she gave her friends the free opportunity to participate in production and then fed them when they declined only out of laziness and not because of disability, she would have been an idiot. If she gave them the opportunity to participate in production, but charged them more to use her oven than the loaf of bread was worth, she would be an American Capitalist. If she used half of the loaf and gave half to some orphaned chicks, she would have been a good person. If she gave the whole loaf to the orphaned chicks she would have been Mother Teresa. If she used her friends' labor and promised them a share of the production and after the loaf was done, she gave them a stone wrapped in the bread cloth, she would have been the American government.

Christine Natale said...

Christine Natale A healthy preschool child LOVES to help and I think they would have a natural scorn for the lazy friends. Also, the really important part of the story is when The Little Red Hen repeats each time "Then I WILL." The psychological value of this story is NOT as a lesson in economics, but in the internal call to strengthen the WILL of the individual to take on and accomplish the tasks of life.

Christine Natale said...

And, if the story is read or told correctly, each "friend" replies "Not I" - a negation and weakening of the "I" or incarnating selfhood of the individual.

She doesn't say "Will you help me plant this seed?" She says "Who will help me plant this seed?" "Not I", said the pig. "Not I", said the duck. "Not I", said the dog. "Then I WILL." said the Little Red Hen. And she did. This is repeated over and over.

The words of these stories are crucial to their effect. (Not, would you like to help me, please, dear?)

Barbara Zaborowski said...

And the real moral of this story? Kids can make us re-examine our long-held beliefs. Sometimes we change our mind; sometimes we don't. It's the thinking about what we believed was chiseled in stone that's important.

Lisa Sunbury said...

Tom, No doubt your children would much prefer and appreciate this version of The Little Red Hen instead: The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza) by Philomen Sturges. Same story with a twist- at the end the little red hen shares the pizza with her (lazy) friends, and they in turn wash the dishes while she drinks a cup of tea.

Mrs. Shier said...

I've had this story in the back of my mind for some time, wondering when today's generation might comment on it or even revise it. I saw a revised version of the ant/grasshopper fable last year that comes to mind. In the updated version, the grasshopper, who whose imagination was productive during the summer, entertains the ants during the long winter with stories and games and shares in the bounty.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

I enjoyed reading Mrs. Shier's comment re: the grasshopper and ant fable. It brought to mind another lovely story Frederick, by Leo Lionni.
Frederick doesn't help the other mice in the harvest, but when the long cold winter arrives he shares with them the stories he has been "harvesting", instead.

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Anonymous said...

Thought-provoking post and great comments.

I agree with Aunt Annie that some books are of another message in another time. That touches on questions that have been rattling around in my brain lately: What is a way of thinking about which have passed their "use-by date" as she said? And how do you bring this idea up with relatives and others who interact with your child who may love or value the stories I decide aren't appropriate (now or ever)?

I just asked my friend last night if I was being crazy over the top because there are so many books that many folks (the grandparents) wouldn't hesitate to read that I feel don't have a place in my home (at least right now).

I'm still not sure I'm on the right track or not. For instance, after a few readings my daughter is already saying wicked wolf. Is it strange for me to wish that there was a more balanced view of wolves in children's books and to not want read it to my daughter, at least until she's older and has a wider worldview?

~ sheila

Karenda said...

Interesting discussion. I've read the story to my daughter several times over the past year and been surprised by her reaction. We've discussed why the ken's actions might be considered good or bad depending on how you look at it. In the end we weren't able to decide if the hen was right or wrong not to share. In a way I think that is good - so much of our interaction in this world are not black and white but fall into a gray area. Maybe it's good to have some children's stories that generate discussion and analysis. I know talking with my daughter certainly made me reconsider the story more deeply.

Anonymous said...

To me the Hen's a jerk for one action only. Asking if the others want bread then saying no you don't get any. That's the act of cruelty that depicts her as a jerk. If she just ate the bread without asking I don't think anyone would feel bad toward her.

Anonymous said...

I agree with previous Anonymous comment, she really could have just eaten her damn bread without rubbing it her "friend's" faces. I found Cook-A-Doodle-Doo by Janet Stevens, it's a play on the little read hen and it is really silly, You might Enjoy it!

Tricia said...

I always have trouble when it comes time to do this lesson - how do you portray the hen, in the wrong or in the right? I usually let the children guide the discussion and ultimately they always choose that she should share. Tricky when you want to use the lesson when it comes to clean up time. I try to bring it back in, "remember if you want to play with the toys, you will need to put them away". Although this story doesn't teach that, if you let the children decide that she is a jerk. It teaches that it is ok for one child to do all the work (cleaning up the toys) while the others are lazy. If you teach that the hen is right(in order to be able to refer to it at clean up time) you are taking away any lesson you have taught about sharing and helping others no matter what. Ugh, such a tricky story!

Anonymous said...

This post and comments were fun to read. I love this story. I love reading and comparing different versions and acting the story is fun as well. It does open up for some good dialog and gives a chance for discussion.

What could the little red hen do if she wanted or needed help?
How could she let the others know she wanted help? Did she want help?
If you were the pig, how could you let the hen know you were busy or could not help at that moment?
If the hen was not going to share, should she have asked if any of the others wanted any. Was that kind?

No I don't sit and ask these questions all at once but each time the story is retold or acted out ideas can be shared.