The Snotty Little Red Hen January 30, 2015

When I was a kid, I loved all my “Little Golden Books.” I had a lot of Disney—and a lot of folk and fairy tales. One of my favorites was “The Little Red Hen.” Remember that one?

little red hen golden book

Do kids even have books anymore, or do they just have screens?

In the story, a Little Red Hen finds some grain which she plants, harvests, mills, and so on–eventually baking it into bread. Each step of the way, she asks her friends for help, but they all say no. “Then I’ll do it myself,” she responds each time. However, when all is said and done and she finally pulls the fresh, steaming loaf of bread out of the hot oven, she asks who wants to help her eat it. All the friends who refused to help suddenly want to partake!

“Did you help me plant the wheat, and did you help me harvest the wheat, and did you help me mill the wheat, and did you help me bake the bread?” she asks—and of course the answer is no. “Then I will eat it myself!” she declares, and does.

I liked this story, as little kids do, firstly because it was full of cute animals. (I loved chickens even then.) It also had a moral I could understand: contribute so you’ll be deserving of the pleasures that come from hard work. So, I would understand that I had to contribute to the house in little ways, such as by picking up my toys, or making my bed. Mom was cleaning toilets, doing the laundry and so on, so I contributed in ways I was capable of.

As I got older, though, and thought back on the folk tales I grew up with, I felt there was a lot missing from the Little Red Hen story. It seemed to me that the central issue could have been resolved more positively if the hen had said, “My intent is to eventually have some fresh bread from all this; if you help me out, I’ll share with you–plus, we’ll have fun doing this together.”

It also seemed that a lot of the problems could have been resolved if the animals had responded with more than just a “no.” For instance,  “Gee, I’d love to help you do all those things, but I’m locked up here in this little stall. Let me out, and I’ll be glad to contribute.” Or even, “I’m so busy with my little ones right now, but please ask me next time because I’d like to take part then.”

Yes, I was a contemplative little bookworm when I was a kid.

It just seemed, even in my little kid brain, as if there was too much left out of the Little Red Hen story to determine that the animals who wouldn’t help were just being jerks who deserved what they got. And it also seemed that the Little Red Hen was a bit passive-aggressive. Otherwise, why wouldn’t she have simply explained her plan? Seriously… of all ungracious things to do, why would she have asked at the end who wanted to eat the bread if she never intended to let any of the other animals have any? She asked in order to deliver a passive-aggressive response, more or less “you don’t deserve to eat with me.”

Uncool, Little Red Hen.

Mom couldn’t answer these questions for me.

“Why would she offer them bread if she was going to be snotty and say no?” I asked.

“Um,” mom said.

“What if the animals didn’t want to help her because she was so mean all the time?” I asked.

“Er,” mom said.

“What if the animals were already having pizza party, and were just trying to be polite when the she asked them if they wanted to hang out and eat some crumby slice of bread?”

“You may be over thinking this,” mom said.

“And I don’t think she convinced them to help her next time by treating them them that way. Who would want to spend time with a snotty little red hen?”

“Lissa,” mom said. “Go out and play.”

Thanks, mom.

Should you teach kids that the point of work is that if you force yourself to do enough of it, you get what you want, that bad things won’t happen… or that the work is the unpleasant part? I don’t think so.

Viewing hard work simply as the unenjoyable part of life makes life, well, unenjoyable—or at the least, unmemorable. After all, what do most people do with their leisure, nowadays… TV, movies, fancy phones, Facebook, YouTube? I wonder sometimes what people (am I old enough to say “kids these days”?) will look back on as they get older if the leisure they strive for is completely vicarious?

When I remember having fun with my family as a kid, I do remember fun times that didn’t require a bunch of effort on my part—vacations, for example! But I also remember the other parts, parts where doing things is a part of the fun:

  • I remember mom letting me help with dishes, and being able to play in the suds, putting bubble beards on our faces.
  • I remember mowing the lawn, and how it felt to breathe in the fresh cut grass, and feel the sunshine–and how cool it was when dad brought me lemonade and we’d take a break in the shade.
  • I remember the feeling of tending marigolds in a little plot my mom let me have–and not only enjoying how beautiful the flowers looked once they bloomed—but also how amazing it felt to have my own spot and get dirt under my fingernails.
  • I remember that baking cookies with grandma was fun not just because I got cookies at the end. It was fun because I spent time with her. It was fun because I learned how to use the mixer, and because when we licked the beaters we got to laugh at each others’ messy faces, and because we tried to see who could have the prettiest fork marks in the peanut butter cookies. Hanging laundry was fun when it was with grandma.

When I was a kid, these things weren’t just chores to power through so I could get back to doing nothing in front of the TV. If I wasn’t doing chores, I was still doing SOMEthing. And if I was doing chores, I was still having fun.

Now, that I’m older, I still enjoy more than just the leisure of doing nothing. Naturally, I enjoy keeping pet chickens. I also enjoy cooking—not only because I get to eat good food, but because I love the smell of a roast in the oven all day. I enjoy dusting while my husband is vacuuming; it’s fun to putter around together. I enjoy brewing beer—not just because there’s beer at the end, but because my husband and I spend the day with the smell of cooking wort, looking at chess games. It’s time spent together. I enjoy sitting on the couch and playing my dulcimer; I enjoy taking my dog for a walk, and working on my vintage camper, and gardening, and all sorts of things that require effort and deliver a sense of accomplishment.

It’s the same sense of accomplishment we feel when we see that first egg laid by our own Little Red Hen.

We may have had and enjoyed thousands of eggs before—but when we work hard to care for our own flock and finally see the fruits of our labors represented in the nest, it’s a special feeling because we know how much time and effort it took us.

So… Little Red Hen? I still like the story, but I view the moral differently. Don’t teach your kids about the snotty Little Red Hen. I prefer to think of the Little Red Hen as a symbol of hard work in the abstract, rather than as a direct representative of a hard working person. I guess that’s a small thing, but I think it provides a better lesson.

It stops the moral of the story from being so tit-for-tat, so “you get what you deserve, you lazy creatures!” I don’t like to think that the Little Red Hen is setting up some passive-aggressive guilt trap for the other animals to fall into–I don’t like to think that she’s anticipating the moment she can deliver her pre-planned, pompous remarks to make them regret not treating her better! I prefer to view the story as using an extrinsic reward—the bread—as a symbol to represent the intrinsic reward: the sense of accomplishment you experience when you persevere and work for something.

To my mind, this is a far more important lesson to teach children: to be mindful of the internal rewards of work, not just the material rewards. After all, if your motivation to work is just to have the opportunity to rub your material good fortune in someone else’s face, what does that make you? (Well… it makes you snotty.) But if your motivation to work is that you enjoy doing a good job, and you enjoy your sense of accomplishment–and your company—what does that make you?

Well… it makes you a happy person—and that’s just what you want your kids to be.

Beaktime January 30th, 2015

Do you know how to buy this book?

Lissa January 30th, 2015

You can probably find it on Amazon or ebay. 🙂

Jenna Holmes January 30th, 2015

Chickens are beloved beings to children and adults alike. The story is such a classic. I’ll bet every grandmother has a copy in her attic.

Jenna Holmes January 30th, 2015

Grandma’s attic.

lifeonmountainside January 31st, 2015

I recently saw these as vintage reprints in Cost Plus World Market – including Little Red Hen.

I do get the red hen’s POV, though – as well as yours. There are days when even if you tell people your end intention, they will not help you do what needs to be done to get to that end reward. But they’re right there to reap the benefits when you’ve done all the work. While I might not be as snotty as to offer the reward to them and then say no, I sure do understand the not wanting to share after you did all the work.

I did those things you listed as a kid as well; sadly, the work just doesn’t seem as fun as an adult.

Yizhen February 3rd, 2015

This would do great as a book review, it’s very in-depth of the hen’s intentions.
Great article!

Anna February 4th, 2015

This has been a great book, we have that here and my girls love it. This makes me remember a little video short called ‘Rosy’s Walk’. I tried posting a link to a video but I guess it’s spammy and wouldn’t let me post it. You can find it by googling it and clicking the school tube link. Pretty cute!!

But anyway, I like to remind my girls that eggs are little blessings each day and take a lot of work to make. It’s easy to take a 12 pack of eggs from the store for granted too which we’ve talked about, but those hens have to work just as hard in usually bad living conditions so it’s good to love our hens and respect the work they put into their gifts each day. It’s easy to not enjoy working but if you don’t work you don’t get blessed with a lot, so it makes sense to put effort into things I think.

Thank you for this great post! A good read.

Kathy February 16th, 2015

I still have happy memories of my mother reading this book to me so many times. She would laugh if she knew I grew up to actually have some little red hens in my yard.

Brooklyn Ann March 14th, 2015

I liked this story when I was little. Now I wonder if it spawned by love for revenge stories.
Excellent post!

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