On the very first day of 2nd grade, I read the fable of the Little Red Hen to my youngest child. He followed along with the story as the hen planted the grains of wheat, reaped the grain, took it to the mill, and baked the bread, all while the other characters in the story refused to help. Well, except for the hen’s chicks who followed her everywhere she went, but weren’t much help. In fact, at one point, the hen is exasperated as she tries to bake the bread with the chicks underfoot, and she shoos them outside so she can work in peace. “Why is she being mean to her chicks,” asked D. In hindsight, this should have been my first clue that my son and I were in fact hearing two completely different versions of this story, but I defended the hen and read on.
We got to the end of the story, the twist, where the hen finally pulls the bread out of the oven and her chicks come running, as do the other animals, all hopeful to get a bite of the fresh baked bread, and the hen refuses to share with anyone other than her chicks.
“But why?” He asked. “That is mean not to share.” Immediately I jumped in to defend the hen’s actions by pointing out the unhelpful behavior of the other animals. I was actually quite surprised that the point of the story seemed to be completely missed by him. My husband had been standing on the outskirts of the room the entire time, waiting for a chance to speak. He stepped in at that point and said that D had a point. The hen could have shared. Should we always expect people to “earn” what we give?
I made a few feeble attempts to exonerate the hen’s behavior, but I also stopped and listened to this new point of view. I had never ever been presented with this idea when reading this fable and it took me by surprise. Kindness and sharing are after all traits that I value and want my son to naturally respond with. It was good for me to pause and consider this story in a different light.
The discussion ended there with my 7 year old, but continued between me and my husband, as we contemplated the origins of this story. In my husband’s mind it seemed very much like an American capitalism fable, espousing the “he who does not work shall not eat” mentality. A mentality that he and I both take issue with as it leaves little room for nuance and respect for others. Not everyone can contribute the same amount, and not everyone contributes in the same way.
Mulling all of this over in my head, I went online to my curriculum discussion group and shared a bit of our conversation, mostly as an endorsement of the Socratic method, encouraging others out there to listen to their children and pause before speaking (something I struggled with in this instance, and realized my need for more practice). Imagine my surprise when over the course of this day and the next my post ended up with over 100 comments! It turns out that a lot of people have opinions, some very strong, about this particular fable.
Not only does this appear to be a fairly common reaction of kids upon first hearing this story, there were also a lot of parents who shared my husband’s perspective. But others spoke up in defense of the little red hen, pointing to another, possibly more subtle aspect to this story. In their understanding of the fable, it was important to know when to set boundaries, so that people do not take advantage of us. To these people, the little red hen exemplifies these aspects in a way that protects herself and her family. There were even those who brought up the free and often unseen labor of women in many cultures, including our own, and the learned entitlement of those who benefit from said labor. This feminist reading of the story resonates quite strongly with me, and I realized that when I tell the story I am listening most to the hen, whose experiences seem so very much like my own. Her voice becomes mine. But D, he heard a different story. He identified most strongly with the chicks, and in the end even with the other animals who were denied a share in the bread. His experiences allowed him to identify with the shadows of the story that I was blind to.
This story stuck with me all day and into the next. I am encouraged to approach stories differently this year. I’ll be telling a lot of them as we homeschool, and I’m curious now to not only recognize my own perspective, but to listen to those who hear the same words as me, yet very likely an entirely different story.
*Photo is from many many years ago, when my oldest child got attached to a runaway chicken.