What did your parents or teachers tell you about this old classic? Did it go something like, “hard work and helping others will get you what you want?” Did they try to focus on the fact that the cat, the goose and the dog were set up as negative characters- vain, a gossip, lazy? Was the hen the only virtuous one in the story?
I certainly don’t remember in detail what I was taught, but I can make a pretty educated guess. Want to know how? Because of what I started drawing my kids’ attention to when we sat down to read it. It was pretty much a summary of everything above, and I’m not proud of it. But, as we began to read it more often, I started noticing different themes jumping out at me. Themes of boundaries (or lack thereof). Themes of making choices, as well as learning to deal with others’ choices. Themes of having a voice. Themes of empowerment. And while these themes may not have been the author’s original intent, they aren’t exactly a stretch to pull out, either. All we need is a little observation, some reflection, and a little reframing. Let me show you what I mean.
People pleasing isn’t a virtue
In the beginning, we meet the characters, and are told that the Little Red Hen, “shared her tiny cottage,” with three other animals. Now, there are so many versions of this story by now that I can pretty much guarantee that mine isn’t the original, but it has the main ideas. At the very least we know that this hen was friends with, and lived with, three other animals. Next, we are told outright (at least in most versions) that these other animals each had a vice, which tended to overtake their lives and their schedule. Does that mean that the Little Red Hen was all virtue? Absolutely not!
The very next part of the story tells how she did ALL the work, while they sat around watching, or doing other things. As solo moms, many of us can relate. Some of us have husbands who are certainly not “sitting around,” but rather working overtime, extra jobs, or odd hours in order to provide for us and our families. Others of us have spouses who have allowed their attitudes & habits to take the place of their commitment to their family. Either way, we are doing the lion’s share of raising our children, and usually that includes most of the practical household duties as well.
Should the Little Red Hen be praised for being the only one running the house? I, for one, don’t think so. We know that she chose these animals as friends, or at least as roommates. They were in community, which is always a choice. So, her vice is either people pleasing, or fear of confrontation. Either way, there’s work to be done there. She could have asked for help from others who valued her or moved out by herself. But let’s give her grace, she’s learning.
A little validation goes a long way
Next, we get to the part about finding the wheat. At this point, she begins making invitations to her friends to join her in the experiment of planting it, with no takers. She seems to be interested enough in gardening to take it on herself, “so she does.” When the wheat starts to sprout, she gets excited, and probably figures that her interest could be shared by her three friends, so she makes another invitation for them to join her in caring for it. This is where I can almost feel her disappointment when she is met, yet again, with an apathetic response. This is no longer just the daily grind of household activities, this is something new, something exciting, something they can grow and raise together. (Kids anyone?)
“No,” is a valid choice
Here’s where I usually pause and ask my kids some guided questions like, “is it ok to say no?” Depending on whether they think I’m looking for a specific answer, (or the age of the one who answers) I’ll get a myriad or responses. Then, I usually bring them to the point that it IS ok to say no. At this point in the story, and on this particular project, I see the hen’s three friends as using their choices. She picked up the wheat, she planted it. They didn’t ask to be a part of this project, and they clearly don’t have any interest. All of that is OK. The only part I don’t like in this section is the fact that they really didn’t to validate her excitement, and that hurts. Still, they were completely within their right to say no to her invitations.
Focusing on your choices eliminates resentment
The next section shows the Little Red Hen making her own decisions, after first extending the invitation and being refused by her friends. She chooses to continue alone. Not only that, we don’t hear about (or see) her grumping about it or developing resentment; she is pictured as perfectly content to continue to make invitations, and continue to work the project despite the constant rejection. Here’s where the hard lesson begins. Many of us (I’ll include myself here) have grown weary of making invitations and feeling rejection, and we allow frustration to creep in, which can quickly lead to resentment. There certainly is something to be said for having made a joint decision to have children. However, I’m going to push back just a little on that and ask, how many of you had a full-blown conversation with your husband about when, how many, and exactly what duties were to be tackled by whom? We usually don’t. I certainly didn’t. I kept my unspoken expectations to myself, and just got deeper and deeper into my anger. But the Little Red Hen doesn’t seem to do this. In fact, as I have apparently pointed out to my kids so many times, they repeat it back to me, she does her work with a happy heart. She invites, receives an answer, makes a choice, and is empowered in her choice. We too, always have the option of making an invitation, receiving and answer, and stepping into the power of choosing to do what’s best for our children. And the hard truth of that is, resentment for the choices we are making is never what’s best for our children.
Enabling is contributing to the problem
Finally, as the story reaches its conclusion, we see the final empowered choice made by the Little Red Hen. After (assumedly) years of doing it all without help, and without setting any boundaries; after months of making invitations (after all, that’s all we can really do) and being met with apathy, indifference, and refusal to help, she sets her first boundary. And holds it! She has made her choices, and allowed her friends to make theirs, but she refuses to continue to allow herself to be treated this way. After working hard, and seeing the fruits of her labor without a lick of help, acknowledgement, or even validation from others in her household, she finally has their attention- she has made something beautiful, and now they all want in on it. Everyone comes running at the scent of the bread, looking to take advantage once more of her people pleasing qualities. But to their surprise, she has changed! She has grown! She now respects herself, her abilities, her hobbies, and her person. She will no longer enable poor behavior on the part of her friends. She decides that since she alone has toiled for this project, she alone will enjoy the rewards, “and that is exactly what she does.”
Can you relate to this story? Where do you see yourself in the original text? Where do you see yourself in the reframe?
If you need any support in understanding or teaching your children choices, boundaries, and changing people pleasing tendencies, come join our facebook group: www.facebook.com/groups/fiercehearts.
While I agree with the boundary the Little Red Hen sets at the end of the story, I do not agree with the way in which she goes about setting it. [In my version] she is said to ask who will help her eat the loaf of bread, only to reject them when they show their desire to partake. While this might hammer the point home, it’s a little passive-aggressive for my taste, and I would counsel anyone wishing to begin setting boundaries to do so with empathy.