Years of scrolling through online chicken groups has exposed me to a lot of frustration about the preventable suffering of chickens. Regardless of whether they are viewed as livestock or pets, we should be prepared to treat our birds with care and respect. So often it’s the simple lack of planning that results in injury or death. I wrote a post called ‘Hey Dogs: Chickens Are Friends Not Food (Or Toys)‘ about dog training and protecting your flock. This is a sequel of sorts, about preparing children for the responsibility of caring for poultry.
I don’t have kids and have only had a few children visit my flock throughout the years. I’m sure I would have done justice to the topic, but I reached out to my guest contributor, Sara Franklin of Roovolution, to wade in on the topic as both a chicken keeper and mother. She’s brought both insight and a gentler approach than I might have which is really the goal as an educator trying to effect change. Once again, I appreciate Sara’s uncommon perspective – both straightforward and practical – which is much needed in the chicken keeping community.
There are few things as heartwarming as watching young children interact with baby animals. Something about an innocent soul in communion with another innocent soul never fails to touch the heart, and idyllic images abound depicting children happily cradling contented animal friends. It is no small wonder that many chicken keeping parents cannot wait to include their kids, particularly when chicks are involved. After all, chicks and children go together like dandelions and daydreams … or do they?
That magical relationship we so often see presented is absolutely possible. However, without the correct planning and precautions, these attempts to provide a beautiful bonding experience can easily end with an injured animal, and a heartbroken child. The following are some tips and strategies parents can use to bring children into the chicken-keeping journey, while ensuring the safety and happiness of all little ones involved.
Stages Of Development
The most critical factor to build around when planning a child’s involvement in animal care is their individual stage of development. So often, when parents report that a chick was injured or killed during handling, it is due to the child having interacted in a manner the parent didn’t anticipate. In the vast majority of these cases, the child had no desire to cause the animal harm; they simply had no idea that any danger existed. Having an understanding of developmental psychology, particularly how and when empathy develops, can go a long way towards preventing these unexpected accidents by allowing parents to better identify safe and unsafe types of interaction.
Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”. The capacity to experience empathy begins to develop in children around 2 years of age, but is not typically fully established until around 8 years old. As in all areas of development, there is significant variation between individuals, and these ages should be treated as more of an average than a hard and fast rule. Ultimately, each parent will have to assess where on the developmental scale their child falls.
Some useful questions would be: “Is my child capable of recognizing the emotional state of others?” “Does my child respond appropriately when others are distressed?” “Does my child assume that the things that they enjoy are enjoyed by everyone, or do they recognize that others’ feelings differ from their own?” A young enough child might, for instance, assume that they should show a chick affection by squeezing, simply because they enjoy being hugged when their parents do it to them. These types of potential misunderstandings should be identified and discussed before any hands-on time is given.
If the child is old enough to have well-developed empathy, they will likely be able to be coached on safe handling through conversation alone. However, when working with younger children, practice handling using pretend play can be an invaluable tool. Set up an area with a pretend brooder box and some small stuffed animals to serve as ‘chicks’ and have the child practice moving calmly, speaking softly, and safely petting them while you hold them.
I would not recommend letting very young children hold the chicks themselves, but children old enough to reliably follow instruction who have a good capacity for self-control should be able to safely allow the chicks rest on their palm while held low to the ground. Practice time can provide an invaluable opportunity to identify and correct any unsafe behaviors the child might attempt to engage in before ever bringing an animal into the situation.
Education is so important when it comes to helping children understand how to show compassion and care for the animals in their environment. Sometimes those things that are so obvious to an adult are utterly lost on young children. I will never forget a situation I found myself in when my oldest son was around three years old. We had just arrived home from a trip to the store. He waited on the sidewalk while I unloaded his baby brother from his car seat. When I turned around I saw that he was repeatedly stomping his foot on the ground. Someone had dropped a sucker and there were hundreds of minuscule ants swarming over it. At first, I was horrified; our family has always emphasized compassion for all animals and here he was purposefully killing them en masse.
My heart plummeted, and I immediately directed him to stop. But once I got closer, I realized he wasn’t seeing ants at all. In fact, he had absolutely no idea there were individuals present in that writhing black mass. He was simply puzzled by the moving dark shape and was investigating the first way that had come to mind. When we got into the house, I immediately pulled up close-up pictures of ants and explained what it was he had seen. I told him how they work together to help each other, how strong they are, and how they make huge underground houses. After realizing they were tiny beings, the first thing he asked to do was to go back out to say ‘sorry’.
Regardless of age, learning about the new animals coming into the home ahead of time will not only set everyone up for a happy experience, but can provide a wonderful opportunity to spark excitement and fascination about the natural world. Often these conversations create the perfect opening to warn of dangers as well. For instance, while discussing how chickens’ bodies are different than ours, point out how their lungs are positioned along the top of their body. Explain that because of this, it dangerous for them to be held on their back, as it makes it very hard for them to breathe.
Children may be fascinated to learn that chicken bones contain air pockets that reduce their weight during flight. This fact leads easily into warning how fragile their bones can be and why we should never squeeze them. Discuss the respiratory system in order to warn about dangers of water getting into their nostrils and why they should never be around strong scents or chemical room sprays. Discussing how chickens show affection can pave the way to help children learn appropriate and safe ways to show love to the chicks.
It is also important to talk about any animal behaviors that might catch a child off guard ahead of time. For instance, make sure that they understand that chicks might peck, but that they can’t hurt them and are just doing it to learn about their surroundings. Explain that since chickens don’t have hands, they use their beak instead. This can help avoid situations like dropping or swatting at a chick after being frightened by an unexpected peck to the hand.
Although my children are now teenagers, and the chickens are grown, we still do not allow unsupervised interaction. There are so many stories of freak accidents, even involving adults, such as injuries resulting from birds running underfoot, being spooked by an unexpected noise or motion, or having toes or heads caught by closing doors. Even my hyper vigilant mother has a horror story about a chicken she lost after the wet handle of the waterer slipped from her grasp just as the bird ran underneath. These situations can happen to anyone, but when they occur without the responsible caregiver present, crucial windows for treatment and intervention can easily be missed. Remaining present during interaction ensures that there is an opportunity to intervene before accidental injury could occur, and that if something truly unavoidable happens there is someone present to respond immediately.
Similarly, it is important to ensure that children are not allowed independent access to areas or equipment that might be considered sensitive. This would include the coop and run door, incubators and brooder boxes. Young children can too easily make innocent but potentially deadly mistakes like forgetting to close the door to the run behind them, allowing predators to gain access to the flock, or being driven by simple curiosity to open the lid of the incubator, resulting in dangerous temperature and humidity fluctuations. It is far simpler to designate these things ‘adult only’ than to train and educate children on the many concerns that must be accounted for.
Once again, developmental stage should guide precautionary measures taken. If the child is young enough, it might be necessary to place items like incubators in an area they cannot access without an adult’s help. For an older child, a simple explanation of why it is important for only the adults to open or handle it may suffice. On a coop/run, a simple safety measure when young children are involved might be a latching system that would allow for a padlock to be used, with the key being accessible to only adult keepers.
As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and there is invaluable peace of mind to be had by simply ensuring certain accidents cannot occur.
When it comes to older children who might be allowed to stay home alone, it is important to have an emergency plan in place. Our teenage boys are not permitted to go into the housing alone under normal circumstances. However, they have been taught how to pick up the birds safely, to watch for heads and feet when closing the door, what noises would indicate a problem or distress in the flock and where to find basic supplies.
If an emergency were to happen when they were the only ones home, they know to call me, verbally confirm each step they are taking, and could be coached through any critical intervention in order to stabilize the situation until we could take over.
It is never ideal to delegate responsibility for the flock to a child, but offering older children supervised training in some of these basics, just in case of emergencies, is an excellent investment that could one day prove life-saving for the birds in your care.
Model Safe Behavior
All children, and very young children in particular, look to the actions of parents as a guide for how they should conduct themselves. For this reason, it is important to put ourselves in the child’s shoes during interaction. When possible, we should aim to follow the same guidelines we have laid out for them. This not only provides a clear example to follow from moment to moment, but also prevents issues with feeling excluded or left out.
It can be hard for a child to stick to the rules when they are watching another person doing something ‘more fun’ that they aren’t allowed to do. They often do not understand why it is alright for the parent but not for them. When we were raising our chicks, we had a rule that when the children were present we all sat still and used quiet voices. It was easy for them to follow suit, because the entire group was behaving the same way. If something came up that required us to do things they could not safely participate in, they were excused to other activities while we addressed that need.
Particularly with very young children, it is incredibly helpful to share your observations out loud. For instance “Do you hear her chirping? That might mean she is cold or hungry. Let’s try putting her back in her warm spot to see if that helps her feel better.” Use conversation to emphasize that the goal is to care for the babies, rather than to be entertained by them. This can also be reinforced by word choice. For instance, you can ask, “Do you think she would like to come out?” instead of “Do you want to take her out?” The difference is subtle, but enormously important.
Phrasing things from the animal’s perspective will help kids get used to paying careful attention to the animal’s cues and comfort.
Raising and caring for animals is such an invaluable experience and something that should be started early, but always done safely.
In our family, it has always been the expectation that when our desires and the needs of the animals in our care conflict, the animal’s well-being and comfort come first.
The kids were taught from a very young age to take pride in being a caregiver and source of safety and comfort for the more vulnerable creatures around us. Since the goal was to teach them a compassionate perspective, this sometimes meant less hands on time with certain furry or scaly family members in the beginning, but they always understood that there was an important reason behind it.
Over the years, they have grown into involved and committed animal lovers. At 11 years old, my son even went so far as to rescue a hornworm from the pet store (the first of many), who was destined to be reptile food. Harold, as he was affectionately named, was given all the tomato he could ever desire, watched over and kept damp as he pupated, and eventually released after emerging as a large and beautiful moth.
Children have such an immense capacity to love and open their hearts so freely. As parents, it is our privilege to nurture that innate kindness. There is truly no limit to the lives that can be touched by a child with the right training and support.
Sara and her husband Jacob Franklin came together over their shared love of all animals. As caregivers for their two flocks, they have worked diligently to develop a more intuitive and compassionate approach to husbandry, which is rooted in animal psychology rather than tradition. They now spend their time sharing advice and insight with fellow keepers in order to help them develop and maintain a closer bond with their birds.
Many thanks to Sara Franklin of Roovolution for sharing her family’s story, video and photos, used with permission. Featured photo credit of her sons Drake and Gryphon: Sara Franklin