Parenting Lessons from The Little Red Hen


In the story The Little Red Hen, the overworked and under-supported Mama Hen spends all her time cooking and cleaning while the rest of her household naps the day away.

Finally fed up after getting no help in tending the wheat seeds she eventually turns into flour and eventually a cake, she answers the question of "Who's going to eat this cake?" with, "Not any of you."

Of course, in the story, losing out on cake is just the trick needed to get her lazy, and now hungry, crew to start pitching in - presumably living cooperatively ever after from there on out.

Especially when children are young, this deceptively simple story has some wonderful lessons to offer: including messages about working together, planning ahead, standing up for yourself, and the power of consequences.

But not all of the morals of this story are for kids.

Lesson 1: Many parents fall into the trap of doing most of the work while their children spend their time lounging around, playing and socializing, or focusing on their own pursuits. In fact this dynamic is one of the core power struggles in countless families - who's responsible for the work and who's responsible for the leisure.

When my children were little, we came up with a phrase that worked well to address this dilemma. We called it Fun & Done as in: Let's have fun AND get things done too. Play and clean up. Cook dinner and then relax for a little while.

Or better yet, have fun while getting the chores done. I used to read to my kids while they folded the laundry. Of course the laundry didn't disappear but it was our way of balancing the need for moving the day forward with the equally important goal of engaging in the only opportunity we would ever have to enjoy that particular day.

Creating a spirit of family cooperation is the critical element for setting up a scenario where everyone can get better at both having fun AND getting things done. Talking to children about what it takes to keep a household running smoothly is a good segue into getting them on board for pitching in. And of course being ready with those consequences of no cake is a good idea as well. Done calmly and without malaise - it beats hen-pecking hands down for teaching responsibility!

But not just children and partners need to learn things here.

Lesson 2: Mama Hen herself has to shift her expectations and be open to getting less done, turning off her checklists and re-learning what her children (and maybe even her partner) already know - how to relax and enjoy the moment.

This can be harder than it sounds. I know many moms who admit that they feel better when they do it themselves because it gets done right. Then there are those who may do a heck of a lot of squawking about not liking this set-up but don't insist that their clan pitch in. And finally there are those who acknowledge that they just don't get the whole 'fun' thing. Either because they've forgotten or they have just gotten so caught up in their To Do lists that they don't know how to stop planning the fun and start participating in it.

So if you would like more cooperation for getting things done and more moments of personal fun, here's a To Do list that can get you started:

1. Get the book The Little Red Hen and read it to your family.
2. Talk about family cooperation and the importance of everyone pitching in. (For older kids think regular booster discussions.)
3. Besides Fun & Done, consider some of these sayings to get the point across:

Many hands make light work.
Work hard, play hard. ~ Nike slogan
Life's not all fun and games. (But there should be SOME fun!)

4. Use the When/Then Technique to move things along as in. "WHEN your room is clean, THEN you can go to a friend's." Also expect lapses and have calm, consistent consequences ready.
5. Put some FUN in your day too. (Because All work and no play makes Red a dull Hen.)

Finding that balance is challenging and fairly unlikely to stay that way for any length of time. But 'time' is the crucial word here. Because before you know it, your kids will be gone and you really will be eating that cake alone. Which is too bad because, like chores, cake is so much better (and definitely less fattening) when it is shared.


Annie Zirkel, LPC is a Parenting Consultant, Workshop Presenter and Author based in Ann Arbor, Mi. Contact her at