Lessons from the Cow Barn: Suggestions for Raising Self-Reliant Children

Lessons from the Cow Barn: Suggestions for Raising Self-Reliant Children

By Dr. Angela Toms

“Where’s the manual?” asked one of the moms. She was referring to that much-sought-after parenting manual on raising children. We were in the 4-H dairy barn of a local fair while our children were making their cows beautiful with special shampoos, clippers, blow dryers and hair spray before they paraded them into the show ring. We laughed because, as we discovered long ago, there is no manual. That’s too bad, because raising kids is hard and we certainly could use some guidance. (4-H is the nation’s largest youth development organization.)

As parents, we aspire to raise healthy and happy children. When we signed up for this job, a lot of the details were left out. Years ago, my husband and I wanted to adopt kittens before we had kids. It was only after we had completed reams of paperwork, filled out questionnaires, and had a home visit that assessed our competency to raise cats that we were able to take the two furry felines home. That doesn’t happen when you have kids. They arrive whether you are qualified or prepared.

And just when you’ve figured out some things, they start changing.

The transition from dependence to independence can be tricky. On many occasions, I ask myself, “How did they grow up so fast? And how did we end up in a cow barn?” A quick look around the 4-H barn usually reveals kids of all ages, preparing their animals, helping one another, cleaning stalls, talking and giggling in the corner, or snuggling up against a warm cow’s belly. Adults are present but, for the most part, not involved. These kids in the barn are figuring out how to be independent.

Many parents have shared their struggles of trying to get kids to take on responsibility, work hard and go beyond the minimum of what is asked of them. This path to independence is much easier when the child is following his own interests or passion. For some of my children, this landed us in the 4-H dairy and steer barns as they raised and showed their animals.

The opportunity for kids to explore their own interests can lead to a nice connection to their community. Often these connections will link kids with a good role model or mentor. Sometimes a message is received much better from a coach or club leader than from a parent. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that kids who are involved in their communities will do better in school, have an easier time staying out of trouble and have a more positive outlook on life.

I have friends who are trying an approach with their kids called “Duct Tape Parenting,” as described in the book by Vermont resident Vicki Hoefle. She recommends a “less is more approach to raising respectful, responsible and resilient kids.” The duct tape is for the parents to prevent themselves from interfering with their kids as they learn to solve their own problems. I’ve heard good reports so far. As we all know, making mistakes is a valuable learning tool.

Fostering our kids’ independence is hard to do at times because we want to protect them and help them succeed and be happy. Despite the common practice of “helicopter parenting” — “hovering” over one’s children so that nothing bad or unfortunate ever happens to them — allowing children the freedom to succeed and fail on their own is important. What they learn from failure can be equally valuable to the lesson of success.

As it happened, the 4-H show at this fair didn’t go so well for my son. But he found ways to improve with each subsequent fair and ended the season winning his show and earning a sense of accomplishment.

Some points for parents to remember:

  • Raising kids is hard.
  • Start fostering independence early by letting children learn to solve their own problems.
  • Encourage your child to follow his or her interests (art, music, sports, drama, etc.).
  • Find ways your child can connect with the community.
  • Helpful resources include your child’s pediatrician, school counselor or teacher, coach, club leader or spiritual leader.
  • Explore local organizations like scouts, community theater, 4-H, fire departments, and many more.
  • Support your children’s passions — whatever they are — and make sure they always know you believe in them.

Angela Toms is a family physician at White River Family Practice. She lives on a small farm with her husband and four children as well as cows, pigs, sheep, chickens and dogs. She truly enjoys following her kids’ passions with them and has spent countless hours in the cow barns, on the trails with the bird dog, on the soccer and lacrosse sidelines, in the window of the dance studio and in many hockey rinks.

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