I won’t do it myself!

little-red-hen-story-6The story of the little red hen is the story of an underdog. She is the heroine we are supposed to root for – we support her independent, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, get-stuff-done initiative. Whether we first heard the fable told to us or read the Golden Book, each version promoted the value of hard work and subsequent reward. She is us at our best. We will do it ourselves!

The narrative is simple. The little red hen finds some wheat grains. She announces, “Who will help me plant these seeds?” She directs this request to an array of barnyard animals: a dog, a cat, a duck, a cow, etc. And they respond quickly, “Not I.” So she goes through the steps of sowing, bringing grain to the mill, grinding and finally baking the flour into bread. Each animal individually repeats that they have no interest in helping with the tasks. Then, the little red hen asks, “Who will eat the bread?” and of course all those layabouts who refused to work, now want in. “Me!” “Me!” “Me!” Each animal blurts their desire to eat the warm, baked bread. But the little red hen gets her revenge. “I will eat it myself,” she says. And she does.

Go girl! Except, maybe not. In the end, the little red hen eats her bread alone. There is no teamwork, no camaraderie, no process in place for the next growing season and potential bread making.

I think of this story frequently at work and home whenever I find myself acting like the little red hen. I may ask for help, I may not, but too often I find myself assuming that I am responsible for more than I should be. That “doing it myself” is a noble or expected role. From a leadership standpoint, this story is cautionary tale of how to demotivate people and wallow in a martyr complex (Only me! Poor me! What if there were no me!?!). This attitude does not help anyone. How do we encourage children, spouses, school volunteers, fellow ward members, coworkers, or direct reports to participate without resorting to the easy cop out of “Fine, then I will do it myself!” And how do we as sisters gently remind each other that help is always available, but we may need to pause and consider our approach.

Let’s look at this story from another lens. In some versions the animals are referred to with unkind labels from the first page – lazy dog, sleepy cat, noisy duck – we are biased before they are even asked to help. Then the little red hen simply asks the group without thinking about what they might specifically contribute, or what training they might need, or what would motivate them. What if she had invited each animal with an open mind and let go of preconceived notions of their value? What if she had began with a compelling vision: “We are going to bake bread for all of us to eat and we are all going to work together to make it happen. Here are the different tasks, what would each of you like to do?” Maybe with this introduction the animals would have considered what work they were most ready and able to offer toward the ultimate goal of dinner. What if she had referenced tools or resources to support independent learning? And if they had refused right off, what if she had taken the time to ask why? What if they couldn’t help at that exact moment but could in an hour? Would a few follow up questions have resolved the issue? Would they have rallied and followed the little red hen instead of resenting her?

A silly story. But in silly stories we see a mirror to either justify ourselves or glimpse a better way to behave. Our family enjoyed a wonderful holiday with house guests and dinners and celebrations over the span of two weeks. I switched into my perfect host, Christmas sugar plum fairy, everything-must-be-perfect, energizer bunny mode. Which means I moved objects around our small house to make room for some activity and chewed my nails a lot. At one point, I felt a tiny tentacle of annoyance and for a split second I looked at the people I loved more than anything and that I had anticipated visiting for months and thought . . . what a bunch of lazy dogs, noisy ducks, and sleepy cats. I am having to do everything myself! I stopped in my clucking, bobbing, little red hen tracks. Had I asked anyone to help? No. Had I been honest about how I was feeling? No. Had they responded at some point whenever I did ask? Yes. What this their problem? No. Did I need to approach the work differently? Yes! I did. And we all lived happily ever after. At least as far as the dinner dishes.

The little red hen is not my heroine. She is who I become when I am not having authentic conversations about what needs to be done and not confidently and appropriately delegating to others. She is who I become when I am not being generous or listening to other people’s perspective or ideas. My happy ending is not smugly devouring warm bread by myself. My happy ending is everyone eating together – even if the grains are not ground perfectly, or we are eating gluten free crackers instead of bread, or we are eating at midnight, or we just forget the bread and go to McDonalds.

Pandora

Pandora spends most of her time tinkering with bits of words, fabric and yarn. She lives in Chicago with her husband and a pug. She has two grown up sons who have many adventures.

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8 Responses

  1. Tony says:

    Funny, sometimes, the things that raise us up. A good example of living in the moment to make a better world for those around us with only regard for making things good for them.

  2. Caroline says:

    Brilliant, Pandora. I would never have thought that anyone could get this much great insight from this story. I especially love the idea of asking the people in our lives what their strengths are that they might contribute, after explaining the big vision. This is so good.

  3. Emily U says:

    I just introduced my 5 year old to this story. I’ve always liked it, but usually associated with the barnyard animals, and thought I should always say yes when asked to help, because there might be a nice reward in the end (not the best reason to help). As a parent I’ve associated more with the LRH, and not asked for help because I want it done *right* which is, of course, my way. And then I get tired and resentful. I really like your conclusion that it’s OK if the bread isn’t perfect, it’s always better eaten together.

  4. Kathy says:

    My daughter recently read this story at school and brought it home. I couldn’t put words to why the story rubbed me the wrong way. Thanks for articulating that discomfort in a way I couldn’t.

  5. jks says:

    Interesting. I disagree that LRH is us at our best and we get the reward. To me, this is a story about missed chances of the other animals. Of course LRH doesn’t want to eat alone. But LRH is the mom. The animals are the kids. Rather than assigning jobs to unwilling children, this time the mom decided to ask for volunteers. She got no takers. So she did it herself and then the animals missed out.
    This lesson is not to teach us to do it ourselves. This lesson is to teach kids that it is wrong to expect to benefit from mom/dad’s hard work without contributing any work themselves.
    As a mom, I do try to look for ways that my children can contribute that they enjoy. I also don’t assign a lot of housework (and feel guilty that I’m not giving them chances to learn to work). When you mention that LRH should spend all this effort delegating and discussing and listening it shows why I often just do it myself without asking for help because it is easier to just do it than to do all the WORK of managing children.
    For me I like the story because it teachers my children to know that they SHOULD help. And that they are willing to help when asked because they know should help. Simple, basic stuff. But told it story form. A message they don’t necessarily get elsewhere in this world of instant gratification.

    • Jenny says:

      I find that doing the WORK of delegating, discussing, and listening goes further with my kids than stories like these ever do.

  6. jks says:

    Also, LRH isn’t about revenge. Parents these days often go ahead and cave and never let children feel the consequences of their mistakes. LRH is an example moms can look up to. When my children make mistakes, I do have to calmly tell myself it is for their benefit that they feel the consequences of their decisions, even when part of me wants to save them from negative consequences. But love means letting them learn from mistakes.
    Thanks for the discussion. So interesting to think about what LRH and the animals represent and what lesson can we teach in the story.

  7. Jenny says:

    I love this interpretation of The Little Red Hen. I think it is so easy for us, especially as Mormon women to take on a martyr complex and do everything by ourselves without trying to effectively motivate others. I love the things you mentioned in this story that would better motivate those around us to help out. I especially love this and can relate: “At one point, I felt a tiny tentacle of annoyance and for a split second I looked at the people I loved more than anything and that I had anticipated visiting for months and thought . . . what a bunch of lazy dogs, noisy ducks, and sleepy cats. I am having to do everything myself! I stopped in my clucking, bobbing, little red hen tracks. Had I asked anyone to help? No. Had I been honest about how I was feeling? No. Had they responded at some point whenever I did ask? Yes. What this their problem? No. Did I need to approach the work differently? Yes! I did.”

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