Lessons from the henhouse

Not so many days back, a father I know well was listening to the conversation in the next room between his two sons, ages six and ten. The subject of the conversation was about mean people, and who might be meaner than someone else. As the actual list of persons they knew well was quite short, the focus migrated back to home, where they knew the folks best. The final argument was about the meanest persons they knew well. In their wisdom, they chose to compare meanness in their father and their grandfather. The discussion was short, and then they voted. The final vote was one vote each for these two old men. The father got one vote, and grandpa got one vote.

As the grandpa, I was not there to appreciate the discussion. I was also somewhat miffed to know that both their mother and grandmother had been left entirely off the ballot.

On one occasion grandma admitted that she had freely and deliberately thrown a glass of cold water on one of her sons, who was about three and a half years old at the time. This response, in the absence of its context, might be viewed as mean-spirited. Had she done this today, in public, with witnesses, she could be reported to the thought police for a hate crime, and subsequently expect a visit from the Department of Child Abuse.

At the time of grandma’s incident, the son was throwing a kicking and screaming tantrum in the middle of the kitchen floor. This was the first serious tantrum delivered by the son, and grandma believed her action to be perfectly appropriate. Both the floor and the son were waterproof. The shock of the cold water provided an instantaneous reaction. He stopped kicking and screaming immediately, got up from the floor, and went directly into his room without uttering a word to his mother. In spite of his tender age, that was the first, and last tantrum he ever tried. If the cold water was mean-spirited, it worked perfectly, and produced appropriate social behavior as a consequence. Had I been involved in the previous discussion of mean behavior, I might have nominated grandma for consideration.

As the grandpa, I admit to one occasion when my conduct might have been mean, out of context of course. We were visiting on the farm, an exciting place for kids to be with cows and pigs and wheat and barns and equipment all around. One afternoon it seemed appropriate to check out the chicken house. The oldest son, the father in the current story, was five at the time. I asked him if he would like to go with me to the chicken house. His answer was a foregone conclusion. He would love to see what a chicken house was all about, and learn as much as possible about chickens. Being a city kid, the only chance he had to examine such things was during those rare visits to the farm. So we headed for the chicken house.

We opened the door and quickly noticed two rows of nests neatly stacked one on top of the other. Both levels of nests were within easy reach of the floor. Many of the nests had an egg resting in the straw in the bottom, making them easy to gather. He gathered the eggs and put them in a small container.

One of the nests had a hen sitting, or resting, or otherwise doing what hens do on a nest. Out of curiosity, I wondered if the hen was simply resting, having done her duty, or whether she was engaged in laying an egg. Some perverse old hens even strive to make baby chickens, and will sit on their eggs for days until they hatch. There is only one way to answer this question. It is necessary to check under the hen.

In fact, I had considerable experience with hens on nests. When you reach into and under a hen, you should be prepared for whatever the hen may have in mind. Some hens are very docile. They may cluck a few times, but otherwise may not respond at all. Others are startled at having their business interrupted, and fly off the nest immediately. Still others believe their territory has been invaded, and protect it at all costs from such intruders. I had encountered all these responses before, and looked back on them as educational experiences.

I suggested to my five-year-old that he needed to check the hen on the nest to see if she had an egg under her. He had never encountered any hens before, and was somewhat hesitant to simply stick his hand under a strange chicken. With a fair amount of coaxing, I convinced him that it would be OK, and that an egg, if it was there, would be warm, rather than cold. With this little distraction, he was momentarily convinced that his father would not lead him astray. He thrust his trusting little hand toward the hen.

The reflexes were all perfectly in tact, and the responses were immediate. The hen pecked him on the arm as soon as his arm was close enough to peck. He jerked his arm away from the hen, and escaped to the other side of the henhouse, away from the rows of nests. Then he looked at me, as though I knew what was going to happen.

Now the real question, in this context, is whether this is really mean, or whether it is simply an object lesson designed to educate a young man.

Actually, meanness must be assessed from the state of mind of the perpetrator, in this case grandpa. The real test here is an exercise in risk assessment. I went into the henhouse with a reasonably broad set of chicken house experiences. I was familiar with some responses of many old hens, and I knew that there was some risk involved in sticking your hand under any hen on a nest. Had I said to him that there was a 30-percent chance of getting your hand pecked, he would probably not have taken the risk. I was also keenly aware that being pecked by a sitting hen was an experience to be avoided, if possible. Truth is, I did not want to stick my hand under that hen, and I encouraged a five-year-old to do it himself. While this might qualify as a mean response, it is certainly no meaner than grandma’s cold glass of water.

I have subsequently determined that this formative lesson from the henhouse was just as effective as a cold glass of water. For the five-year-old, he had never stolen an egg from a hen before, and to this day he has never stuck his hand under a sitting hen again. A second lesson I learned was that my five year old son became exceedingly cautious about following my guidance for the next forty years. Finally, this son has grown up into an expert at assessing risk, and in the equities market he is an incomparable genius. In spite of his cautious skepticism about his father’s guidance, he has profited handsomely from his father’s mean-spirited Lessons from the Henhouse.

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