Six Sure-Fire Ways to Get Kids Interested in Homesteading

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Once upon a time, there was a daddy who made a garden in the back yard and planted a bunch of stuff. One of the “stuffs” he planted was a row of pole beans that grew along a pup-tent-like structure reaching at least 50 feet without a break. As the only boy and one of 9-years-old, I was tasked with crawling under the leaning ribs of wood and twine to pick the green icicles hanging down within the structure itself. Daddy could not reach the ones dangling within the support system that he’d set up a few months earlier. A design flaw? Don’t you think that even for one minute. The man had a 9-year-old son at home. What’d he have to worry about? Neither bug nor spider nor sticker could keep him away from the bountiful harvest of Kentucky Wonders that hung just out of reach in the teepee bean support. With a few brown paper sacks in tow, in I went to gather the beans that were suspended within.

Snip, snip, snip. Soon I filled the first bag, and then the second. They were heavy enough alright, but allowed for easy pushing along the sheltered, weedless soil that lay in the shadow of the thick green foliage mixed with little white flowers. Some flowers were open and blooming, and some were closed like a little white head poking its way out of a green prison. By the time I reached the other side of the rows of green beans, I would have 4-5 bags full of beans and a proud, happy daddy offering a hand in helping me get up out of the dirt.

“Good job! Now sit over there and pick the ends off.” Daddy would get a couple of chairs and a beers, one “lite” and one “root,” and we’d sit there and prep them dudes for freezing, canning, and a few for a planned meal or two. There was so much weeding, picking, composting, and bugging still to do. But, Daddy never asked me to do more than he knew a 9-year-old with modern toys could handle. After all, I was a serious Atari 2600 “gamer.”

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Later in life, I shared my garden with my daughter. She’d be all ready to get out for some weeding or some picking, and the heat of the summer sun would bear down upon her fragile teen skin. “Daddy, it’s hot. We’ve been out here forever.” After 15 minutes, I knew she was done. Pushing her beyond the “forever” point (may it have been 5 minutes or 60 minutes) would have ended up in frustration and inevitable resentment.

But later in life, I started getting calls from her about gardening, “Daddy if I plant ‘this’ here and ‘do this or that,’ what can I expect?”

I’d ask, “Since when did you get into gardening?”

She’d lovingly respond, “Daddy, you taught me to love gardening…15 minutes at a time.”

The best memories for children in the garden are made when we don’t expect it. We live our lives in a society where food “grows” at Wal-Mart and Safeway. All the food you’d ever want to eat at prices that are ridiculous to say the least. I say “ridiculous” in a paradoxical manner; who would sell a cabbage for a buck? How do they do that? Likewise, in our modern society, our children have distractions everywhere. Some of these distractions are school, and others are play. My younger child, who is 9-years-old, “plays” at computer coding. Since when do 9-year-olds tell computers what to do?

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As a homesteader in today’s enigmatic society, I am torn between teaching my children how to prosper in the status quo and how to prosper in a WTDHO world (that’s when the doo doo hits the oscillator). I say “torn”; it’s actually not that hard. My son, for instance, loves playing Minecraft and Terreria. He runs chat features within the games and has become a very abled typist. He has “coded” his own features within the games. Will he be the next Bill Gates? Who knows? But, if the future does not have a place for the next Bill Gates, he’ll prosper with three squares a day and secure roof over his head.

He also knows how to plant things like cabbages and potatoes (or “mashed potatoes” / see the video). He is like a sponge, soaking up all the information that is presented to him, either directly or indirectly. There’s nothing like an ear of Sugar Buns corn on the cob dripping with warm butter. When the corn is ripe and ready for picking, on the first night with an ear of corn it’s, “Daddy, can I have another corn?” The next day it’s, “Daddy, can we pick corn for dinner tonight?” And there you go…a future homesteader is born.

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One. Getting kids interested in homesteading – “Working on the homestead” is a matter of a paradigm that we grown-ups often mistakenly inflict upon the children. We think that “work” and “chores” will build character and a sense of responsibility. What if we were going to “play on the homestead?” Digging a hole and planting a tree is more of a chore than play as far as I am concerned. I know that if I plant that tree it will bless me with fruit and shade in a couple or three years. Dreaming of the delicious fruit and cool shade are my motivators to get the work done. Picturing the reward, despite the 2-3 years’ wait, is doable for a 46-year-old. For a 9-year-old, picturing anything 2-3 years out is “forever!” The reward for a child has to be the act itself. Saying to the family in a stressful tone, “I’ve got to get out there and get that tree in the ground,” indicates that planting a tree requires a “work” mindset. What if planting the tree could be referred to as play, “Man! I can’t wait to get that tree in the ground. Soon, the fruit will be falling off it like rain from the sky!” Or, “I wonder how far we’ll dig until we hit the water table? I wonder what treasures (maybe a rock or something else) we’ll find down in that hole.” And there you go…a future homesteader is born.

Two. Getting kids interested in homesteading doesn’t have to be perfect. What do we do when the child plants the garlic pointy-side-down? What if he waters too much or if she waters too little? Is it possible to overlook the failings as they learn? They’ll find out soon enough that things aren’t working out and when it doesn’t work out, the child will inevitably fret and likely want to give up…and they will…but only for a moment. Then, after they have emotionally recovered, they may ask, “How do you do it?” And there you go…a future homesteader is born.

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Three. Let them plant something that is sure produce a bountiful harvest, may it be for food or fun. Cabbages, pumpkin, and potatoes…these are the plants that build up the anticipation and offer amazing rewards. Depending on the variety, cabbages will be ready for harvest in 60 to 100 days (from transplants). They start out with a few leaves when they are planted. That’s the work. Very soon the plant will start to “ball” up (form the head), and that’s the reward. They may not eat that cabbage, but they’ll have fun watching it grow into a large ball. Pumpkin has large seeds. They are easy to plant, and all the while the child is looking forward to the harvest and making jack-o-lanterns from their very own pumpkin. Not to mention the reward of a hot slice of pumpkin pie while reminiscing about the efforts of planting the seeds and watering the plants just a couple of months ago. To put one potato in the ground and to pull up a dozen is an awe-inspiring event, no matter what your age. When they stick that fork in the ground near the base of that potato plant and pull up all those “mashed potatoes” and giggle, a future homesteader is born.

Four. Plant things that are sweet and yummy. Like the cabbage example in number three, they may not eat what we grown-ups eat…yet. Consider planting things like corn, carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, pumpkin, butternut squash, and berries. If the garden can satisfy a child’s sweet tooth in a healthy, non-candy bar way, you will be making great strides toward demonstrating the benefits of a garden. If you find the child is never willing to help with the chores in the spring, don’t fret. Remind them once in awhile about how the pumpkins are coming along and how big they are getting. Get excited when the first green, softball-sized pumpkin forms on the vine and wait for the, “I want to see!” A couple of days before the butternut is ready to harvest, start talking about pie. Yummy, soft, sweet butternut squash pie with a nice dollop of whipping cream (homemade, of course) plopped right on top of the extra-large wedge. “We have to pick a nice one for the pie; help me pick one out.” And there you go…a future homesteader is born.

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Five. “But daddy, I want to use that shovel; mine’s too small.” It may seem like a good idea to get the child his or her very own colorful garden tools. All I’ll say is, “Maybe that’s a good idea.” For Easter one year I found these great child-sized wheelbarrows and, instead of a basket, my wife and I loaded it up with Easter grass and goodies. The wheelbarrow WAS the Easter basket. He used that wheelbarrow for a season and then started trying to use my big, blue, double-wheeled rig. The red shovel, blue hoe, and yellow rake broke within a few days. It was a big setback in his morale toward gardening. As soon as I gave him my big shovel, he worked and worked at digging…didn’t dig much…but sure had fun trying. Using the big garden fork to dig up potatoes is BIG fun. And, so what if he or she punches through a wayfaring potato (refer to number two). Just stay positive and keep reminding them, “It’s okay; you’re doing great,” And…there you go…a future homesteader is born.

Six. Homesteading is not all about food independence, it’s about financial independence too. When we were in Tennessee, my son really wanted a Bachmann train…Thomas the Train, to be specific. I wanted him to save his own money and buy the train himself. Once he realized that his mother and I were not just going to buy the train, and Christmas and birthdays were way too far off (it took a while for this to set in), he approached me, “Daddy, what can I do for money?” And the adventure began. We don’t just give an allowance; that’s free money for breathing, and we don’t want to start down that road. I like to offer a commission. So, when he had enough time to dream of the train while looking at his tattered Bachmann Train catalog, he asked the golden question, “What can I do for money?” I already had a plan. He was six then and didn’t have to bend over near as far as his old father (me) to pick up the gray rock that is scattered all over the ground in Middle Tennessee.

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“Well son, how about we start with you picking up some of the gray rocks.” I took him to an area where I wanted to put a bunch of wood chips and needed the ground cleared of the rocks. “I’ll give you a quarter a rock.” It seemed like a good start, and I thought that after 30-40 rocks, he’d be on his way toward earning the $250 he needed to get that train. I gave him a four-wheeled buggy, and with the first “thud” from the kiwi-sized gray rock landing in the bottom of that empty black plastic buggy, he started earning money. Like most 6-year-olds, his attention span was that of a goldfish. After a while, he was racing that buggy all over the 5 acres and goofing off. Later, I was turning compost in the late evening light and heard him holler from across the way, “Daddy!”

I saw him standing over by the rock piles; I had guessed that he’d grown tired and wanted to collect something for the effort of picking up the few rocks he had picked up.  

“Yea, what’s up?”

“Where do you want me to put the rocks?”

I had a pile of rocks started on the drive way and hadn’t set a plan for what to do with them, “Put them over there by the other rocks on the driveway!”

Once he’d eyed the pile, he meandered over near. At first I heard the “cracking” sound of rocks hitting other rocks after being tossed on a pile. One-at-a-time, “Crack, snap, crank.” He’d reach in the buggy, pull out a rock and toss it on the pile. I turned back to my compost and soon became deaf to the sound as I continued turning. He was counting the rocks; his commission was 0.25 cents per rock.

“Daddy!” He shouted after a bit of time had passed.

“Yea!”

“What comes after 99?”

I stopped turning, stuck my fork in the ground and propped my arm up on the handle’s tip. “This is cute,” I thought. I hollered back, “Son, you didn’t pick up no 99 rocks, now did you?”

“No sir,” he’d admitted. I smiled and started to turn around but stopped when he continued, “I picked up way more than that.” You see, he wasn’t goofing around on the property with that black, four-wheeled buggy; he had picked up almost every gray rock he could pick up on the 5-acre homestead. He’d picked up more than 350 rocks and had earned almost $90 dollars that afternoon…and he expected it right then…needless to say, we made a visit to the ATM for that immediate gratification and… There you go…a future homesteader was born.

As a follow-up to this story: The next spring I had decided that I would try my hand at making dandelion jelly. The front of the property was covered in yellow flowers, and the bees were buzzing all about. I asked my son if he was interested in earning some money. “Son, do you want to pick flowers for your old daddy?”

“Will I make a quarter each flower?”

“No son, let’s start out at a nickel.”

Today he prefers fun over work…just like the rest of us do. He plays his video games and spends time with friends. But he’s an “A” student, eats broccoli and pickled okra, and helps out on the homestead (in 15-20 minute intervals). He loves time on the patio with a crackling, warm fire, soaking in the smells of a harvested lawn, listening to the sounds of watering, and the shadows of the setting sun. The rewards are better enjoyed after first earning them. That’s what makes us homesteaders.

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