Involve Your Kids

I was five years old when Dad (who originally came from a market gardening family in Pennsylvania) decided to make a market garden out of a patch of diamond willow on the Blindman River near Red Deer in central Alberta. I guess times were hard for Mom and Dad who started with a $50. loan, a missed-matched team of horses and seven acres of raw land, but for me it was heaven. I had everything a kid could want, space and time to run with my dog, horses to ride (even if it was up and down the rows of vegetables with the cultivator dragging behind), a river to play in and lots of good food, including (horrors) raw milk and butter from Mom’s Jersey cow.

"Collecting Eggs" photo by Gina Smith
"Collecting Eggs" photo by Gina Smith

  Soon there was a stream of customers coming to the farm for vegetable plants in the early spring and produce the rest of the year. (Dad dug a very large root cellar in the side of the river bank and so would still be selling his root crops well into the next year). It annoyed Mom that customers always seemed to appear just as we were sitting down to dinner (I guess they now call it lunch). So rather than send my brother, who was six years older and had been working all morning with Dad in the fields, I was delegated to wait on the customers. I loved it and I started selling long before I was old enough to count and make change.  I would take the money in to the dinner table to Dad, tell him what they had bought, he would then count the money and make change. He also took me along when he took loads of vegetables to distant towns and that is where I learned to interact with the public.

  What I am saying is start your kids early. What I learned way back then has served me in good stead for my whole life: speak up, talk to people, (hiding behind Dad’s pant leg when someone spoke to me was not allowed) travel; help people to choose appropriately.

  No age is too young to start a child learning to help. If he can walk, he is old enough to accompany you to the garden with his own little bucket and carry something back to the kitchen for dinner. Make it a big deal when that carrot appears on the table – nothing else develops personal worth more than being able to contribute and have it appreciated.

   It takes a lot of patience to stand watching while little fingers fumble with a gate latch, it’s much quicker to do it yourself – but then she never learns how to open the latch. You must learn yourself, to take a deep breath, stand back with an approving look and a smile on your face and wait it out. Put your hands in your pockets if they want to intervene and take over the job when you are busy. After all, why are you on this farm – to open gates quickly or to raise this child? Given the time she will soon figure it out, and before you know it she will be running ahead of you, proudly opening the gate while you carry those two buckets of feed through. And when she is praised for that accomplishment, she will be looking for other ways that she can help. It is called developing the work ethic.

  Be prepared for broken eggs, it is all in the process of learning. You can tell him a hundred times “be careful, don’t break the eggs” but until he actually breaks one he cannot understand just how much “be careful” is required.

  Don’t buy them cheap plastic tools that break and can’t produce a job well done. Supply them with good, proper tools of appropriate size (True Temp make excellent small size garden tools) that when used properly actually do the job. If they have good tools, it is easier to train them to look after them. There can be no respect for a bunch of broken, useless plastic lying around the yard, but a good tool commands proper care and because they belong to the child, a sense of responsibility develops through caring for them. Provide space for storing their tools (a place for everything and everything in its place).

  Get her a good hammer early on; sure there will be banged fingers but only for a short while until she learns to hammer properly. If she does not learn it when she is little, she will be banging her fingers her whole life. Wouldn’t you rather she do it now when you are there to kiss it better than to do it later and have her new spouse laugh at her?

  When he is very young, give him a meaningful chore that must be done every day at the same time. (Things that can be done anytime tend to not be done at all, even with endless nagging.) Be sure to make a big deal of it when it is done, at least as big a deal than would have happened had it not been done. This could be just watering his dog every day which is satisfying to him to watch the dog enjoy his fresh drink and invokes colossal guilt if the poor dog is thirsty and his dish is empty. This is a real lesson in responsibility with spin offs in animal care and observing the world around him. (A hot day will require water more often, a cold day results in a frozen water dish.)

  There are other tools beside gardening ones that your child will need. When we moved to our new place bordered by the river, my folks took my brother and I down to the river and taught us how to swim. Thereafter the only caution was the redundant and frequent “Be careful”. A neighbour family moved onto the next farm over and cautioned their three kids “Don’t go down to the river”. Needless to say, with every other kid in the neighborhood frequenting the river, so were theirs. That was the first time I ever saw a dead body. Had he been given the tools/training to swim the river, he would still be with us.

  I remember the launch of a raft that I had been building on for two days. Lack of knowledge of the floatation capabilities of the green logs I had used – my dog and I had to swim back to shore.

  A child will soon recognize make-work tasks and you will lose a lot of respect in assigning them. Be sure to give her meaningful tasks and make sure the family recognizes her contribution. She will thus become a valued member of the family instead of the little sister who is just a pain in the neck.

  When he speaks to you, listen and reply – in good english. How else is he going to learn the language if he does not hear it and use it? Whenever I hear someone tell their child about the “choo-choo”, I want to upside them along side the head. Why would you teach him baby talk and then he has to relearn english when he goes to school? (Besides, have you noticed that trains don’t “choo-choo” anymore?)

  And always tell him the truth. Kids are not dumb and can readily see that there is a flaw in the statement “kitty went to heaven”. If kitty passes away, that would be a good time to explain death and make it easier for him to understand later on when Grandpa follows kitty. If you are caught not telling the truth about one thing, you will certainly be suspect when answers to other questions are required. Lord knows you are suspect enough when they become teens, but if you have laid the base of the truth early on, it has to be helpful. At least he will know that what you tell him is true, however painful it may be.


Ev Gilmar is a frontier-like woman of a largely past generation who has survived more than most of us and likes to share her life experiences. Among many endeavors, she raises heritage chickens, teaching others the crucial importance of maintaining these breeds.