little red hen

Image courtesy of lolaleeloo2

When I was a kid, my sister bought me a copy of Aesop’s Fables and I immediately fell in love with it. I had heard some of the stories before, but this was a gold mine! Even at a young age I was able to see how these short, simple stories could teach life lessons in a easily digestible way.

As I grew older, I came to appreciate cultural fables from around the world, but I also started to notice that some of these stories were teaching ideals that I don’t agree with. The obvious one’s are related to stereotypes, but there are others that teach messages of revenge, judgement, and intolerance hidden beneath the surface.

I know, I know. This might seem like I am stretching things a bit too far, but I don’t believe I am. Those stories from Aesop made a difference when I was a child and did make me act and think in a certain way. Even now, I see and hear people sharing these stories as ways of communicating harsh realities in ‘cute’ and humorous ways.

One of these stories, not from Aesop, but still quite well known, is the story of the little red hen. In this tale, a hen is looking for food for her chicks when she comes across a single grain of wheat. Not knowing what to do with it, she finds out that she can plant it to grow more grain that can be made into flour and eventually baked into bread. Not knowing how to do it, she asks for help from others, namely a rat, a cat, and a pig, but all of them refuse to help her along the way. In the end, she manages to plant and harvest the wheat, get the grain ground into flour by a miller, and then bakes the bread. This is where the three who refused to help are now quite willing to help the little red hen eat her baked goodness, but she promptly refuses.

Now, on the surface, I see these main principles being touted in the story:

  • If you don’t help others in the process, don’t expect to participate in the outcome.
  • Hard work pays off / Laziness will get you nowhere.
  • You don’t need the help of others to accomplish your goals.
  • People who refuse to help you are lazy and selfish.

There are those who are going to agree with all of these points, but for myself, I have a hard time accepting most of these as truth. Don’t get me wrong, I also believe that we need to work hard and should help others, but to be honest, I think this story does that message more harm than good. Here are my reasons why:

  • You can’t do it by yourself. Yes, sometimes we become dependent on others and we need to work through certain things on our own, but this western obsession with self-help has tipped things too much in one direction. Humans need one another, and not just for selfish reasons. We can’t do everything on our own and it isn’t shameful or weak to look to others to help you. This ‘every man for himself’ mentality is damaging  and counter-productive. We all have our strengths and weaknesses and we should be willing to share our strengths with others who need to it while accepting the assistance of others who fill in our weaknesses. Be careful not to do this for mere selfish reasons either. Give without expecting in return; accept and be thankful in return.
  • Working hard will not always end in a positive outcome. Just because you worked hard does not mean you will be successful in what you do. Also, there are times when things will just fall in your lap without putting much effort into it. We have seen this too many times; people who are rich and seemingly very successful who haven’t really put much effort into it at all. There are others who pour their heart and soul into something and don’t end up achieving their goals. Work hard not to get something, but to give something. Motive is more important than achievement. Helping others achieve their goals can be far more rewarding than reaching your own. Don’t be put off by failure as this can often be the most rewarding thing in the end as long as you are willing to learn from it.
  • People who don’t help are generally lazy and selfish. This is complete rubbish. There are so many reasons why others aren’t willing to join in with you. It could be that they haven’t grown up in an environment where they have been shown what it means to help others. In fact, it may be that they were told that they were to look after themselves no matter the cost to others. They don’t know any better. It could also be that they are afraid to help in fear that they will screw up. Others have mad fun of them in the past and they are afraid to stick their neck out once again. It may be that they are truly selfish and lazy, but should that stop us from convincing them with kindness? It isn’t always about us. We need to be willing to give of ourselves even when others are not willing to reciprocate.

Another problem I have is how this affecting how we teach our students and run our education system. We continue to propagate the ideal of individualism over the collective. We value hard work, but are quick to punish the ‘lazy’. We take the surface view and fail to dig deeper into the underlying issues, missing out on opportunities to help students achieve things together.

In my language classroom, students are coming in from around the world and from various cultures. Our western ideals need to be put aside for the time being as we listen to and learn from our students. We need to help those who are afraid to join in for fear of failure. We need to stop viewing actions as motives. We must be willing to support, and even reward those, who don’t necessarily deserve it. It isn’t all about me or him or her. It is all about us. It is about what we are going to do together.

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