Parents interested in homesteading with young children are faced with a shortage of advice and role models. Most homesteaders today have children of an age to participate and help.
So what does a family with toddlers or babies do?
If you have come here looking for some perfect advice that will make everything work, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.
There is no easy button.
Homesteading with young children is …. difficult.
I know. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but it’s true.
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Oh, I could tell you that homesteading with young children – and making it look easy – simply depends on being organized, consistent, always patient and managing on five hours of sleep each night but … well, that last one might be true … I have not yet figured out how to be completely organized, consistent and always patient.
For those who are not entirely familiar, we spent three years homesteading in a tiny off-grid cabin, four and a half miles from our nearest full-time neighbour. (And then we moved to a very rural little village where we’ll attempt to do all again – just with far less land!)
We shared the cabin with four young children.
The boys are eight (with Autism Spectrum Disorder) and six (with ADHD), while the girls are three and nearly two.
The older girl was just five months old when we moved to the cabin, and the baby was born here. (Yes, I mean she was literally born in our mountain cabin.) Before that, I cut up and processed a whole hog in my apartment kitchen, made homemade cheese regularly and even made homemade bacon.
So we know what homesteading with young children looks like. We’ve done it in the city, deep in the woods, and soon we’ll be doing it in a little village.
Everything Will Take Longer When You’re Homesteading with Young Children
I know that parents say this when contemplating running errands and doing things around town. I can remember trying to plan two or three errands in the city while I attempted to keep my autistic son from melting down. But this maxim is not limited to town families. No matter what you do with little ones in tow, it is going to take longer than doing it alone or with other adults. This is simple fact.
The more young children you have, the harder is to to manage them all. People say it’s like herding cats, but I’d say it’s more like trying to get a flock of half-wild free range chickens into the hen house.
Just as you get one in the door, two more slip between your legs and outside.
Homesteading with young children takes longer than homesteading with teenagers or adults. It just does.
Corral and Carry Them
With my eldest child, nearly twenty years ago, I used a baby sling. These days my back just can’t deal with that, and the Mister carried our babies when they were little.
Many, many homesteading parents find that a sling or other baby carrier is a lifesaver. Very little ones can be carried out to the barn or garden in an infant car seat.
Exersaucers are reasonably portable (just don’t forget it outside when the storms hit!), and so are playpens. Finding a way to corral and carry around the tiniest homesteader can make a lot of difference in how things get done.
Unfortunately, not everyone has the space (our 800 square foot cabin is just not big enough for a playpen) or can use a carrier, and unfortunately that means that things will again take longer or simply not get done. Little ones who are not safely contained must be watched constantly.
This is why I do not make soap yet, for example. Homesteading with young children means accepting that certain activities simply have to wait until the children are bigger.
Messes Will Happen
Everyone knows that children create messes. Have you ever seen a child take a tumble into a fresh cow patty? That was at a friend’s farm, where they had cows. Oh, and a similar thing happened at another friend’s farm, where the boys decided to splash in the run off from the barn. (For those of you reading this who don’t have animals, “run off” means watery poop from washing out the barn floor. It’s rather pungent.)
At our mountain property, they just eat the goat “berries” and sit down in chicken poop. Homesteading with young children means “I axe-uh-dent-y sat in chicken poop” gets the response of “Not again!”
The mess that happens in town seems like nothing compared to four children who have just spent hours digging in a hill of red clay soil, or composted manure, or … well, if it’s messy, and especially if it stains clothing, they’ll be sure to find it.
Laundry on the homestead is not sorted by colour but by “Dirty”, “Ground-In Dirt/Muck” and “I wonder if boiling will help?”
Don’t Underestimate Them
This morning all four of the children were stacking firewood, even though it is only a required chore for the two older ones. As I write this, the boys will be 6 and 8 on their rapidly approaching birthdays, while the girls are 15 months and 3 years.
Yes, the one year old was doing her best to carry sticks of wood.
Of course it will be at least a year until she can really carry anything, but the two boys can stack a quarter cord of wood before breakfast, stopping only when it is too high for them.
Do not fall into the trap of thinking that they are too little to learn and to help. Tonight the 8 year old said, “No, I can do it!” when I reached for the casserole. He very carefully put on oven mitts, picked up the dish and carried it to the table.
When they are young and it seems as though nothing ever gets done as quickly as it should, remember that every hour invested in training them will repay itself over and over again.
Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms says that the most productive years on an organic farm are when the children are teenagers – but of course he is assuming that those children have been gathering (and dropping) eggs, learning not to walk on the garden beds (by doing it and being scolded), and picking peas (and immature vegetables and half-ripe beans) from their toddler years.
If It’s Available, Ask For Help
One of the main problems with living where we do is that there are no babysitters or part-time helpers anywhere close. We are on our own in many ways.
Among my Mennonite friends, though, it would be unheard of for a mother with young children to do it alone. Young women, finished with formal school but still unmarried, take turns “working out” (as in ‘out of the home’) as mother’s helpers for a nominal pay, spending two to six months in a home.
In a household with little children, the addition of a well-trained, hard-working, energetic teenager can make a lot of difference. (Young men perform a similar service as inexpensive farm hands.)
There is nothing wrong with asking for help, including paid help, if it is an option.
Just Get Through The Threes
Whoever coined the phrase Terrible Twos? In my experience, after dealing with five of them (and one approaching it), it’s not exactly the Twos that are the problem. Different children hit it at different times, but I have generally found that two-year-olds are pretty sweet until they start approaching their third birthday.
“Mom,” I growled recently on the phone. “One of your grandchildren might not live to see her next birthday.”
“The little terror that’s about to turn three. If she survives.”
“Marie, you’ve said that with all of the boys. Aren’t they fun at this age?”
While a baby can be corralled, a Three can climb out of anything you put her in. Babies can be distracted with a bottle or a stuffed animal, but a Three can have a complete hour-long meltdown because the goat looked at her. A baby can be carried, while a three-year-old whirling dervish is almost impossible to hold on to.
Too big to be a baby, but too small to be a big kid, my Threes have always been my most difficult.
And then the little Monster will turn four and suddenly be the most delightful, charming and helpful child, and you’ll wonder if you just imagined the last year. (Well, most of the time!)
So if you have a Three, you have my permission to wonder just how anything is going to get done.
Maybe Next Year
One of our farming friends send us a letter last year and wrote “Always remember the three words that every farmer lives by – Maybe next year.”
When the children are little, that is important to keep in mind. I look around our homestead this summer and feel depressed because I feel like very little was accomplished.
Objectively, I know it is not true. I have done a lot – just not a lot of it was outside the house.
Under four, a child can help gather eggs – with supervision. I have found that a small basket is a great way for them to carry a small amount of eggs. Even a one-year-old can be taught “Gentle!” when picking up eggs (or kittens, for that matter).
Toddlers and preschoolers can also put seeds into prepared holes, pat them down with topsoil and, with very careful supervision, pull weeds. Once they learn to recognize a weed, they will feel very proud each time they pull the right ones, and they are at the age when they are soaking up knowledge. They can pick peas and beans once they are taught how to recognize the ripe ones.
Toddlers can help carry firewood. Just be sure it is cut small enough. Even if the physical amount they carry is minimal, this builds the idea in their minds that their contribution is important.
Toddlers can feed small farm animals, again with supervision. Toddlers are also very good at picking up little things on the floor and delight in handing Mommy tiny bits of paper, lint or whatever they find. I encourage that!
Preschoolers can learn to stay out of the kitchen when canning is happening, and entertain younger babies in a safer room. We call the pressure canner “Mommy’s HOT pot” and they know they need to stay away.
By three, a child can use a dustpan and small broom to pick up the dirt pile (but someone else needs to do the sweeping), and will feel very accomplished after carrying that dustpan outside successfully. Under two will try to use the broom but do not expect any actual cleaning.
By five, a child raised on a homestead can gather eggs without assistance, and can certainly feed the chickens.
A Five is also a great help with carpentry jobs or running errands.
Five-year-olds can learn to consistently recognize the difference between a weed and a vegetable plant, and work on a small patch without too much assistance.
Five-year-olds are certainly capable of carrying firewood and shoveling snow, depending on the physical abilities of the child, but don’t expect them to do it without company and encouragement. They need to have perseverance and cheerful work modeled for them constantly.
With a child-sized wheelbarrow, a five-year-old can carry compost to the garden.
A five-year-old can start learning to milk a patient animal, or so I’ve been told. I have not yet had a patient milk goat, though.
Five-year-olds can do a lot of household chores, too, from washing tables to sweeping floors.
The abilities just increase, at least for children who are raised to this.
A few years ago I bought my carrots from my friend’s eight-year-old. She had grown, harvested and cleaned them all by herself. She can change a diaper, feed a baby and do the dishes with help from a sibling.
I know that my eight year old can clean a chicken coop, do dishes, sweep a floor, use both a saw and hammer, and cook a simple meal.
By ten, my friend’s children are helping with the milking of their huge herd, and by fifteen, they are handling sales on the farm when the parents are away.
Last year, my friend and her husband went on their first trip in twenty years, leaving the older children in charge of the large dairy farm – 15, 17 and 19 years old – for two weeks.
However, this was only possible because the children have been preparing for that job since childhood. Homesteading with young children means that school is in session all the time.
Watch Your Priorities
Why are you homesteading?
The answer is likely that you are doing it because of those messy little ones that slow you down and destroy your productivity.
No matter what you’re raising on your homestead, and no matter where it’s located, remember that your number one crop, your most important harvest, will be your children.