For the last three years our family has raised 4H hogs for the county fair. What started out as a child activity has quickly become a much-anticipated family tradition. We are suburbanites who’ve graduated from bunny to barnyard, and we are a healthier, happier family for it. My friends tease me about my fake ranch lifestyle, but there are amazing reasons why we enthusiastically animal hoard. I’m taking a few minutes in the middle of fair week to share just a few reasons why I love 4H living. Here’s what being a pig mom has taught me about raising happy kids.
You’re gonna get dirty
Nothing reeks like pig poop. Literally nothing. A pin drops worth pollutes a room in 3.2 seconds and sends me hysterically sniffing shoes and jackets while barking threats. But honestly, if we’re tackling life there are times we’re going to be covered with it and so is our leather camel car interior. Life isn’t all about lemon verbena. Active kids bring stink.
Rules matter and so does hard work
In 4H kids do the work. If parents help, the club loses competition points. This is perhaps the most astounding invention known to parenthood. The first day of pen cleaning my kids pathetically pleaded for instruction, awkwardly fondling and falling over their push brooms like stoned spider monkeys. But it turns out that they figured it out without me. I shrugged, they struggled. Once they found their rhythm they lit up with accomplishment and were going steady with that broom by nightfall. Do I hear a motion for a 4H charter in your kitchen?
Mom, let the toddlers pet the pig. Hands wash.
I know it’s totally gross to see your Precious dripping in pig spit, but nurturing an animal teaches everything we need to know about love and protect. That giggling glee when your sticky stumbler gets to spray the pig with water (especially on THE BUTT) and then caresses his stinky hide lovingly, that’s parenting 101 at its finest. That’s what we did for them. Nurturing is a drug. Let them have a hit.
Hard work deserves recognition but only the hardest worker gets first place (and who you know makes a difference)
In the pig group there are three BIG days. There is the competition for the best market hog, the competition for the best showmanship, and there is auction day. These are sandwiched between the squealing delight of move-in day and the tearful goodbye of move-out day. Like many things in life, fair week is made up of important events between hours of waiting. But the one thing the events have in common? The kids who are there first thing in the morning mucking pens and working with their animals are also the ones who get the ribbons and the big money award at auction. There is one caveat, however. Kids who hand wrote an impressive buyer letter and those who are well known to the community pick up the extra spoils. Watching the way hard work and networking works prepares kids for their lives ahead. It doesn’t always happen fairly, but good preparation makes a huge difference.
We are stronger as a tribe and fun matters
In 4H clubs form based on community. Older kids mentor little kids and seniors help novices. During competition we stick with our tribe, cheering each other and sharing resources. But when push comes to shove, we all work side-by-side and make good care of the kids and animals our highest priority. Judges place high value on intensity and fun. 4H does not tolerate meanness.
Gender is irrelevant. Get tough and get dirty.
There is no gender discrimination at fair. My scrappy thirteen year-old daughter muscles in and makes it happen indistinguishable from the boys. Everybody throws in ideas, holds office, and works hard. I’ve been raising kids for 21 years and this is one of the healthiest, non-discriminating activities I’ve ever taken part in. Wrestling pigs and showing steer is not for the meek. The confidence these kids gain is impressive and hard-earned.
Too much delicious gets old
It doesn’t seem possible but kids will beg for a home-cooked meal when it’s not readily available. This is a great argument about how restricting something may encourage desperate desire. A fifteen year old schooled me yesterday about letting my son have a pretzel for lunch after his donut at breakfast. “Mom! This is fair!” he said. I hung my head and surrendered. The next day my 11 year-old junk food junkie was begging for steamed vegetables. I lie, homemade chicken tacos, but still.
Boredom sparks magic
The first day my kids brought their iPads to the livestock barn and even got them out half-heartedly throughout a day of back-breaking work followed by hours of waiting. But it didn’t last. Bored kids visit baby goats, snuggle pigs, and play cards. Old timers stop by the barn and share their stories and kids answer the pig questions of picture-snapping visitors. 4H kids increasingly adopt a buzz of contentment and confidence. By day two they leave their screens at home. I swear that the livestock barn at the county fair is the last bastion of screen-free sanctuary. It’s only one of the reasons my husband and I take off the week without hesitation. It’s old-school family time, and we all delight in it.
Sometimes you have to scream at stupid people
In the pig barn, things go from calm to dangerous in two seconds flat. At one moment the pig is sauntering calmly with a kid in dress whites at their heels. The next, Maple Bacon is hauling her 270-pound delicious rump through hordes of corn-gobbling fair-goers. That mom cowering in her path with her toddler at her knee? You’re going to have to screech, “PICK UP THAT BABY NOW!” while you throw yourself in front of them and slam a pig board in front of Maple. Both the pig and the stunned mom will cooperate, and you’ll both be laughing afterward. Fear makes all of us stupid. Fight or flight or stand there mouth agape. I think that’s how that goes.
Fairs attendies don’t care about modesty, but 4H parents do
Sorry about the body shaming but after witnessing the carnival horrors of overly-revealing fair outfits, my kids grow content with their dress whites. There is nothing more adorable than the functional garb of 4H kids hard at work.
Animal slaughter should spark vigorous, heart-felt, intelligent debate. Taking a life should not be minimized.
My hippy friends are horrified we raise 4H hogs for auction, and I don’t blame them a bit. My argument is that meat-eaters should have to raise a meat animal to slaughter to really understand the life sacrifices behind that carnitas burrito. Our pigs live happy but short lives. They live in a roomy pen and are walked daily in the sunshine by caring kids. We are aware they are raised for slaughter, and we don’t pretend it’s pretty. By a year old market pigs are crippled with arthritis from too much weight gained too quickly. We cry when we leave them behind on Sunday afternoon. It’s brutal.
In my experience, 4H families are the most loving, hard-working, and caring people I’ve run across. They love their children, their friends, and their community and they work hard to ensure those things are taken care of. Most agree that there is a powerful argument to sparing animal lives if you have the resources to and raising them humanely if you don’t. In our family the experience has led half of us to vegetarianism and the other half to less meat eating but with grateful awareness. Other families share the same story. Raising our animals gives us a true understanding of the meat aisles in the grocery store. We get it. We think reading a magazine about it may not be enough.
And finally, there’s the 4H moto “Make the best better.”
This one speaks for itself.
If you’re ready to get back to good old-fashioned family bonding, cut down on screen time and get dirty. One way to launch a healthier family life is to stage your house for smarter, better managed screen use. My GKIS Connected Family Online Course details just how to make that happen.
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty
This post is dedicated to my Aunt Becky and Uncle Chuck for introducing me to a profound love for family and the barnyard, Chelle Smith for your laughing eyes, willing hugs, and awesome attitude. You teach our kids what true leadership is all about! And to Leverno, Sidney, S’moa, and Pensetta. We love you babies and thank you for your sacrifice. xoxo