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First Person Kids need to learn how to fail and adapt. Here’s how we did it

Illustration by Ashley Wong

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We have four chickens: Pecky, Buckbeak, Mayonnaise and Cornflake. My husband, Andrew, made their coop; it’s a four-star, mountain-chalet A-frame, with a kitchen and lounge in the front of the house and a bedroom and nesting area in the back of the house. Out the front of the house is an enclosed triangular run (to match the silhouette of the chalet), with a neat little hatch for the chickens to enter and exit from.

It’s incredibly well-made and carefully finished, but although the craftsmanship is impressive, that isn’t the most important feature. What’s more interesting is how he made it. For several weekends and a few evenings, Andrew would head out with our sons and our daughter to the garage. He has tools for them, real tools that work, because he believes it’s important that they are able to actually make something. He gives them each a task and slowly helps them – with the patience of a Zen monk – driving nails, drilling screws, cutting boards. He designs the run with them, using offcut material, the challenge of using it instead of buying new is part of the fun.

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Together, they make something beautiful. It’s rife with all of the mistakes of learning – a board cut too short and glued and splinted back in to place; nails driven crooked flattened into the board; but when it’s done, and Andrew does his magical adjustments to make it look square by shaving boards here and there, shimming areas and repositioning the hinges; it looks absolutely perfect.

I never thought I’d home-school my kids. But it works for us

The chickens love their perfectly imperfect home and, when we’re home, we like to give them free range of the yard. They’re hilarious in their little squadron of four, never venturing more than a few metres away from their fearless leader, Pecky. Yesterday, they were out roaming the lawn, digging and scratching in the dirt. We needed to run an errand and hopped out to town, knowing that the chickens don’t go very far. When we got back, my son Gordon ran to check them. I was following and immediately noticed something wrong – there was Mayonnaise, Cornflake and Buckbeak, looking rather gormless and scattered (to be fair, that’s how they usually look). Pecky was nowhere to be seen.

Gordon and I searched the yard. He was convinced she’d be found. I was feeling distinctly less hopeful. When we regrouped, I asked if he had seen anything – he said he’d noticed a big pile of “pigeon feathers” over by the cedar trees. Uh oh. By this time, Andrew had caught up with us. Taking Gordon’s hand, we went over to see the feathers. It did not look good – big tufts of grey and white feathers littered the yard in three clumps. I shepherded the remaining three chickens back into their coop and the boys spread out, combing to see if an injured chicken was hiding somewhere. By this time, Gordon had cottoned on; Pecky was his favourite chicken and he was starting to leak tears, demanding we go and get another chicken right now.

Andrew silently picked Gordon up and just held him. Gordon was absorbing the grief as he started to realize that big tufts of feathers was not a good sign. As we stood there accepting that we were evidently a three-chicken family, we heard it. A soft clucking was coming from a bush beside the feathers. Andrew put Gordon down and both of them peered into the depths of the bush. Pecky was there, looking half like a normal chicken and half like a naked chicken. Whatever had gotten her had pulled the feathers off her rear end, but other than looking weird, she was absolutely fine. Andrew coaxed her out, gathered her up and returned her to the coop.

The next day had Andrew and the kids back in the garage. He was consulting with them on if we needed a larger enclosed run, for maximum chicken freedom and safety. The kids were convinced that the chickens should be kept shut in, safe from everything in the world that likes to eat chicken. Andrew wasn’t convinced. He believed that we should be more careful, letting the chickens out when we were in the yard to provide some level of deterrent. But he had a different view on the life-threatening risk that waits for chickens who wander beyond the fenced area.

Andrew was an emergency-room nurse for years. Each shift, he saw the impact of the one-in-a-million. Car accidents, suicide attempts, families ripped apart by tragedy. He saw the hammer injuries and the sawn-off fingers. And yet, he encourages our kids (and our chickens) to take risks. In his infinitely unflappable manner, he sees that the risk of living life – by having the freedom to wander the green grass of the lawn and dig for bugs in the garden – is better than the risk of a self-imposed prison in the chicken run.

Andrew and the kids are planning their next building project. I’m not sure what it will be, but I’m certain it will involve minor hammer-related injuries and many more hours by Andrew than it would take for him to simply build it himself. And it will also contain the wisdom of a father who knows how to love through the act of building; building capability, building pride, building love.

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Teresa Waddington lives in Aberdour, Scotland.

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