The Little Red Hen: Implications for Parenting, Education and Human Existence
The old Russian folktale, The Little Red Hen, is a tale written for children to help teach the values of hard work and self-reliance. In the story, the Little Red Hen finds a seed of wheat, which she decides to plant in order to make bread. The Little Red Hen attempts to enlist the help of other farm animals in the planting, harvesting, threshing, and milling the wheat into flour, and the baking of the bread, but the farm animals refuse. After doing all the work herself, the Little Red Hen then asks who will help her eat the bread, and all the farm animals volunteer. Alas, the Little Red Hen decides to share the bread only with her chicks, realizing that she is the only one who did the work.
The common themes extracted from this folktale are built on teaching children the value of hard work and self-reliance. Yet, upon further investigation, the folktale can teach another valuable lesson, that of “valuing.”
In his book, Freedom to Learn, Carl Rogers outlines three definitions/ types of values, operative values, conceived values and objective values. (The first two types of values, relevant to this article, will be defined below.) Rogers goes further with the thought process to define and explore the process of “valuing,” which is, the “process” by which a human being finds preference in some things, guided by an internal sense of knowing what will lead to self-actualization and the ability to thrive. Rogers discusses the definitions of three types of values, extracted from the work of American philosopher Charles Morris, a student of George Herbert Mead. The first type of value defined by Morris is operative values, or “the tendency of human beings to show preference, by their actions, for one type of object or objective rather than another” (Rogers, Freedom to Learn, 279). This type of operative value process has been evidenced in an experiment with infants. In the experiment, 20 natural, unflavored foods were placed in front of the infants. The infants were allowed to choose any foods they wished and have as much of the food as they liked. Though the infant may have initially gorged on some foods, say starches, this would soon be balanced out by next selecting proteins. Over time, the infant tended to choose foods that led to their own survival, growth, and development.
The next type of value defined by Morris is labeled “conceived values,” or “the positive or negative preferential behavior accorded to a signified object or situation” (Morris, 1964, Signification and Significance: A Study of the Relations of Signs and Values, 19). In this case, Morris refers to the anticipation or foresight an individual has about the outcome of a behavior. For example, telling the truth in a situation because of a preference for “honesty is the best policy” (Rogers, Freedom to Learn, 279). Conceived values are those which are acquired through interaction with a system (for example, a family system, a religious system, or an educational system). Conceived values are most often introjects of the culture and are acquired without conscious awareness.
In terms of the development of operative values, showing preference for that which will help the human survive and thrive, there seems to be a loss of this type of value-development in the current culture. Over-structured, over-scheduled and over-taught children are losing their sense of that which will help guide and promote their own well-being. Beginning from the premise of trusting a child to guide themselves toward fulfillment of their needs, that which will promote their individual surviving and thriving, systemic ideas of what will optimally promote growth and development has usurped the inborn capacity a child has to help guide his/her growth. Many of the systemic practices are antithetical to learning, denying the child the ability to trust their own path and develop the self-reliance needed to create agency and active learning. The Little Red Hen valued her sense of agency and her learning path, though it required hard work and commitment, rather than succumb to the complacency of her colleagues. She not only confirmed her values of hard work and self-direction, she “valued” her process. She created her value system as she was working to meet her need.
Rogers continues the discussion of values by defining “the process of valuing.” The “valuing process” can be defined as one that meets the intrinsic needs of the human being on a course that leads to self-actualization. Like the infant, choosing the foods that will lead to survival and growth, the learner must have freedom to choose challenges that will meet his/her fundamental needs and then be guided on the path with those choices. Likewise, young learners need to be shown the “food” or concepts that will enrich their being and lead to growth and self-actualization. With this freedom, the learner will begin to “value the process” of the learning endeavor and move toward greater depth of knowledge. Just as the Little Red Hen took the initiative to plant the seed and follow through the process of harvesting and milling the wheat until she could make the bread, the young learner needs the freedom to choose, the guidance to follow a path, and the support to complete the task in order to value the process of learning. Which is, in theory, the ultimate goal of education.
Most values are introjects of culture and environment. According to Rogers, “introject is a psychological term that best describes the internalization of another’s characteristics without conscious effort” (Freedom to Learn, 282). Human beings will take-in values that are taught and modeled by those around them, but also, they will introject overt messages of the environment or culture. In infancy, human beings begin to develop a sense of that which will help them thrive. Once exposed to the social world, the child begins to introject the values of the culture around them. This is done at a subconscious level. Even when the culture or environment explicitly state the values admired, the undercurrent or unspoken expectations will influence the development of the values orientation. In some ways, this can be an effective transmission of cultural expectations. Most parents want their children to be honest, for example. And having adults around who can model that value can be a powerful influence. Yet, when this value is “taught” with stiff consequences for not obeying, the meaning of the value is lost and submerged under “conditional regard” for the human being. When humans are situated in an environment of freedom and “unconditional positive regard,” Rogers noticed that the individual will choose values that enrich the environment and personal growth. After decades of research and practice, Carl Rogers had this to say about how humans attain values “I dare to believe that when human beings are inwardly free to choose whatever they deeply value, they tend to value those objects, experiences, and goals that contribute to and enhance their own survival, growth and development, and contribute to the survival and development of others” (Rogers, Freedom to Learn, 290).
As parents, teachers, educators and community members, how can we, as a society, support children’s learning, growth and maturation in a way that will re-instate the ability to develop operative values? Fritjof Capra in The Tao of Physics states “A living organism is a self-organizing system, which means that its order in structure and function is not imposed by the environment, but is established by the system itself” (81). Interchange and interaction between living systems and the environment are continuous, but self-organization is not determined by the environment. In the current culture, children are becoming mechanized versions of introjected values. There is little time or allowance for children to connect with themselves, or their experiences, both of which help guide their internal values, their operative values. Restoring contact with experience is foundational to learning, at least the type of learning that will develop a self-actualized individual. Consider the overt and covert values being introjected in the current culture?
Rogers (1977) revised his previous thinking concerning this incongruence, stating that while he earlier saw the rift between self and experience as natural, while unfortunate, he now believes society, (particularly Western culture), culturally conditions, rewards and reinforces behaviors that are “perversions of the unitary actualizing tendency (p.248).” An Analysis of Carl Rogers’ Theory of Personality
by Dagmar Pescitelli. Retrieved from: http://pandc.ca/?. Rogers states, “I dare to believe that when human beings are inwardly free to choose whatever they deeply value they tend to value those objects, experiences and goals that contribute to and enhance their own survival, growth and development and contribute to the survival and development of others” (Rogers, Freedom to Learn, p. 290).
The Little Red Hen changed the trajectory of her community and family with the freedom she exercised with one seed from nature. She developed her own valuing process, despite the cultural influences, and progressed a product and an idea, with the simple concept of being allowed the freedom to do so. “The free person moves out voluntarily, freely, responsibly to play her significant part in a world whose determined events move through her spontaneous choice and will” (Rogers, Freedom to Learn, p. 310).
Capra, F. (1975). The Tao of Physics. Boulder, Colorado: Shambala Press.
Rogers, C. and Freidberg, H. J. (1994). Freedom to Learn, 3rd ed. New York, New York: Macmillan.