As more and more suburbanites join the ranks of would-be homesteaders raising flocks of chickens in their backyards, it only makes sense that more and more children are being exposed to chickens. While many folks remember fondly having a little incubator in the corner of a kindergarten classroom, having chickens in the backyard gives children the opportunity to not only experience the joys of raising an animal, but also learn about responsibility, caring for animals, and where their food comes from.
Families with young children have a few more things to take into account when choosing a chicken breed then other chicken owners. As one example, personality becomes much more important when looking for a breed that will bond with children. There are a number of useful tools online to help folks pick the best breed for their level of experience and space, production, and interaction needs. Here, we’ll focus on families with young kids looking for their first flock of hens.
First, it should be noted that there are some things all chicken owners need to take into account, children or no. These are largely logistical considerations, like how much space the flock will need and how many eggs you’ll want each week. Chickens are more energetic than many people assume, and they need their exercise just as much as anyone else; folks planning to keep their birds in the coop all day should plan for a commensurately larger coop to compensate for the lack of outdoor exercise. Those looking to raise chickens for eggs should also plan for a flock that will give them a reasonable number of eggs for their consumption – different breeds can lay anywhere between two and six eggs a week, which obviously makes a huge difference across a typical starter flock of five or six hens.
Chickens for Children
For future chicken keepers raising their own future chicken keepers, there are a couple of other factors to take into account. The big one, as mentioned above, is personality. While chickens, like people, are all individuals with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies, certain breeds tend toward certain personalities – gentle or aggressive, sociable or loners, cuddly or standoffish. There are tradeoffs to getting the most people-friendly chickens, though; they’re mostly breeds like the cochin or the silkie, historically cultivated as pet or ornamental birds – beautiful feathers, docile personalities, but generally poor layers. Both the cochin and the silkie only lay about two eggs per week.
The good news is that even production breeds inclined to be less friendly and cuddly can still be brought up to be gentle and even affectionate with their owners. The key to raising docile hens, more important even than their breed, is to bring them up from chicks, so they learn early on to trust their humans. This is especially good for children, as they get an opportunity not just to observe the undeniable cuteness of baby chicks, but also to form a bond with the animals and learn how to interact with them in a low-stakes environment where the animals are unlikely to hurt or scare them.
Top Tips for Raising Chickens and Children
- Establish ground rules early. Children, even more than most people, like to know what’s going on; they thrive on structure and routine. Giving them a clear picture of what life with the chickens will look like – maybe designating a certain time of day or area of the house for ‘fun chicken time’ and another time/place for the chickens to be ‘working’ – will help the kids adjust to the chickens and build an appropriate relationship with them as animals that are both pets and livestock.
- Practice good hen hygiene. Chickens are carriers for a number of dangerous bacteria, most notably salmonella, and the kinds of behaviors children are most likely to enjoy – petting and cuddling – are also the ones most likely to spread an infection. Washing hands before and after any interaction with the birds, as well as taking care while collecting and preparing eggs, is the best way to prevent transmission of an at best unpleasant and at worst very dangerous illness.
- Keep the kids involved. Kids, especially small children, love to feel important and have the autonomy to make decisions. Keeping them actively involved in the decision-making process around the birds – the littlest ones might get to name the hens, while their older siblings have a voice in the breed selection process – will help them feel emotionally invested in the flock as a collective, family project.
- Supervision is key. Children should never be left alone with the birds, especially when they’re both strangers to each other. Remember that both parties here – the children and the chickens – have the potential to hurt one another. When the kids play with the hens or help with chicken-related chores, there should always be a chicken-literate adult nearby to monitor the kids and watch out for potential accidents.
- Chickens aren’t toys. This is one of the hardest things for children (and some adults) to understand, but just because the chickens are pets doesn’t mean they’re required to meet every whim of their owners. There are times where the birds won’t be interested in interacting, and they have a tendency to express this with their beaks. Helping the kids understand this ahead of time will hopefully keep them from having to learn the hard way.
- Establish emotional boundaries where appropriate. If you have any intention of ever killing one of your birds for meat, draw a clear line between the chickens and pets – especially if you have a dog, cat, or other full pet. Otherwise, it will be easy for small children to get the idea that the family might one day kill and eat Fido. This is another place where establishing expectations and boundaries ahead of time is crucial.
Raising chickens in a family with kids can be hugely rewarding for everyone involved, but it does mean the adults have to take on a few more responsibilities in regard to safeguarding both the kids and the hens from one another. Luckily, a few precautions – like picking a child-friendly breed and establishing expectations with the kids beforehand – will go long way in making sure the backyard flock is a happy, healthy addition to the family.