It probably says something about me that one of the stories I remember most from childhood is that of the Little Red Hen. As the story goes, a little red hen and some of her friends find some grains of wheat.
"Who will help me plant these grains of wheat?" the Little Red Hen asks the lamb, the cat and the pig.
"Not I!" they all exclaim.
"Then I'll do it myself," she responds. And so she does.
The story continues like this as the Little Red Hen waters the wheat and tills the soil. Eventually she harvests the grain, grinds it into flour, and makes the flour into bread. At every juncture she invites her friends to participate. At every point, they decline until the smell of warm bread begins wafting from the kitchen. Then, of course, the friends happily offer to help eat the bread.
Declining their offer, the Little Red Hen exclaims, "I shall eat it myself." And, according to the author, "So she did."
I'm fairly certain the book I read in childhood ended here, but a later version I found had a different ending suggesting that the next time the Little Red Hen found some kernels of wheat, her friends all pitched in with the tasks involved so that when the bread was finally ready, they made hot chocolate and shared the loaf among themselves.
Hmmm... I'm not sure how I feel about the later version. It sounds like the author of the updated version was more comfortable with stressing cooperation than consequences. Perhaps this says something about the world today compared to 50 years ago, but that's not the point of this post.
The thing that strikes me here is our propensity to stress perseverance in the face of every obstacle, lack of support and interference. We say this to ourselves and we emphasize it with our children. Consider, for instance, The Little Engine that Could.
In this story, the Little Blue Engine continues to tell himself, "I think I can--I think I can--I think I can ..." and through such positive self talk manages to pull the train full of toys over the mountain.
In The Little Red Caboose, a favorite of my son that I read so often I can almost recite it 30+ years later, the Little Red Caboose "holds tight to the tracks and keeps the train from slipping back down the mountain." Once again, perseverance and determination win the day.
I'm not saying we should give up on these qualities -- not at all. Without persistence, dedication, sacrifice, and courage, many important achievements would not have occurred. Many of the accomplishments of the American Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement came about because courageous people persisted in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. The same can be said about people like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Mahatma Gandhi.
I am suggesting that because many of us have had a consistent message about the importance of persisting since early childhood, we find it hard to consider other possibilities. And, when we do leave a job, give up on an important project, or let go of a significant relationship we often feel like a failure. We don't experience it as a movement toward success.
Sometimes You Can't Bake the Bread
The truth of the matter is that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can't "bake the bread." The story of the Little Red Hen suggests an independent spirit and a get-things-done attitude are the essentials for success, but sometimes there is no wheat to bake. And, unlike The Little Engine that Could, there are times when you can't. You can't bring back a loved one. You can't resurrect a marriage. You can't save the business from bankruptcy. There are times and circumstances beyond our control. To keep trying, holding on, refusing to give up, creates more problems than it solves. Of course, we don't often tell those stories to our children, but we do experience them in real life. One might ask, what would the Little Red Hen have done had she not been able to bake bread? Might she have considered corn fritters or oatmeal muffins? There are other possibilities, but you don't see them when you doggedly pursue only one goal.
Opening up to Options
There's one more thing about the Little Red Hen we might want to consider. Why does she continue to hang out with these questionable "friends?" She continually asks for their assistance, giving them every opportunity to be part of her venture, and they continue to turn her down--rather rudely in fact.
Doesn't it make you wonder about her choice of companions? Why does she persist in returning to people who show her so little respect? Perhaps she doesn't have to quit on her bread-baking project, but she might reconsider who she is asking to help. The lamb, cat and pig haven't proven useful, but what about the dog, cow and goat? Surely there are more than three animals on the farm. But, of course, when we get stuck in a particular perspective, we often find it difficult to envision other options.
I'm thinking about writing a different ending to the Little Red Hen story. The old story says, "'So I'll do it myself.' And so she did."'
The new story reads, "'So I'll ask someone else to help.' When she found some new friends, they did."'
Rewriting old scripts,
Dr. Jennifer Baker