A 'squawk interpreter'

My 9-year-old son, Peter, likes to hear the stories told by our chickens. Not stories about the chickens – he wants me to tell him exactly what the chickens are saying. It is the art of "squawk interpretation."

As a mom, I realized this art form could be humorous and fun for kids. It can also be a great way to deliver parenting messages.

I began cultivating the skill one afternoon when a chicken sat on her roost, cackling up a storm. The children asked what the hen was saying.

"Can't you hear it?" I said. "The hen is telling stories about you, Peter. She's telling the other hens, 'That boy just stole my eggs. And he's the same one who's been stealing eggs all week. I've been robbed, ladies. So listen up. He's an awful boy, stealing eggs from us chickens every day at the same time. Why do we put up with this? And look at those skinny legs he has. He's an odd-looking creature, he is.' "

The children laughed. Peter has learned not to mind being teased. He knows we think he's a good-looking boy – and the chickens have much skinnier legs than he has. He also realized that the chicken was pointing out that he was acting responsibly. In a backhanded way, I had congratulated him for following through with his chores.

Ever since, we have found it enjoyable to eavesdrop on animal "conversations."

Then, one day when one of our hens wandered into the neighbor's backyard, my daughter came running to get me. Two dogs had the hen trapped in a corner. The chicken was making a kind of whimpering sound. And the wildly barking dogs were arguing over which one got to feast on her first.

That's when I arrived. I yelled, "No!" to the dog I knew, and she backed away. But the other dog was a newcomer and continued to dance closer and closer to the wide-eyed hen. The dog was saying, "No fair. This is my catch."

I ran to the gate, opened it, and entered. I grabbed the chicken and threw her over the fence. But the hen – instead of being thrilled to escape from danger – huddled on the ground, still feeling afraid.

"We humans get that way sometimes," I told my daughter, as things calmed down. "The hen keeps telling herself, 'I'm in danger. I'm in danger,' even though she knows she is totally safe now."

I reminded my daughter of the time she had been afraid to perform in a play, although she had plenty of people supporting her.

When we took the chicken back to the henhouse, my daughter decided she had a special sense of connection to that particular chicken because of her own experience. She started to carry her around every day. "I'm giving her confidence to face whatever happens," she told me before she returned to whispering reassurances to the hen.

In my "squawk interpretation," I suspect the hen said, "This is the life!"

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