All Commentary
Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Little Red Hen Goes to Re-Education Camp

What if Hollywood made a movie about World War II that was accurate all the way up to the D-Day invasion, then suddenly had the Russians landing at Normandy instead of the Americans, the British, the Canadians, and the French? We might wonder if somebody’s personal agenda got in the way of the facts.

I recently ran across an annoying rewrite of a story, though I admit it’s much subtler than the above hypothetical.

Remember that old tale you heard in grade school called The Little Red Hen? I’ve never found an edition of it that noted who the author of the original version was, but for the past 60 years or so it’s been published without a byline by Little Golden Books as one of a series of children’s classics. Generations of American children grew up reading it, or having it read to them. Here’s the gist of it:

A little red hen (hereafter referred to as LRH) finds some grains of wheat and decides to plant them.

The setting is apparently a barnyard because LRH asks a goose, a duck, a cat, and a pig, “Who will help me plant the wheat?” Now, these other beasts seem friendly enough, but they’re not exactly entrepreneurial or hardworking. While LRH works her tail off, the lazy critters are seen throughout the book having a jolly time—fiddling, fishing, chasing butterflies, and otherwise accomplishing little. They all reply to LRH with the same words: “Not I!”

So she plants the wheat herself.

The wheat grows tall and the LRH again approaches the lazy louts with the question, “Who will help me reap the wheat?”

Again she hears the same refrain, “Not I!” from each of them. So LRH does all the harvesting by her lonesome self.

The stuff is ready to be ground into flour and LRH asks, “Who will help me carry the wheat to the mill?” The bums aren’t about to get involved now. “Not I!” is all that LRH hears.

So LRH carries it herself—to the mill as wheat and back home as flour.

“Who will help me bake the bread?” she now asks. You guessed it. “Not I!” four times again from the loafers.

The bread is now baked and sitting on the window sill to cool. Who will help me eat the bread?” LRH asks?

It turns out those four good-for-nothings are greedy as well. Now they all exclaim, “I will!”

The last line is from LRH, who says, “No, I will eat it myself.” And she did.

End of story. 

What’s the moral? Don’t expect a share of something you had nothing to do with. You’re not entitled to the fruit of someone else’s labor just because you breathe. Don’t complain that you’re unemployed if you turned down several job offers.

But the story I learned is now being offered in sanitized form so the ears of children aren’t subjected to such harsh and anachronistic moralizing. 

In Chicago, there’s a children’s literacy museum on wheels called StoryBus. It’s a 37-foot Winnebago that promotes reading to kindergarten and pre-K students. (It’s a great idea, by the way, and gets considerable private funding). Visit the StoryBus website and you can find a new version of the LRH story. Everything is pretty much the same as the original until the hen insists on eating the bread herself.

At that point, the other animals are shocked. “Oh me! Oh my! Oh me, oh my!” they shout. The next and final paragraph reads as follows:

“The next time the Little Red Hen found some grains of wheat, the lamb (maybe somebody ate the goose and the duck) planted it in the rich, brown soil, the cat watered it carefully every day, and the pig harvested the wheat when it had grown tall and strong. When the dough was baked, together the animals made hot chocolate and ate the fresh, warm bread. It was delicious! The animals lived happily ever after.”

Yes, friends, the capitalist barnyard became a happy commune blessed even with something the residents didn’t have before—hot chocolate! So we mustn’t be so judgmental about the animals who wouldn’t help the hen. 

Perhaps you’re thinking: “Reed, you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.” 

Maybe so, but I wonder how different the class discussion might be depending on which version the students hear. (I admit that for the sake of a little humor and emphasis, I described the goose, duck, cat, and pig with unflattering adjectives, but that’s the way we thought of them when I first heard the story.)

After the original tale, which ends abruptly with the hen enjoying all of her production herself and with no reasonable youngster likely to blame her for it, I can see the discussion centering on the sloth, the short-sightedness, and the self-indulgent entitlement mentality of the goose, duck, cat, and pig. But do you think that’s what happens when children peruse the sanitized version? 

Certainly it could have been worse. The story could end the way a lot of journalism majors hear it told in most universities these days. The hen could be charged with monopolistic practices, running a bakery without a license, and offering to employ others below the minimum wage. Or she could be attacked for her unmitigated greed, then taxed at Franklin Roosevelt’s top marginal rate of 90 percent to teach her a lesson about compassion. Or even more tragically, she could be shipped off to a re-education camp to stamp out her antisocial acquisitiveness.

Maybe my view of this tale is colored by my own experience. Anxious to do my part to make sure my little nephews didn’t grow up with their hands out and their heads in the sand, I used the original tale a quarter-century ago to teach them some strong lessons. We spent more time talking about what might have happened after the story than it took to read it. I remember telling my bug-eyed young relatives that the goose, the duck, the cat, and the pig ended up in pretty sad shape. The goose roamed the barnyards, scraping by with whatever it could steal, and died a pauper. The duck went on welfare and when Mr. Duck flew the coop because it would mean a bigger welfare check, she was stuck with all the ducklings. The cat got run over on the way to the unemployment office. And the pig kept eating everybody else’s food, blew up bigger and bigger, and was transformed into a beautiful slab of bacon. My nephews got the point.

With the new version, I couldn’t say anything like that. I’d have to say that the sluggards were all quick to see the errors of their ways and joined a cooperative.

We live in an age of political correctness. We’re not supposed to make the kind of judgments I did about those poor animals. Even “greed” these days is meant to describe the desire to keep what’s yours. Hiring a politician to take it and give it to you is public service for him and an entitlement for you. Maybe this is why we have a lot of serious character issues in the United States today.

I think the original Little Red Hen story was just fine the way it was. You might be tempted to quibble with me by reading all sorts of alternate interpretations into it. That’s fine too. Just remember, it’s a fairy tale, not a documentary. 

Or is it??

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Note: W. A. Paton, a frequent author in The Freeman and member of the FEE board of trustees, as well as a highly honored professor of accounting and economics at the University of Michigan, once authored this adaptation of the Little Red Hen story. (He died in 1991 at the age of 101).

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is