I think we trick our kids. We lure them with sweet flavors, bright colors, and creamy, soft textures to make them learn the hard skills life requires. At least, that was my impression after seeing the fun, elaborately-creative cake decorations on display at the Dane County Fair in Madison, WI. Children in 4-H clubs throughout the county competed for prize ribbons in cake decorating by artistically coating pieces of Styrofoam with colored frosting. The designs they painted on their simulated cakes, cookies, and cupcakes celebrate our life-changing moments and major holidays, -birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, Easter, 4th of July, Halloween, harvest time, Christmas, and even April Fool’s Day -that day we play tricks on each other and laugh.
Recalling my own efforts to make King Lingonberry and a spiced nose cake made me appreciate the skills these children exercised in creating their masterpieces. First, the children had to choose the occasion they wished to celebrate and then look inward to tap their unique creativity. They needed to imagine, in fine detail, each colorful image they wished to paint. Then they had to plan exactly how to re-produce that image in frosting. Construction of the imagined final product had to be translated backward into a step-by-step series of actions. The tools needed to be gathered, – the workplace organized.
Then, for most, the hard work began. Any ease in seeing something gave way to the challenge of making it. Eyes, brain, muscles, hands, -the whole body had to coordinate its movements to precisely layer the frosting. Mistakes inevitably happened. Frustrated emotions were curbed and problem-solving practiced. How could the mistake be fixed? If it couldn’t, then how could the design be changed to turn the blemish into an asset? Distractions occurred and had to be ignored, -attention continually redirected to the task, hour after hour. Each child gave a day of his or her life to creating the Styrofoam cakes on display at the fair.
Elsewhere in the Exhibition Center and outside in the fairground barns, children were practicing other life skills. They were grooming and showing the animals they had spent months raising. Some children showed their pet cats, rabbits, and guinea pigs. Others showed commercial livestock, -their beef and dairy cattle, pigs, sheep, lamas, goats, and poultry. The children were tested not only on the physical condition of their animals, but on their own skills in showmanship.
I watched the nervous intensity that the children focused on their animals,-readying them in the stalls, and showing them in the ring. This was serious business. Months of daily labor would be judged over the course of a few minutes.
I caught up with my friends, Kate and Sara Griswold. The girls belong to the 4-H Cross Plains Wondermakers and were showing the Yorkshire pigs, Twik, Reeses, Skittles, and Hershey. Their slogan was “Pork – It’s a sweet deal!” I watched as they brushed and spritzed the pigs, stood beside them in the holding pen, and guided them before veteran swine judge, Tammy Miller, agriculture professor at Beloit Junior College. Happy relief briefly replaced their anxious expressions when Kate won 2nd place for Twix, and Sara earned 3rd place for Reeses. But those ribbons were just for the pigs themselves. The showmanship contests were still to come. Later I watched Sara show her Swiss dairy cow, Angel. All Sara’s hard work training Angel to walk politely at her side paid off. Angel was an angel, and Sara took 1st red – 2nd place.
Meanwhile, Rocket, the black Angus steer raised by 9-year-old James Griswold, snoozed in his stall. Rocket had “grown like a rocket”. Gaining an average of 3.7 lbs per day, up to a final weight of 1,427 lbs, Rocket won 5th place yesterday.
But as adults have already learned, the exhilaration of success passes quickly. Soon the children will face the next challenge, – saying goodbye to their animals. The Griswold children devoted themselves to nurturing these animals so that in turn the animals could nourish us with meat and milk. The animals will continue on their pre-destined path, and the Griswold barn will stand mostly empty until new baby animals arrive next year. The cycle of birth, growth, and death repeats. Moments of joy are snatched as it spins.
I said goodbye to the Griswolds and took my own children to the carnival rides at the fair. I bought them tickets, led them to each ride’s entrance, and as they clambered into the mechanical contraptions, I’d call out, “Hang on tightly! Don’t let go!” Then I’d take my place at the rail and watch my children be lifted into the air, and spun around at dizzying speeds, again and again. The rides would swoop downward, as if to crash, then rise upward, sharply turning every which way. Around and around in circles, I watched my children fly. At each pass, I’d anxiously scrutinize their faces, – searching their expressions for signs of pleasure or fear. But my children are stoic. The more thrilling the ride, the more expressionless their countenance. Their minds were engaged. This was serious business. They were learning how to hold on when the ride gets scary.
Yes, we parents are crafty. We continually devise fun ways to teach our children the skills they’ll need for life. Keeping your seat on life’s wild ride, – moving in sync with its cycles, is serious, exhilarating and challenging work. We know it. And they’re learning it. That’s why, when they’re young, we give them animals to raise, Styrofoam to decorate, and take them to the fair.
.Here are more pictures of the fair and great food made in Wisconsin:
Receive $5.00 off any Wisconsinmade.com purchase by entering this offer code FBLOG708 with your order. Offer expires August 1, 2008.