The 5-Year-Old Cowherd

The 5-Year-Old Cowherd

We hosted Nishmat’s Ethiopian program for Friday-night dinner this week. After the meat and rice, we did a round of names, and one of the young women, who seemed unusually mature and poised for a 20-year-old, introduced herself as Tadla. Like all the students, she told us what her name means and a bit about her life story– about her childhood in Ethiopia and her family’s aliya to Israel.

This is the incredible story Tadla shared with us:

“My name is Tadla. That means ‘I am blessed,’ because my mother felt especially blessed to give birth to another daughter, since daughters have a closer connection with their mothers than sons do.

“In Ethiopia, we lived in a remote village, my parents had never even been on a bus or on a boat until we traveled to the big city when I was 6 to prepare to make aliya the following year.

“When I was 5 years old, I was the cowherd for our cows, about 10 to 15 of them. We had two fields, one next to our house, and a corn field about an hour from our home. So from sunrise until the evening I would walk around from field to field with our herd. The cows became my friends!

“We lived in a very safe area, there was nothing to worry about. And I loved it. I think it’s good to give children responsibilities, it makes them more mature, more independent.”

Hearing Tadla’s story, I was shocked. Growing up, as was the norm among my classmates, I never had any chores or other responsibilities in the home so I could focus on schoolwork and after-school activities and whatever else struck my fancy.

Where I live now, in a religious community in Israel, the norm is that children do have certain responsibilities in the home–babysitting, cleaning up, folding laundry, picking up a younger sibling from daycare, etc.

But still, in my life, I feel pulled between my new normal and my old one.

On the one hand, I would love if my kids, because they help out in the home, will not be completely clueless and overwhelmed when they have homes and children of their own, IY”H, like I was.

On the other hand, I want them to enjoy childhood. I don’t want to overburden them.

So I decided to ask the expert…

After the meal, I went up to Tadla and I asked her, “So, tell me, when you have children of your own, G-d willing, when your daughter is 5, would you want her to be a cowherd like you were?”

She got a thoughtful look on her face, and then she answered, “I think it’s good to give children responsibility. It was good for me. And I think it’s important. But I would also like my child to have time to herself, to enjoy, to be a child.

“I think the key is finding balance.”


  1. Wow. So insightful. I have been struggling with the question of how to teach my children responsibility and how to be contributors. Here in the United States I think it almost feels as though you have to make up things for your children to do, so they can be responsible. It seems like you have to work to find things they can be helpful with because so many of the things in our life are automated or taken care of by services because we spent so much time working.
    I long for each member of the family to have a sense of being an invaluable contributor to our family’s well-being and life. With only young children, I find this difficult to do… and yet I see how children in other cultures or in other times did amazing things and were capable of so much.
    Sometimes I think the discontent of our youth in this country is fostered by the fact that our children feel they’re wasting their time, because they are not doing anything worthwhile all day, just “playing”.
    Thank you for the reminder, that it is an important goal to work for 🙂

    • I really appreciate this comment…thank you

    • Hadassah Aber

      I am in total agreement. Self esteem grows from being able to accomplish things that are meaningful. Children still had fun once their chores were done. I create jobs for my students to do in class and it makes them feel needed and important.

  2. Chagit Zelcer

    In the more ‘primitive'(not Western) cultures, the child being responsible is a given. That is the way they belong in their society/family. Childhood is perceived as a preparatory stage to being a responsible adult, so it is only natural that children have chores and responsibilities. Neither the parent nor the child sees it as a burden, rather a privilege. Self-esteem is the result of the natural cooperation with the family. On the other hand in Western culture which sees childhood as “fun time” before “real life” sets in chores are something negative that deprive the child from ‘being a child’. Unfortunately, the results speak for themselves. When the parent believes/trusts that child can and should handle responsibilities, challenges and even failure, then the child can develop self-esteem.
    To our sorrow, the hardest culture shock to the Ethiopian Olim was re the place of the children and parents in the Western society as opposed to their culture. I have heard many such stories. We truly have what to learn from them. Thank you Chana Jenny for this beautiful example.

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