My husband and I realized something recently. We were tired after working together to get dinner on the table. I was busy prepping side dishes and retrieving things from the back door as he was grilling on the deck and handing finished items to me one by one. Finally seated to eat, my son Aidan asked if we could get him some more milk to drink. “You are a big boy, you can do it yourself,” we said, too worn out at that point to get up again.
As Aidan brought over the huge gallon of unopened milk, he paused and said, “But how do you pour it?”
We both realized that our 8 ½ year old had no idea to pour his own milk because….we had always done it for him! But how could this have happened? He likes to cook and bake with me, and helps set the table, and I’m always encouraging him to learn more kitchen skills. Then I had an epiphany. Yes, Aidan helps me cook and prepare food, but I usually hover over him and tell him it’s my turn when something gets difficult, and am at the ready with a paper towel when spills are imminent. What good is his occasional exposure in the kitchen if he knows I’ll always be there to help, to rescue with the hard stuff, and to clean up after him? What am I teaching him about his own ability to do things if I only let him do the easy stuff? In order for Aidan to truly learn, I had to become less of a control freak.
But how? Relinquishing control over my kitchen, my “domain” in the house was not easy, but I’ve learned to let go because I realize that Aidan is getting older and soon will not be a child any longer. I want him to have mastery over important life skills, but I also want him to feel confident and trusted. If my issues with letting my kid help cook sounds at all familiar to you, read on to see how I’ve learned to allow myself to let loose and for Aidan to have the learning environment he deserves:
Realize The Importance: Cooking and preparing food is not just for fun, it is an essential life skill that is invaluable for all walks of life. If one doesn't learn the fundamentals of food preparation at an early age, it is that much harder to incorporate later on. Think about the big picture. Children who learn to cook will be less likely to survive on constant processed food in college and will be better suited to provide themselves and their own future families with healthy, nourishing meals for years to come. Cooking helps children practice literacy and math skills, as well as fine motor skills and learning about nutrition, science, and cause and effect. Plus, children who help prepare food are more likely to try said foods and expand their palates.
Set Yourself Up for Success By Setting them Up For It: No, you don’t need to have fancy kitchen equipment to teach basic cooking skills, but having a few items that are just for the kids will thrill them and loosen you up if you know everyone has their own items to use. I dedicated one drawer in the kitchen just for Aidan’s tools. They are a mixture of kid-safe versions of regular kitchen item like knives, and smaller gadgets I was fine with passing onto him. Giving Aidan one of my old wooden spoons that was “just his” to use brought such a smile to his face. When you see how happy your children can become by being independent, it helps you relax about given them that autonomy.
Find the Right Time: It may not be easy to have kids help out in the kitchen when it’s a busy Wednesday night, or when you’re rushing to eat before soccer practice, so make sure to experiment with times that work best for everyone so that you don’t feel rushed, pressured, or impatient. Weekend mornings are a great time to invite children into the kitchen to help with easy breakfast recipes like pancakes or smoothies. When do you usually feel most relaxed? Perhaps kids can stir the sauce for Sunday dinner or you can let them stay up a little late one night to help make special brownies. There are plenty of times where you’ll need the kitchen to yourself, but find other times you can practice working on your own patience while your kids are learning to cook.
Walk Away Sometimes: Here’s the biggest take way I’ve learned while loosening my controlling ways in the kitchen: teach your child a task and then walk away as they do it! This helps you resist the urge to interfere and it also instills trust in your relationship. Obviously safety comes first, so do not practice this when knives or heat are involved with very young children, but you can let kids mix and stir, pour certain items, read a part of a recipe and follow it, or other easy steps all without you even in the room. If you don’t have anywhere else to go, pretend that you do. Trust me – it’s been a great strategy for both of us! We both learned a lot, such as that Aidan is better at cracking eggs than I am, something we would have never known until I stepped away. As children get older and your grip loosens, you can experiment with what else they can do without your input at all.
Let Them Fail: This is a tough one for me, but it’s absolutely essential that our children actually fail at things and move on from mistakes. Consider the kitchen a wonderful opportunity to practice this fact of life on a small scale. If they spill the milk, it’s OK! If they don’t spoon the cookie dough onto the tray the right way, the world will not end. If they lift the hand mixer out of the bowl while it’s still on – hey – now they know what happens when you do that AND they can help clean up the mess! Something that’s been a wonderful strategy for both Aidan and me has been our “no hands” challenge. I literally will keep my hands behind my back the entire time and Aidan has to prepare something age appropriate from start to finish by himself without my help at all. He felt so independent when he cooked his own scrambled eggs from scratch, even when he burned his hand a little by touching the wrong part of the skillet. As counterintuitive as it may sound to not want to help with stuff like that, this is truly how children learn, and how WE learn that they don’t need us for everything!
Finally, savor the moment. I still have years until my nest becomes empty, but I’m getting all too aware of the fact that my child is growing up. Every moment and every day we have with our children is, well…all that we have. I realized that I don’t want to spend that time with Aidan being too overprotective or self-interested, even when it comes to something as simple as having him help in the kitchen. I want him to have great memories of standing on his “helping chair” at the countertop with me, stirring concoctions together, licking the batter, and failing and succeeding together as a team. I want to enjoy the experience as much as he does, and that kind of joy can only come when a parent is patient and understanding and trusting. If you have ever struggled to find these traits while letting your kids help to cook, trust me that once you let go, your kids will appreciate being in the kitchen so much more. Good luck!