“[A Pirahã child] was playing with a sharp kitchen knife, about nine inches in length. He was swinging the knife blade around him, often coming close to his eyes, his chest, his arm and other body parts, when he dropped the knife, his mother—talking to someone else—reached backward nonchalantly without interrupting her conversation, picked up the knife and handed it back to the toddler/” (Everett, 2008, p. 89)
Anthropologists and ethnographers have long studied parent-child interactions and behaviors in cultures, comparing and contrasting goals, teaching and learning styles and variations in communication styles. Clearly, as the shocking vignette above indicates, there are significant differences in what might be considered to be normative behavior from one culture to another.
In Western culture today, it seems we have moved to the opposite end of the spectrum from the example above. At times we may even act as though our children are growing up in a bubble wrapped environment devoid of risk and any hint of danger. Are our children missing out on important learning opportunities? Is there something to be learned from the cultures that value self-exploration and allowing children to play with and use real tools?
For some reason, there are certain aspects of life that we have categorized as unsafe and therefore off limits to children. Day to day food preparation and developing autonomy in the kitchen seem to be one of those areas. Perhaps it is time to step back and think about and question why it is that we do so much for our children in the kitchen. Is it because we want to keep them safe? Do we fear that kitchen tools and gadgets can be misused and harmful? Are we overly wary of bacteria such as salmonella and e-coli? Are we avoiding messes and operating under time constraints that make it difficult for us to release control?
I admit that I am guilty of all the above. Allowing my children to pour their own milk is risky, I tell myself. What if they drop the whole gallon and milk spills all over the floor? What if the bowl is not steady and tips over? What a mess that will make, and who has the time to clean that up?
But working with a knife is dangerous! My child doesn’t know how to use a knife! What if he cuts himself?Cracking eggs? When was the last time I even cracked an egg?! And if I let her, the shellswould get in the bowl and we’d have egg whites all over the counter…. Not to mention the risk of salmonella! My kid is constantly putting her fingers in her mouth – I don’t want her to get sick!
Parental reasoning such as this is likely common and completely understandable. However, what is the worst that could happen? There might be a mess, but it can be cleaned. It may take more time, but that can be built into the schedule. Knives may be dangerous, but seriously, most people would be hard pressed to draw blood with a cut from the average kitchen butter knife.
Giving our children more autonomy during mealtimes and food preparation may not be as hard as it sounds. Consider the following tips:
Stop and think. Ask yourself this question: “Why am I doing this for my child? Could there be a way for my child to do this for himself.”
Listen. When your child asks to try something “By myself!” consider allowing it.
Allow for trial and error. Allow your child to try something on his own. Perhaps you might be surprised at how much he is already capable of – after all, he has been observing and learning from you for a long time already!
Talk and plan. Narrate your actions to your child as you prepare food. “I am pouring the milk onto your cereal. First I make sure that the bowl is flat on the table. Is it flat now? What if I set the bowl on this spoon? Now is it flat? No – you’re right. I need to put the spoon over here to the side. Now I hold on tight to the handle like this and gently pour. See?
Teach and practice. As a first step, ask your child to help. Repeat the steps involved and guide your child through each step. Encourage your child with words that acknowledge the level of difficulty and assurance that spills and mistakes can be cleaned up.
Involve your child in clean up activities without expecting 100% perfection. Perhaps some crumbs will be left behind, but rest assured that skills will improve with practice.
Allow your child to practice with real tools but exercise prudence. A three year old can use a butter knife, but please don’t give her the butcher knife as a first tool!
Organize a section of your kitchen with your child in mind. Consider providing a shelf or drawer that your child can reach and stock it with dishes and tools that are appropriate for your child to use independently. Allow and encourage your child to help herself to food and drink at appropriate times. Stock a shelf in the pantry with healthy snack and breakfast options (Bonus: you may even be able to sleep in a little longer on weekend mornings!).
Turn your back and walk away. Sometimes children need the opportunity to figure things out for themselves and to make mistakes. Too often, when I am present and observing my children in action, I tend to micromanage. If I let my children try on their own without interfering, they often surprise themselves and me!
Adjust expectations according to age, experience and your family needs and routines. Remember that children grow and change and so do their competencies.
What are some of the ways you encourage your children to participate in food preparation and mealtimes? What tricks have you found that make child participation easier and more likely to happen?
This article was originally published on the Nurturance blog as Playing With Knives: Fostering Autonomy in the Kitchen.
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Everett, D. L. (2008). Don’t sleep there are snakes: Life and language in the Amazonian Jungle. New York: Pantheon Books.