If You Can’t Stand the Heat . . . Don’t Let the Kids in the Kitchen


My belief in kids cooking dates back to our Montessori days with our first two sons.  Maria Montessori believed that one of the most important parental responsibilities is helping children establish independence.

At school, they made breakfast with the teacher.  This was Isaac’s favorite thing to do—so he got to be in charge of this every morning.  They set the table and cleared it when they were finished.  Then they washed it with little sponges and soapy water.  In fact, Montessori is unsettlingly similar to child labor. Our first week, Pat and I looked at each other and said, “We’re paying these people $600 a month to have our kid clean their windows?”

It did teach them independence, though.  We’ve undone a lot of the great things they learned there, but some things have stuck.  The kids still get themselves ready every morning (but they are slow about it and I’ve taken to nagging).  They do chores around the house, and even our 2-year-old puts away his own laundry.  Most importantly, Isaac still loves to cook.

He’s been baking with me for at least a year and recently we’ve started using the stove.  Most of my parenting decrees are made in the morning when my kids bother me before I’ve had my second cup of coffee.  This time it was Ikey bugging me for oatmeal.  “That’s enough!” I yelled.  Get in the kitchen.”  He’s been making his own oatmeal ever since.

Last week, after reading a Canadian study that found kids who cook have better eating habits, I knew I had to get my oldest in on the action, too.  Lute barbecues with his dad and often makes himself lunch.  He just learned to make tomato soup.  I was excited and thought it was time to move on to something more advanced.  Since I had to hard boil eggs, I thought I’d teach him how to do it.  He did great filling the pot, adding the eggs and turning on the stove.  We waited for the eggs to boil, turned off the stove, put on the lid and set the kitchen timer for 20 minutes.

We were using a new “green pan” I’d gotten at Target.  The handle on the lid could get very hot, so I told Lute that I’d have to take it off for him.  Well, apparently the lid isn’t the only thing that gets hot.  Do you see where I’m going with this?  When the timer went off, I took off the lid and asked him to carefully move the pan to the sink.  He grabbed the handle too close to the pot and burned his finger.

He was crying and I felt like the most negligent mother in the world.  What on earth was I thinking? He could have spilled hot water all over himself.  I’ve never let Isaac carry hot pots and pans, and he’s a more experienced cook.

Now before you go running off and calling child protective services, let me tell you he wasn’t badly burned.  It’s still a little red—but just enough to remind me of my deficient parenting.

He was back in the kitchen today.  I asked him how his burn was and he said, “What burn?”  Does that mean maybe I’m not the worst mother in the whole world?

I got quite a few burns learning to cook.  It’s like riding a bike—you’re going to get hurt.  Just like teaching your kid to ride a bike, though, you need to make sure he’s ready.  He needs to start with training wheels and a child size bike.  Most importantly he needs good safety equipment.

Pat taught the older boys to ride bikes.  I was too chicken.  I just waited at home with the iodine and bandages.  One day, they came home and Lute looked like he’d had his ass kicked.  Pat let him go down a steep hill that he was nowhere near ready to try.  I cleaned him up and he cried a little, but within an hour, he was assessing his scars.  “These are going to be cool,” he said.

Pat’s gotten more cautious since then.  He even remembers the sunscreen before they go to the pool.  (But then he lets them go down the slide by themselves.  Gulp.)

I’m supposed to be the sane, protective one, but I don’t want to give up trying to help them be independent.  I sort of over-shot the mark yesterday, though.  Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development says that you need to find that place between what a kid can do himself and what he can do with help.  For Lute, that’s probably something that doesn’t require carrying a pan full of hot water.

Parenting is dangerous business.  When you’re not smothering your kid with your helicopter parenting, you’re neglecting them and they get hurt.  You just have to keep trying to hit the middle ground.  You probably won’t hit it very often, but after a few kids, you’ll at least feel confident telling other people how to do it.



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