The other day I was making dinner when my five year old chimes in, “Can I help?” She does this a lot.
I had a million things loaded up in my metal queue to get through so I answered, “No I’m sorry I need to finish this fast and a knife isn’t safe for you to use. Would you like to go play with your puzzles or maybe color with your markers?”
My five year old just sighed and she did go off to play with her puzzles and nothing came of it. Dinner was served on time and there were no tantrums. That’s a win, right? She is used to hearing that she cannot help in the kitchen because she is always, constantly, non stop asking to help. I cannot say yes to everything. Sometimes the requests are reasonable, like stirring my coffee or pouring the flour into the mixing bowl. Other requests are a hard pass, like cutting up the chicken or really anything involving the kitchen knives.
Then one morning while I was in the kitchen she said, “You’re not going to let me help, are you?” I wasn’t even fully aware of what she was talking about–It was 6:15 in the morning. But this was different from all the other requests, she was defeated before she had even checked in.
Sometime after the coffee had kicked in I realized how important it is for her to be helpful, while I had done a terrible job of finding tasks that she can help with–parenting is hard. One minute you’re crushing it at staying on top of the laundry and doing your meal prep, and the next you realize you’ve kept your five year old out the whole process.
It’s lonely to be a kid during a pandemic and being helpful is an opportunity to connect with the person you’re helping. Our kids are craving connection. That’s when I decided I needed to get my five year old more involved with the tasks she so desperately wanted to help with.
So that evening for dinner I just put it out there, “Hey I need your help in the kitchen.” She perked up really fast and came in, “What do I get to do?”
I handed her a peeler and my nervous mom brain tried really hard to assess if this was a good tool for her to use. On the one hand, she could very possibly slip up and cut her finger. On the other hand, it’s not as though it’s an open blade like a knife. Also I am responsible for teaching her how to use tools like this. There has to be some kind of middle ground we can work in. So I showed her how a peeler works.
I showed her where the sharp parts are, I taught her how to hold the handle and the carrot. I explained that you peel away from your body and peel the carrot pieces into the sink. I cautioned her one last time about how a peeler is sharp and she needs to be careful. Then I said to her, “You can handle this, you’re five” And she wore that statement with pride.
She was tasked with peeling three carrots and she worked methodically. She is a typical type A oldest child. She had a system in that five year old brain of hers and in the end she did what she was told and we had roasted carrots for dinner that night.
Now, I’m not going to lie to you. The carrots were not peeled how I would have peeled them. She got carried away peeling on one side of the carrot and they ended up lopsided, but I’ll take it. Not bad for a first timer.
The kitchen was also a mess. There were carrot peels everywhere. I did put my five year old in charge of picking the peels up off the floor, the chair, and the countertop and tossing them into the sink. If she’s old enough to use a peeler she’s old enough to clean up the mess she made.
Then somehow the ability to use a peeler became the bar by which all other tasks were measured:
“Sweetheart, you’re five. And I know you can use a peeler. Go pick up all the dirty clothes off the floor and put them in the bin.”
“You can put the car seat straps on by yourself. Try to buckle it too. You’re five and this isn’t harder than using a peeler.”
“Will you sweep the floor? It’s not as hard as using a peeler, so I know you can do it.”
I have no idea what it was about this peeler thing but it gave my five year old a kind of power that she latched onto. She has become the resident expert in peeling tasks. We need to regularly keep carrots on hand for her to peel because it’s her favorite kitchen task. It also means she eats the carrots she helped make.
There is a very real chance we will be eating carrots nightly in our household until the end of time, but I can work with that.
The truth of the matter is that kids need an opportunity to help. I know tasks take longer when kids are involved. I know it means the task won’t be completed as well if you had just done it yourself. But, we are the first people who trust them with difficult tasks. Some day, when they are bigger and need to handle their tasks on their own, they will see themselves as capable as we have trusted them to be. Someday my little girl will have to use a kitchen knife all on her own–and I will be the one responsible for teaching her how to use it. So start small. Start with a peeler. They can handle it.