"Let the Children Chop":

And Other Stories of Raising Self-Sufficient Children



I recently taught a camp called “Farm To Table Camp” for school-age children where we created family recipes. We worked in groups of five, taking turns playing the different roles in a kitchen. We had a Head Chef, a Sous Chef, and a Chef de Partie. All these roles included chopping, grating, sautéing, measuring, making sauces, reading recipes aloud, stirring, and assembly. We then had a whole set of tasks that included cleaning countertops, washing dishes, and sweeping the floor. It was really awesome seeing young people all getting the chance to do every single job in the kitchen. They did not leave it sparkling, they ran the water longer then I would have liked, the floors still had food after the sweeping, and the counter tops typically needed one more wipe before they were through but the point is, they did all of it. At the end of camp, with a little guidance I could see them all cooking dinner by themselves for their families and cleaning up afterward!

After leading this camp, I realized where I had given up on my child’s ability to see a task 100% through. We have been cooking together since she was three, but all the cleaning, except for spills, was done by me. When we baked, she would mix and measure all the ingredients happily, let it bake and decorate afterward, but after the beaters were licked clean, all the cake pans, spatulas and spoons were mine to wash. The cleaning of the floor and counters afterward was the task I set myself. In my camp, the children started to build a personal rhythm in their lives that incorporates all the steps of keeping a working kitchen.

When you become a mother, you are told so many things about the best ways to keep your children safe. In the beginning, it is all about survival instinct. How to feed them, keep them above water, and just keep your sanity as you navigate the world with this tiny and very needy new being in your life. As they get older you slowly learn not only what you need to protect them from and watch out for, but also how to let go a little and watch as they figure out how to navigate the world. In this letting-go stage I see a gray area in parenting. It is hard to say when your child will be ready to potty train, when they will be ready to climb a ladder to a tree house, and when they will be able to feed themselves without choking. Developmentally, humans all seem to be different in these milestones. Experts seem to have all kinds of ideas about what to introduce and when, but in my experience it is through careful examination of each individual child that you can tell when to try something new. 

In comes the desire to control. It is scary the first time your child climbs up a flight of stairs by themselves. Climbing down, forget about it, standing nearby and patiently waiting for them to figure it out is what I have tried to do, but the desire to hover is strong. I remember the first time my oldest daughter carefully climbed down the steps. She was 9 months old and we were visiting her grandparents. My heart skipped multiple beats as I watched her swing her little body down the staircase, making her way in her new clumsy movements to the bottom floor. In my head, I saw many crash landings, her head hitting the floor with a thud, even dashing to the emergency room, my worst fear.  I had to take a deep breath in and out and just watch as she found her freedom of movement with me close by her side. 

We have carried this ritual of me just being there, by her side, as she navigates the world into her older childhood. This seems to be the best form of parenting I can give her, watching her make mistakes, try new things, feel frustration and feel confident as she makes her way in this world. Modeling how to do things like chop vegetables and make them accessible through answering all the myriad of questions she throws my way as she tries to move the plastic blade with a cucumber across the cutting board. 

Of course, this is all on my good days. I definitely feel the pull to rush her through things, not wait around and just do the chores for her or, instead of answering all of her "why" questions, tell her it is just the way it is and leave it at that. Now, especially with the birth of her younger sister, the time to answer the questions and give double the attention to both children some days feels like too much. In the end, I know I am just trying to keep open the lines of communication that will lead to her and her sister being able to tell me anything. I want them to share their lives with me and all the struggles they will go through as they grow up in this world. I see this patient, caring, wisdom-filled mama job as essential in building a healthy, trusting relationship into their teens.

The biggest thing I have to learn about this is best stated in the old adage: “It is ok for the process to be messy!” I would not consider myself a control freak, but letting go of how things are done in my house and making room for imperfect help is a big step. Children do not clean the way I clean things, I see dirt where they don’t, I want things straight when they could seem to care less, this is when its easy for me to throw in the towel and do it all myself, exacting to my standards and desired accuracy. Songs seem to help us all remember to be light about tidying and realize it is a process. My latest little tune I sing is, “If you take it out, then you put it away.” We sing this one daily. 

When we let children be a part of all the tasks in a home, then we get better at sharing the load, we remember how good it feels to get help, even help that comes with little finger prints and slap-dash dish washing. When we model and teach how to help run a household, children get the opportunity to take pride in their work and feel confident in all matters of growing up. A child that can cook can take on most anything in the adult world!

Stay up to date on more cooking camps and classes at www.underthecanopy.org or www.facebook.com/underthecanopynature

Some tools that help make learning to cook a little easier:

  1. Plastic knives: You can buy a set of sturdy plastic chopping knives for not much money that will make your little person feel confident about chopping and not getting cut. They will progress to sharp knives but starting with plastic seems to help build the confidence. You can order some here on Amazon.
  2. Take time to make a recipe: Don’t rush it the first time, let them do the parts they feel most comfortable doing, then slowly work in a step they are less comfortable with. For some this might be cracking an egg, for others it might be putting a cookie sheet in the oven, and for some it might just be trying to read a recipe and understand the different measurements.
  3. Delegate: Pick one part of the cleaning up process they can do, then two parts the next time you work in the kitchen together. If you are working with more then one child, assign different roles to different children and switch it up each time so all children get to have the experience.
  4. Guidance: Gently guide by their side; the point is not to have a sparkly kitchen in the end, it is to model that in a family we all take care of our home. Remember to give them confidence in being the kind of people who know how to cook a meal! 

Margaritte Arthrell-Knezek is a naturalist, writer and community educator committed to teaching the skills of sustainability and instructing children and adults on how to connect with the natural world that surrounds them daily. Arthrell-Knezek hails from New Haven, Connecticut where she began her work in the arts and environmental activism in 1997. She graduated from The Evergreen State College In Olympia WA, 2010, with a bachelor’s degree in multi-media art and sustainability studies. She has traveled the world and landed in Tulsa, OK where she is the Executive Director and Lead Educator of Under The Canopy LLC. She is a parent to two awesome children and wife to Mykey Arthrell-Knezek. You can learn more about the programs she teaches at www.underthecanopy.org She also keeps a personal blog about parenting in all its real and messy forms www.adventuresofmulletmom@blogspot.com