Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Test Kitchen: Young Children Learning Responsibility

The other night my three year old asked me when she would be able to make dinner all by herself. She followed that up with, "When I'm a mama, I'm going to make dinner for all my childrens!" She says that rather frequently. Sometimes I think that means that she doesn't like the way I do things and want to do it her own way--at least, that's what older children mean when they say that...

I feel quite strongly about the value of family work and that it is at home that children learn to work. At first it is through the example of seeing their parents work hard to maintain and care for the home and all the people in it, but from a young age, children can be involved in household care. Being a part of clean-up from early toddlerhood is one of the most obvious ways that children become involved in work, but, as my children have shown me, the kitchen is also a very excellent place to extend that learning.

In my early childhood education training, recipe boards were really common to provide opportunities for language arts, fine motor and math skills to develop. I'll be honest, I don't do that much at home, though perhaps I should...

With all those thoughts swirling around my head, I realized that a plan is starting to take shape. We're 5 years into this parenting thing and I've figured out some practices that have worked for our family in teaching my children the necessity of contributing to the overall needs of the household. It feels good to feel like I got something figured out. But now my thoughts turn towards the future, where do we go from here.

Below is an outline of what has worked with my children thus far, listed by ages when certain tasks are likely to be developmentally appropriate (with typically developing children):

0-2 years: babywearing from newborn to young toddler, then parallel play with utensils and kitchen materials while parent is cooking, transitioning to helping with simple tasks like dumping, shaking, retrieving ingredients.
2 years: put plates on table
3 years: fully set table with plates, silverware and cups, clear off table
3 years: take turns helping in the kitchen with dinner preparation (2-3 nights a week per child where the focus is on helping them learn and practice tasks)
3 years: help load dinner washer (minimally)
4+ years: increasing opportunities in more complex tasks
5 years: stationed at sink to rinse dishes before handing them off to be placed in the dishwasher

Now the next milestones I look forward to discovering is at what age is a young child capable to fully preparing a simple meal for the whole family and when can a child load a dishwasher without supervision? And what could possibly be the most simple meal for a child to learn to prepare?

The first meal I ever remember preparing (and being taught) was Scrambled eggs. Easy enough to break some eggs, mix them up, pour them into a hot pan and scramble. Next I got adventurous and put in salsa and some spices to make Southwest scrambled eggs. If I remember correctly, I was 8 or 9 and my parents didn't put much effort into teaching my cooking until that time. Both my older children show me that they really enjoy being in the kitchen and being a part of food preparation. So it makes me wonder, will they learn simple recipes before 8 or 9 years old?

Then there is the holy grail of parenting, when will they be able to take some of the work load off me? When will they be capable of significantly contributing in reducing the amount of housework the parents do?

I can't reliably look to my childhood because my parents did not place much emphasis on sharing household, particularly mealtime responsibility. Perhaps being an only child had something to do with it because I do find that somehow having more children makes sharing seem a lot more natural.

Currently, my oldest children take turns with setting the table and clearing it off. For one week, the same child sets the table each night while the other child clears it off and the next week it is switched. Both will readily admit that they look forward to the time when their baby sister can take over that job.

My son asked me what he'll get to do when baby sister is old enough to help and I told him that he'll get to move loading the dishwasher. I may try in a few months to get one child to do both setting and clearing off the table while the other helps with dishes.

I have also considered having a designated kitchen helper (dare we call them sous chef?) in the kitchen a couple of nights each week. This would be perfect with 3-4 kids over the age of 3 so my family is not quite there yet. However, I do enjoy when my 3 year old spontaneously joins me in the kitchen and we cook together. Give her a stool and a wooden spoon and she is very happy, especially if you let her do some dumping.

I find that one of the ways that my children feel loved is through connecting with our food and it starts in the garden. They truly enjoy the process of planning, growing, harvesting and cooking what we grow. I realize that I can love my children through these activities and cooking and baking is a natural extension of that. Shopping can be too. Costco in particular makes my life a little bit happier since my children are happy to come with me for the "zamples!" as my 3 year old says it. I enjoy that time talking with them about our meal plans and what we can make with the various ingredients we take from the shelves.

These are some of the reasons that the thought of sending my children to school does not appeal to me. They are learning some very valuable concepts through the shared experience of everyday life. Its not about exploiting their labor as much as it is connecting with one another, learning necessary life skills, and discussing academic and complex thoughts while using real-life applications.