Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Kids Cook

Imagine if you will, a paradise wherein you limp through the front door after a long day at work, and your child has prepared dinner for you.

Most of us are a long way from that ideal, but I see glimpses of this paradise when I visit other homes. It might look like a high school senior who is browning ground beef to get dinner going when I stop by to drop something off for her mom, or a 9th grader making Chinese scallion pancakes for the family breakfast when I’m there as a guest.  It’s starting to happen at our house where one kid can make waffles just about start to finish, and another has become the king of Jeb Bush’s secret guacamole recipe.  Cooking is one of those tasks that when only one family member does it, it risks becoming a burden or something taken for granted, but when many participate, it becomes a gift. So how can you start this process with children?

Start with family favorites. Think about what your child most loves to eat, and start there. For most kids, this is treats, and baking is pretty simple with minimal chopping or guessing how much to add of something. Plus, the ingredients aren’t “gross” (sorry, raw chicken, but every cook finds you disgusting at first). Move on from baking to a favorite family breakfast, snack, or traditional food. Watch for readiness to learn.

Allow two to five times the time. Don’t underestimate the power of culinary experience. Even an older teen or young adult is just not going to have the knife skills or coordination that a primary family chef has developed in twenty years of cooking. They’re going to have lots of questions that they need answered, more than once, to get a recipe down. Teach kids to cook on the weekend or whenever you have more time.

Make your kid your sous chef. Just having your kid in the kitchen is great. They’ll learn from you just by being there and it makes cooking less boring for you.

Use recipes with photos to branch out. Kids can’t tell from reading a recipe if it will be good or not and benefit from photo instructions. The FamilyFun Cookbook is a good one for kids. Many online food blogs also have sequential instructions with photos.

Host a kids’ recipe swap. Try having a couple kids (and parents if kids are younger) bring copies of a family favorite recipe to swap, and make them for each other. Use these recipes to help your kid start a personal recipe file of things they know how to make. I still have “World’s Best Cornbread” from my childhood friend!

Overall, it’s wonderful for children to have the chance to be the givers, not just the receivers of the gift of cooking. Cooking is an adult skill that kids can feel empowered about mastering, and someday, hopefully sooner than later, you can sit down to a meal your kid cooked for you.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Marks of Children

Pinterest has ideas about the exact ways in which you should let your kids make their mark on your house. They are to draw on the walls within their tastefully framed whiteboard. Their artwork is to be suspended from custom display rods using clothespins that match the room’s color scheme. Their height is to be measured using a hand-crafted wooden sign affixed to the side of a door frame.

Now understand me, I am in no way saying those things are not cool. Primarily I do not have the artistic talent to do those things. But I also think they miss some of the inherent charm of kid-driven marks on the house.

I still remember many of the marks we made as children. Those are some of my strongest memories of our childhood houses. The pencil-marked heights written next to the kitchen door jamb with the name and year for each child. My not-to-be-outed-here sibling’s scrawl of his/her name in permanent marker on my parents’ 1970s-era basement bar (used only as a puppet theater). The large assortment of holes in the drywall of my cousins’ narrow staircase, each with its own story of when Duane fell down the stairs, or when Ellen stuck her foot through the staircase ceiling because we were playing in the crawlspace above it, and the rest of us scrambled out onto the staircase to stare up at her sneaker and sock protruding, and how she refused to pull it back up because it might “make it worse.”

Now in the current generation, I see the marks my own children and their friends have made on this home. We also had a fall-down-the-stairs drywall incident. (Like my aunt and uncle, we did repair that one).  During the one short year I did daycare for a friend, a not-to-be-outed kid wrote his name on the wall of the kitchen, the bedrooms, the wall behind a couch -- eight different places, so far. But my favorite has to be the sticky eyeball. Yes, it got tossed up into the ceiling of the stairwell, the one place in the house that’s about 16 feet high, and there it remains, stuck to the wall over the years, slowly shrinking as the passage of time evaporates its gooey gelatinous mass.

Could I have taken it down? Well, maybe. But I’m used to it now, just like I'm used to how when I finally move a piece of furniture away from the wall to vacuum, I see that kid’s name written again. The sticky eyeball represents youth and craziness and children. Just like the eyeball, all those things are receding now. The eyeball reminds me that time with kids is short.  Someday, that eyeball is going to completely evaporate or fall off the wall. I will see it fallen onto on the kid-stained carpet of my stairs and feel wistful as I pick it up. Maybe then it’ll finally feel right to repaint and remove some of the marks of children from the house.  Till then, though, I kind of like them --Pinterest-worthy or not. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Curated Child

It’s college admissions season, and as we know, I love teenagers, so these fabulous teen-aged humans have been on my mind a lot. One of my “service hobbies” is interviewing kids for my beloved alma mater so that more kids can get a personal interview without having to travel across the country. I really enjoy doing this. It is really great to hear what these emerging adults are passionate about: what they already love, what they want to explore, the wisdom they’ve already gained, their zest for learning and living and loving others.  Pretty often they’re nervous, sometimes they’re into things that I know nothing about (“filk” music? embedded electronics? Japanese?), but usually I can get them going on something and see what makes that kid light up inside. 

Except when I can’t.

I’ve met chess champions who could not tell me one single thing they like about the game of chess, accomplished musicians with no favorite composer, pre-med candidates with no idea what attracts them to medicine, volunteers who can’t express why they chose that opportunity, potential scientists without any discovery they are intrigued about. These teens are sometimes incredibly accomplished and must have been working 80 hours a week at least to do all that stuff, yet they’re emotionally disconnected from all of it. It feels like a perfectly good human being has been molded into an achievement bot, presented as a highly curated display with all the elements a college supposedly wants. They don’t even have time to think about what they actually like. 

Ask any local high school student: they all nod right away and say they know kids like this. Whether it comes from the parents, from the kids themselves, or the pressure-cooker of a high-powered suburban high school, the Curated Child is a real phenomenon.  And it’s sad. I just read a biography of a transformational 19th century scientist who actually did know what he was born to do from a young age, but didn’t get to do his life’s work until his parents actually died! The ultimate irony? Curating your child kills the very curiosity, love of learning, authenticity, and personal initiative that colleges are looking for. The march of the achievement-bots doesn’t even work half the time, and it’s awful for the hearts, souls and minds of teens.

How do we as parents remove our teens from the Curation Station? The first step is explicitly putting power into their hands: What do you love? What have you always wanted to do? What would you like to try next?  A second step is culling: helping our kids figure out what they should stop doing to allow new things to grow.  A final step is making sure teens have time to just explore, read, and talk about things that have no purpose other than because they’re interesting and cool.  There is nothing more beautiful than a teen on fire for something, and that fuel only comes from within. Help your teen find that enthusiasm over and over, and you will have given her or him the secret to a happy and productive life.