"Sharp knives don't belong into children's hands", "That's not safe, let me do it", "A kitchen is no place for kids" - sounds familiar to you? Well, that's some stuff I had to cope with when growing up myself, and - bad enough that's still the mantra for many parents or adults working with kids nowadays.
I just recall some playgroup situations: the parents' response when their two-year-old picks up a plastic knife (yes, the good ones for butchering play dough) to murder a cucumber at snack time. Eyes wide open, panic mode, shrill voice: "Ah sweetie, Mummy will hold that dangerous knife for you, don't you think?". A millisecond later - the object of mass destruction is safe in Mummy's hand. All other parents exhale a sigh of relief.
Another example comes from the next-best playground of your choice. Little Joe tries to balance over the climbing frame. He concentrates hard enough and works his way up. Before he reaches the top little Joe hears his Dad shouting "Oh Buddy, that's quite high. Just watch out. Hold tight. No, not left, go right. Easy man. Not quite sure if that's a good idea". Smiles nervously. Dad that is. "Hang on. Let me guide you. Stop. Stop I said!" Joe loses his balance and falls off the climbing frame. "Told you to stop!"
Clever omniscient grown-ups have created a fluffy, pink, bullet-proof world of health-and-safety where we all wear safety goggles to watch the wind and face masks to breathe nature. Because..., just in case..., because we're rather safe than sorry..., because to make sure... because. Well, just take a moment and stop breathing - just to be safe!
What has gone wrong here? Have we lost the very basic connection and trust in our children? Or, was there ever a time when we trusted them? Hmm... Let's see. Just back in the 19th century children would have lots of responsibilities: cleaning, cooking, looking after their siblings, helping on the farm... and, yes, brutal hard labour in dark factories, ten or twelve hours a day... good that we left those times behind us (well, over here in the rich part of the world...). And, yes, many of those household chores were done by children because of living in large families or parents having to work twelve and more hours a day as well.
When World War II was over, still many children played important roles in helping their families with household chores. You could argue that this happened because out of necessity or desperation. Indeed, that's one reason. Another one was simply called trust.
Trust and a strong bond between parents and their children. Only from the 1950's onwards, something strangely has been happening in our society. Families started to spend less time together. The so-called classic family model, where dad leaves in the morning for his desk in an office while his wife stays home to look after house and kids, took over.
That quite artificial construction became a bit of a relationship killer. While in the past fathers and their sons, as an example, would often work and spent time together (on the field, in their business...), now children missed their father for most of the time under the week. Mums got busy in their brand new kitchen with all the latest inventions and gadgets. Kids? Go to school or your bedroom.
You see what else went on here? Skills. Not only relationships suffered, there's a whole generation of lost skills. Cooking, working with tools, fixing and mending - you name it. Fixing something, why? Buy it new, it's easier. Cooking? Get a ready meal. I still remember my parents' pride when they bought the latest of modern cooking inventions in the mid 1990's: a shiny, adorable, handsome, easy-to-use microwave! Plus 200 packs of ready-to-microwave food. Yuck! I can still sense the aftertaste. They probably spend two or three weekends in deciding which microwave to buy... I wished they had taken one afternoon to teach me the basics of cooking.
You know, I'm not the least surprised that today three-quarters of children in the UK have no idea how to boil an egg, or that 30% have never chopped veggies. I probably was 18 or so when I found out that kitchen knives have more purposes than just hanging on the magnetic knife holder. And another five or so years to get serious about cooking.
Starting to trust our children is the very foundation of a well-connected relationship. Children (and, indeed us adults too) learn by trying. They give it a go. They might fail, they might succeed. It doesn't matter, as long as we provide a bit of a safety net in the background so that they won't ever get seriously hurt. If they feel excited and stimulated, they will try again... and again.
My eldest, who is nearly 8 now, showed a great interest in preparing meals and cooking lunch and dinner. He's been watching my wife and me since babyhood. When he was about three, he used a sharp knife (not one you are able to cut your fingers off with, but one that's just sharp enough for cutting with - a bland one would be safest, sure, but equally useless and only frustrating) for cutting up an apple. Yes, he cut himself a few times, but that's how he learnt, and nothing happened apart from some quickly dried tears and a cool plaster on a tiny wound. With four he cooked himself porridge on the hob for the first time. Yes, his first cooking session was guided and supervised by me, but I didn't interfere. I just watched. Today his cooking repertoire includes pasta and tomato sauce, scrambled egg, various cakes and biscuits, and - hold your breath - sushi (ok, the sushi rolls can't compete with a sushi bar, but it's just a question of perspective and expectations. Expect a perfectly cooked and awesome looking meal? Do it yourself).
It's a great learning curve for us parents to lower expectations and to be more prepared for a giving-it-a-go mantra. And, yes, sometimes we get pushed out of our comfort zone as well. In our family it's a bit of a tradition to make pancakes for Sunday breakfast. Often - I admit my sins - they go with chocolate spread. This morning we had run out of the sweet treat and no-one seemed to be willing to go down to the local shop (2-minute walk) to get more. Only my nearly 5-year-old volunteered. I hesitated as I wasn't sure whether he would manage. I trusted him with finding his way to the shop and paying for the item, but I feared the road he would have to cross.
My wife's response was more clear. Yes, he'll be fine. And off he went. But, I threw over my invisible cloak and sneaked after him to watch his adventure. He didn't see me and I had a great time hiding behind bushes and trees. My main fear - the road - was quiet, he stopped, checked, checked again, and crossed. No problems. A woman stopped him (she was probably a little anxious... as me), but he carried on.
At the shop I peeped through the window (gosh, if someone had observed me they must have thought I'm a little... well, crazy) to make sure he's alright and the shopkeeper is not calling the police or social care. She didn't. With a great smile she scanned his jar and gave him receipt and change. I stood there - watching and with tears in my eyes. My little son, so great and independent. He skipped all the way home. Just fifty metres behind him, I - his dad, full of love, joy and trust. At home we both hugged for a long time. And, of course, we enjoyed our chocolate pancakes!
The confidence and self-esteem he gained from his independent venture was giving him a glowing buzz all day - he knows his parents trust his abilities.
Next time your little one is climbing up high on the climbing frame or tree, just position yourself, discreetly, so that if they fall, you could catch them, and just observe. Neither encouraging nor anxious, just observing and trusting (your facial expression and body language can communicate that, too!) that when they are able to climb something unassisted they'll know how to get down again by themselves. Soon enough, they have learnt to use their body well, trust themselves and know where their limits are.
Trust your children and you'll be amazed by what they are able to do by themselves and how their self-esteem grows each day!
Read further and enjoy my book 'The Empathic Father'
This article was originally posted on my blog dadstalkcommunity.org