independence vs. connection: won’t you please just get yourself your own snack already?

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Welcome to the November Carnival of Natural Parenting: Kids in the Kitchen

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared how kids get involved in cooking and feeding. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.
There are two opposite schools of thought when it comes to kids in the kitchen. First, there’s the safety-conscious parent. These parents might let kids help in the kitchen, but only with constant supervision. Kids with these parents cook in carefully prepared environments: the parent gathers the materials, clears the counter of any potential dangers, and sets up a supervised activity that the kid can do–usually something along the lines of pouring or stirring something.

The other school of thought is what I think of as the Montessori mindset, in which food and cooking utensils are made available to kids all the time from a young age. Kids can help themselves to materials and food–and they can clean up the mess, too.

If you’ve ever read this blog before, then you’ll have no trouble guessing that I fall into the second category. Or at least I’d like to.

The only trouble is that my daughter seems to prefer the first category.

This tends to be a pattern with us.

Many critics of attachment parenting argue that it encourages dependence. But for me, one of the attractions of attachment parenting was my belief that it would foster independence. Much as I say I value community, I love independence as a character trait–especially in kids. Both during my own childhood and as an adult working with kids, I’ve always been drawn to kids who are bold, outgoing, and independent–kids who step out against the crowd and do things on their own. And to me, it made sense that a baby whose need for attachment and dependence were fully met would grow into a child who is capable, brave, and independent.

And while I do think my daughter is capable and brave, well, she’s not the most independent kid on the block. Not yet, anyway.

At age three, my daughter has just started playing by herself. Occasionally. For brief periods. She’s been out of diapers for two years, but she will rarely use the toilet on her own. (Most of the time, she wants me to carry her to the bathroom, pull her pants, down, and set her on the toilet. She will sit on the couch screaming that she needs to pee until I finally take her to the toilet. When you are seven months pregnant, this gets annoying.) She learned to dress herself at 18 months, but she frequently insists that I help choose her outfits and put them on her. (She wants me to get the clothes out for her and put them on her. Also annoying when you’re seven months pregnant. And heaven forbid that I choose the wrong clothes. Sometimes it takes ten minutes for us to agree on a pair of underwear.) There are hundreds of moments throughout the day when she insists that I help her with something she’s perfectly capable of doing on her own. No matter how much I set up her environment to enable her to do it herself, she still wants me to do it for her.

And while I know it’s normal for a three year old to waver constantly between clinginess and independence, it still drives me nuts.

The kitchen is just another example of this pattern. For a while we had a mini-fridge solely for my daughter’s use. This seemed at the time like a brilliant idea. I planned to keep it stocked with snacks she could help herself to and prepare. I filled it with fruit, cheese, and little pitchers of water, in true Montessori fashion. I put a shelf next to it with bowls, plates, and utensils, in the hopes that she would slice herself a piece of cheese or serve herself some strawberries whenever she was hungry. But it didn’t work out that way. Occasionally she would help herself–if I reminded her that it was there–but most of the time, she still wanted me to serve her. And we all know that when your child is melting down from hunger, it’s a bad time to push for independence in snack preparation. So I would get the snack out of her fridge, serve it to her, and sometimes even feed it to her.

Now she’s big enough to get herself food out of the regular fridge, and she will do it–occasionally. More often, though, she begs me to do it for her. Last week she announced that she was going to make herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for breakfast. I was so thrilled at her initiative that I didn’t even think of questioning her breakfast menu. But fifteen minutes later (I spent that time getting dressed, brushing my teeth, and carefully giving her time and space to attempt the task on her own), she called for me to help. When I came to the kitchen, she hadn’t attempted to make the sandwich. She wanted me to get out all the ingredients and the plate, and then, she said, she would help me spread the jelly. Which meant that she would hold my hand while I spread the jelly. Because holding the knife by herself was too hard.

Should I be disappointed that my daughter doesn’t want to make a mess in the kitchen? Of course not. When she was an infant, I never for a moment questioned her absolute dependence on me or her constant need to be held and to nurse. Now that she’s older, and especially now that I’m pregnant, I often feel an urge to push her toward independence. But deep down I know that she’s still in the middle of transitioning from babyhood to childhood. There are still many, many days, and many moments throughout the day, when she still wants–and needs–to be babied. I need to honor that.

There are times when she does take initiative, and right now I’m always thrilled by those moments. Even when they’re mishaps. Like the time in my first trimester of pregnancy when I let her watch a movie so I could take a much-needed nap. I was awake when the movie ended, and I lay in bed, expecting any minute to hear her feet pattering into my room. Because I knew there was no chance she would play by herself even for a minute. When she didn’t come in, I thought she must have fallen asleep. Or, you know, fallen off the couch and gotten knocked unconscious, which sounded a lot more likely than a nap. I went out, a little worried, to check on her, and found her sitting on the couch with a bucket of ice cream on her lap. She was eating it as fast as she could by scooping with both hands. I was so thrilled that she had figured out how to open the freezer door by herself–and so amused by the chocolate all over her–that I could hardly bring myself to take the ice cream away.

And then, sometimes, there are moments when her insistence that she can’t do something alone thrills me too. Because sometimes, her desire for me to help her has nothing to do with her independence. It’s just that she wants to be with me. She may not prepare snacks on her own, but she loves to cook with me. Often, when I announce it’s time to cook dinner, she grabs her stool and pushes it up next to me, eager to help. And so I’m discovering that there’s a third way of bringing kids into the kitchen: a way of community. Just because I’m helping her doesn’t mean I have to do everything for her. And just because she’s helping me doesn’t mean I have to control all the tasks she does. She can wash and chop and stir and measure; she can learn and participate and be truly useful. I struggle to give her the space to do real tasks in the kitchen; much as I love the idea of letting her do it on her own, I have a hard time stepping back when I’m right there beside her and could do it so much quicker myself. But she loves being part of what I’m doing. She loves being with me.

And someday, she will gain that independence that seems so far-off right now. She will have her own kitchen, where she will cook without me, and I will long for the days when she comes back to visit so we can cook together.

Isn’t that connection what family dinner is all about?


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