Why kids should do chores that aren’t 100% safe

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I recently shared this photo (with permission) on Instagram with this caption:

Kid can’t reach the counter? Lay a cutting board over an open drawer. #parenthacks: @unschooling_flymom

The photo sparked a fascinating conversation about kids, safety, and competence.

Several folks were concerned:

  • I would have concerns about the drawer falling out if used to support weight. I’d let the kid cut apples or softer fruit at the table as a first step. — Abbe Dvornik via Facebook
  • Looks like a sharp knife? — Cheri Wallace via Facebook
  • I’d want to secure the cutting board. — @iangertler via Twitter

Others were enthusiastic:

  • A chef school near me suggested starting an 8yo child on an 8″ chef’s knife. I started my 6yo with a steak knife and paring knife. With plenty of warnings that “You WILL cut yourself sometime” and how to not panic but to deal with a cut, in four years he’s maybe needed a bandaid a few times and is a great chef. Me? Cut myself all the time. — Jill Pohl
  • Kids are way more capable than they are given credit for most times. My 2 and 3 yr old use a table knife (butter knife, the not sharp ones that come is sets! Lol) my 5 and 6 yr olds use steak knives to help cook as long as an adult is in the kitchen with them. Yes, it’s good to protect them but not letting them try things hurts them a lot more in the long run! Not saying to start handing out knives, but trust your kids and let them tell you when they are ready for things! — Britany Gimlin

THEN, Cynthia, the mom of the little girl, pointed out that I had misinterpreted the picture and patiently responded to everyone’s concerns. (Thank you again, Cynthia.)

I reposted this update across platforms:

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: I messed up, you guys! When I originally posted this photo, I assumed that the little girl in the picture cut the apple with that knife, but I was wrong. I apologize for creating confusion, friends. Read on for the full story from Cynthia, the originator of this hack, who kindly explained in the comments:

“This is my kid and my ‘hack’ the picture isn’t quite accurate. I had cut the apple up on the counter with an apple wedger and she was learning fractions in this picture. The knife was there because she was about to cut a banana next. I have never had any shifting or slipping issues using a cutting board or cookie sheet. The drawer is deep and the tracks are strong so I don’t worry about the drawer coming out. as with anything consider your own child and set up for safety. The front of the drawer is higher than the sides so the front holds it in place well.

And she can handle a sharp knife with supervision because we work with her on it a lot. She started with a kid’s butter knife for bananas and avocados the went to a pumpkin carving knife (not sharp but “serrated”, so saws through harder foods.) She learned proper holding and safety early on. She’s had never cut herself with a knife, me, I’ve cut myself countless times in the last few years.”

All in all, it was a respectful and enlightening conversation, which doesn’t surprise me, because Parenthackers are smart and stellar Internet citizens. I’d like to expand on what we talked about based on my experience with my own kids.

Kids are more competent than we realize.

Kids — even toddlers — can do all sorts of stuff. We know this, but it’s easy to forget when we’re in the habit of doing stuff for them.

Let’s be honest: it’s also a hassle. In the beginning, it’s almost always quicker to do something yourself. We’re pressed for time, so it’s no wonder we put on their coats and clear the dishes ourselves.

But it’s a good idea to stop every few months and look at your kid with new eyes. What might he be able to do that you’re currently doing for him? If she’s not ready for a task, can you break it into simpler mini-tasks?

I included “7 Chores Your Toddler Can Do Right Now” in the Parent Hacks book to help new parents keep this in mind.

A little danger focuses a kid’s attention.

Kids are ready for tasks at different times.

The problem is, it’s not always obvious when they’re ready. It’s also individual; one kid’s dying to cut fruit slices at 5, while another can barely handle a marker at 7.

Here’s where your judgement comes in. My daughter, a brilliant girl who’s been creating intricate art for years, only recently developed the multitasking ability to use the stove. My son, on the other hand, has been cooking for a while. But it took many years before I was willing to hand him a loaded paintbrush.

Another important signal: when kids display interest. Kids are super-motivated to learn something they want to learn. So when your kid wants to help you cook dinner or use a power tool, jump on it, even if it’s just by letting him hold the knife or the tool to start.

Kids might get hurt. That risk and reality is an important part of learning.

A little danger focuses a kid’s attention. When getting hurt (within reason) is a real possibility, kids generally take the task more seriously.

Again, you’ve used your judgement here, so you’ve determined your kid is ready to learn this skill, which includes what to do if something goes wrong. You’re also supervising, at least in the beginning. If your kid does get a little hurt, as terrible as you’ll feel, he’ll learn to handle that, too.

“Apprenticeship” is a totally different than academic learning.

When I learn something by doing it, I learn more quickly, and I better retain what I’ve learned. I’ve watched the same happen with both of my kids.

You can’t teach a kid how to do something physical by telling him about it. But it is a process. First, they watch. Then they try with lots of guidance. Then they try a little more. Eventually, you stand back and let them do it themselves. Not only are they learning a skill…they’re learning patience.

Kids gain confidence when they’re trusted to learn something a little dangerous.

This has been the biggest bonus for us. When I let my kids learn something difficult and a little dangerous, I see the pride in their eyes. They get the empowering message you’re ready for this. It’s a clear signal that I believe in them, and that I recognize (and celebrate) they’re growing up.

Photo credit: @unschooling_flymom on Instagram

This post inspired us to record a podcast episode: Edit Your Life, Ep. 32: Letting Kids Experience Risk.

A version of this post first appeared on Parent Hacks.

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