Parent Moments: Can I Help?
"Can I help?" is music to my ears. Four kids equals four sets of dirty clothes (times three, it seems, each day), four beds to make, four lunches to pack, four pairs of mittens to lose -- and one-fourth the amount of time in which to do it.
So when a child says, "Can I help?" I want to leap at the offer.
Except when I'm cooking.
I love to cook. I bake something for breakfast every day, make sure there are homemade cookies in the kitchen at all times, spend inordinate amounts of time thinking of new menus for dinner or special occasions -- like half-birthdays, four times a year.
I think of my kitchen as my office: Don't mess up my papers, don't delve into my utensil drawer, or rearrange my pantry, or interrupt me when I'm on the cooking equivalent of a conference call: preparing a complicated dinner with three different side dishes that are all going to come out simultaneously, perfectly browned or warmed or buttered.
So I used to shudder when my youngest, Faith, would ask, "Can I help?"
Faith loves to busy herself alongside me. She loves to drag a stool across the kitchen floor to the mixer, pull out three different aprons, and open all the cabinets. Her version of helping is my version of upsetting the apple cart: I trip over the rungs of her stool as I'm pulling a hot cookie sheet out of the oven. I can't find the measuring cup because she's buried it in the sugar canister. All my rubber spatulas go missing because she's using them -- all five of them -- to stir the dry ingredients for muffins, spilling half onto the counter and the other half onto the floor.
Whenever she wandered into the kitchen, I would sigh an interior sigh and wish for just five minutes alone to finish my task.
Then I remembered cooking with my own mother, a patient soul who never raised her voice. I remembered the feeling of growing confidence as I learned to make meringue, flakey pie crust, a perfect gravy. Wasn't I making a mistake of the utmost proportions by not making room for my daughter in the kitchen, in the heat of the battle?
So I set us both up for success: I made Faith her own cooking station. "Let's set up your stool and utensils right here, in your own space," I said. No more tripping, no more surprises.
I read recipes out loud to Faith. We talked about what her jobs would be. At 7 years old, she is a great baster, a fabulous sprinkler, an expert measurer of ingredients. She can scrape a bowl, test the egg whites to see if they are adequately beaten, and peel any vegetable. The solution to my frustration was merely a matter of delineating tasks she could accomplish, giving her a place to be and a reason to be in the midst of cooking.
I learned to parse out a recipe, to take time to enjoy the process, and to remember why I was cooking, not just what I was cooking.
Now, when my daughter asks, "Can I help?" I tell her, "You already have helped by asking, but here is the basting brush. I need a good egg wash on this bread."
It seems my mother, that patient soul, taught me more than simply to cook.
'Fess up: If you could have half an hour with the kids happily distracted, what would you do during the alone time?