How Young is Too Young?

If you’ve been watching MasterChef Junior with your kids these past few weeks, I’ll bet two thoughts have crossed your mind. The first: Wow, my kid is probably a lot more capable than I give her credit for. The second: Who is that adorable nine-year-old preparing Beef Wellington and molten lava cakes, and who seems to have little to no fear of anything, including Gordon Ramsay?

Her name is Sarah Lane, and I’m happy to report that today’s post on DALS is a conversation between Sarah’s mom, Stephanie, and Times columnist, Ron Lieber. Ron is father of a 7-year-old daughter, and working on a book called The Opposite of Spoiled, about parenting, money and values. Like most of us, he was captivated by Sarah’s savvy with a chef’s knife, but his curiosity went deeper. As Ron reports his book, he couldn’t help but wonder What’s her story? What kind of parents turned a kid that young loose with live fire and sharp knives? And perhaps more to the point, Should we be doing the same? He goes straight to the source for the answers…

Ron: Can you fill us in on some of the back story? Where did Sarah grow up?

Stephanie: We moved to Los Angeles three-and-a-half years ago but we’re from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  It’s always been just the two of us. I’ve been a single parent since Sarah was born and I put her to work as early as I could. She would help with dishes, pulling out knives and spoons.

And where did she learn to really cook?

I grew up and lived in Lancaster until Sarah was in kindergarten. Lancaster was a place where lots of kids worked with their families. My mom owns a restaurant, so I waitressed there, and Sarah came to work with me every day, starting from when she was 2 weeks old. She always wanted to be part of the action. She was in Lancaster just this past summer to visit her grandparents by herself and spent a good bit of time helping at the restaurant and waiting on tables. She really knows what a restaurant looks like from the inside.

Most of us worry about letting our kids use knives. How old was Sarah the first time she used one?
She was probably four or five. We started with a peeler, then moved up. I’m still a bit scared of the knife thing and will often turn my head. But I think there are people who live happy and full lives with nine fingers or less, so I’m not that concerned.

I know you’re joking, but I’m sure you have some rules…
We do have rules about these things. She’s not allowed to use the stove unless I’m there with her. Ditto for the microwave, even. But again, it was probably first grade or so when she really started cooking — sauteeing vegetables and baking cupcakes.

So what’s the closest she’s come to really injuring herself?
We really amped up the practice leading up to MasterChef. She’s a lefty, and her natural inclination is to use her left hand and reach across the pan. Well at one point, she reached across and burned her arm pretty good. I tried to warn her, but just like lots of kids, she heard me but didn’t really listen. When I saw her doing it again, I just sort of let it happen — they have a saying in the kitchen “You burn, you learn.”

And knock on wood, there have been no cutting incidents. I’m proud to say that she still has all ten of her fingers.

Does she work in Grandma’s restaurant kitchen for pay?
She works for tips when we go home. Over Christmas vacation, she made $36. She also gets paid in all the free food she wants. Her favorites at the restaurant are the mozzarella sticks, the soft pretzels and the chicken wings. But she also loves sushi and fennel and brussels sprouts. She’s really all over the map.

So she cooks you dinner for free?
Ha! She does weekend breakfast, so I can sleep in, which is very nice of her. I taught her to make coffee when she was four years old. She doesn’t do it every day — I have to drag her out of bed on school days sometimes. But no, I love to cook dinner. It would be hard for me to give that up. Sarah definitely contributes, but I’d hate to have her cook all my meals, because then what would I do?

There’s something primal about providing dinner, as a parent, isn’t there?
As a mom especially, I really love is cooking and baking for her, making sure that she has the best lunches in fourth grade. She’ll tell me what she wants, but most of the time I put it together. This week, she had pork barbecue sliders with pickles and applesauce and Doritos. (Don’t judge!). Sometimes, she wants sushi or soup, and she has pasta salad a lot.

Are there other things she does that would seem a bit beyond her years to others?
In some ways, I feel like she’s been like a little grown-up for as long as I can remember. Her dad lives in Houston, and she’s been flying by herself back and forth since first grade. She’s a woman of the world — she likes to get out there and do stuff. At this point, I just drive her around, but once she gets a drivers license, I may never see her again.

What are you still afraid to let her try, irrationally maybe?
We live in a 2-bedroom apartment in L.A. We have a courtyard, it’s open, and she has forever wanted to ride her scooter down there by herself. And I’m way too neurotic to let her do that. She’s so eager to walk to school by herself, ride around the neighborhood, things like that. And I’m a little overprotective. She’s a little girl in a big world.

So better that she play around with sharp knives and live fire?!
I’d rather have her in a professional kitchen, cutting off her fingers, than riding a scooter around the courtyard. Call me crazy.

Has she gotten any related offers since she was ejected from the MasterChef kitchen?
Not yet, but she’d really like to do more things geared towards kids.  I have a dear friend back home whose son has terrible food allergies. They’ve watched the show, and it’s inspired him to want to learn how to cook. It’s been so cool for her to hear that she’s inspired others.

Thanks Ron & Stephanie! Sarah left the show two weeks ago, but you can see her fellow cast members Dara and Alexander battle it out tonight, Friday November 8 for the season finale. (FOX, 8:00 ET.)

Also, be sure to sign up for Ron’s newsletter to follow the ongoing conversation about kids, values, and money as he reports The Opposite of Spoiled “out loud.”

Stephanie, 37, and Sarah, 9, at a MasterChef Junior promotional event earlier this year.

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love this! i hadn’t heard of her or masterchef junior until reading this. (new baby makes it seem like we live under a rock) i truly believe that exposing kids to the kitchen and all of it’s dangerous tools early is one of the best things we can do for them. they learn patience, safety, and the importance of contributing to the family. kudos to her mom! i remember your latkes post with a picture of one your girls near a knife. you handled someone’s comment/concern about her being so close to a knife so well. also…i am so teaching my son how to make me coffee. 🙂


I have been watching masterchef junior off and on and was curious about all of the kids, but Sarah in particular, so I’m so glad to have found this on your blog! She’s an inspiration. My own kids are 11 & 13 and that show made me think that they’re much more capable than I give them credit for! Thanks for sharing!


Love this! I’ve only watched one episode of the show (several weeks ago) but Sarah was instantly my favorite. I loved her spunk and her fearlessness.


These have been amazing kids to watch. Sarah, in particular, had all of us cheering for her. My son and I have taken a lot of inspiration from the show, and plan to get him in the kitchen to make more than cheesy toast or salad.


What a great interview. My son helps out sometimes when I make pancakes but that’s about it. I think it’s great for kids to learn at least the basics of cooking, that will make them independent teens and adults.

Margit Van Schaickmargit

My mother taught me how to peel a potato with a paring knife when I was 4 years old. With my own three daughters, I tried to follow my mother’s example: she believed it’s best to teach children how to do things and supervise, to make sure they’re doing it safely. We worked together in the kitchen, so dinner was a family occasion, from picking veggies in the garden to preparing the meal and then enjoying eating it together. I believe that it helped to make my girls confident and now that they’re grown-up, they know how to eat to stay healthy.


What a wonderful interview! Honestly, it was a cooking class my 8 year old son is taking at school and this show that has really opened my eyes to how capable he is to cook. And he really wants to cook, which is a bonus. This morning I let him scramble his own eggs while I kept a safe distance pretending to do other things yet watching like a hawk. He totally nailed the soft scrambled eggs that he loves to eat (that I usually make). I can’t wait to have him cook some of the recipes he has been bringing home from the cooking class, too. Sounds like this mom has the right attitude about her daughter’s desires to be in the kitchen. Bravo, mom!

Kelli @ The Corner Kitchen

Wow, this is really great, thanks so much for sharing! I’ve been watching Masterchef Junior week after week, completely in awe of these kids. They are amazing and inspiring. I’ve often wondered about their families and backgrounds, so this was a really interesting read.


Get the kids in the kitchen! They can start off shelling peas, making dressings, tossing the salad, setting the table, and progress to baking, crepes, and easy stir fries by the time they are pre-teens. It’s not unusual in most parts of the world – how else do people learn to feed themselves and others?


Mazel Tov Ron – and of course course – love it as always Jenny! As always you two bring it home!!!


Working in “Grandma’s Kitchen” for free food and tips is more than likely in violation of child labor laws. Typically there is an exception for children for work for their parents, so perhaps grandparents count in that equation. I doubt it, though.

Kim Gordon

I haven’t seen the show yet, but man those kids are incredible. I’m sure it is a cool experience for them, although I’m not sure I would want my kid doing that at that young of an age.


Am I the only one horrified by that bit where mom let Sarah burn herself because hey, she didn’t listen to warnings the first time, and “you burn, you learn”? Really?! at what age was that okay?


@callie – How do people ever learn anything if they don’t experience it?

I was taught not to touch a hot stove when I was young but of course no one ever really ‘learns’ without the experience of being burnt.

I was very young when I started cooking too. I had my 9 year old sautee spinach last night by herself. She did a great job!

I didn’t watch the show. My daughter loves to watch Chopped and other cooking shows. We watch them together then get in the kitchen and cook together.


Watching this show definitely made me think about how capable kids really are, it’s just getting over that fear of seeing them hurt themselves! It makes it seem more real to hear about Sarah’s background.