I know I’m susceptible to these kinds of stories, but there’s no getting around it: I’ve been haunted by a six-year-old for weeks now. Did you guys read the Elizabeth Kolbert article in The New Yorker last month — the one about how spoiled American children are, especially when we compare them to children in other cultures? I was only two paragraphs in before I was reading about a girl from a tribe in the Peruvian Amazon who tagged along on a leaf-gathering trip and pretty soon figured out a way to make herself useful to everyone…by fishing for crustaceans, then cleaning and cooking for everyone in the group. Did you hear me tell you that she is six years old? By paragraph six, the one describing an American kid’s refusal to untie his own shoes, I had to take a few Lamaze breaths to calm myself down.
I’m exaggerating a little — but not by much. A few weeks ago, a mother-of-two at one of my readings asked me how much I let my kids help out in the kitchen. I answered the way I always do: “I let them make a salad or set the table. Occasionally they’ll make pancakes…but I need to be better about not hovering…It’s a problem I have in general.” Andy, who was sitting in the front row turned around and asked the questioner, “How deep do you want to go?”
If the mark of successful parenting is, as Michael Thompson wrote in his convincing manifesto about sending kids to sleepaway camp Homesick and Happy, “to raise our kids to not need us,” then sometimes I think we may be getting Fs. Well, in the kitchen at least. Soon after I read Kolbert and Thompson I realized that when I was my oldest daughter’s age (10), I was baking from box mixes on my own whenever I wanted to. I was cracking eggs and picking out the shards that inevitably resulted from my shoddy technique; I was scraping the “butter flavor packet” from the Duncan Hines box into the batter all by myself; I was operating an electric mixer and cleaning up the explosion of batter all over the counter; I was even reaching into a hot oven with nary a grown-up in sight.
So I stocked up on box mixes of muffins, breads, cookies and brownies, and issued a mandate to the girls. This is the Summer of Self-Sufficiency, I decreed. From here on out, you may bake any of these desserts whenever the spirit moves you. You are not required to ask my permission. I do not even need to be in the kitchen when you do it. The only rule was that they try to figure out everything on their own. Pretend I’m not here, I told them. Before you ask me where the measuring cups are, try to find them yourself. I trust you, I told them. And I convinced myself this was true.
Needless to say, they immediately embraced the challenge and Abby dived right in with a batch of Arrowhead Mills Bake-With-Me Brownies. I was working at the kitchen table doing my best to ignore her as she cracked her eggs, spilled the powdery batter all over the dog, pulled her little stool all around the kitchen to reach measuring cups and mixers and set timers. I wasn’t even looking when she reached into the 350° oven to pull out the pan of brownies and realized that only one of her hands was covered with an oven mitt.
Her shriek was Bugs Bunny with an unmistakable hint of fright. I filled a plastic bag with ice and gave it to her.
Guess what? She burned her finger. Just like I did the week before when I reached for the baking dish that I didn’t realize was still hot. Just like I’ve done a million times in my life beginning when I was a kid teaching myself how to bake. True, if I had been supervising, it wouldn’t have happened. But if this little experiment is doing what it’s supposed to be doing, my guess is that next time she reaches into an oven, she won’t make the mistake again.
So far they’ve tried Arrowhead Mills Brownie Mix, two from Dr. Oetker (apple cinnamon muffins which I’d give a B+ and their chocolate chip cookies, which was more like a C+), and the cornbread from Trader Joe’s (not my fave, sorry TJoe). I like the Arrowhead Mills Bake-With-Me line because they are designed for kids (as opposed to Dr. Oetker which instructed my 1o-year-old to “mix together butter and sugar” without going into any details about creaming. Hence the C+). Have you guys had good luck with baking mixes that are kid-friendly? Let me know so I can stock up.