I recently stumbled across some comments on an older blog post about letting kids help in the kitchen where commenters insisted that they would never let their kids use knives and limit them to only butter knives or safe cutting utensils until at least age 12.
Don’t Potty Train Until Age 6?
I must confess, I used to err very much on the side of caution when it came to kids and knives, until I started finding research that delaying a child’s ability to learn to use sharp objects like knives can actually interfere with their psychological development and is akin to “delaying potty training until school age.”
What was that?
I was surprised too, but after some research and careful trial with my research team (aka my kids) in our lab (aka my kitchen), I have to agree that not only are kids capable of using “real knives” at a much younger age than I expected but that there do seem to be some psychological benefits as well.
Knives = Bad but TV = Safe?
This is the other surprising disconnect that I’ve noticed in recent years that has become more and more apparent… we shelter our children from important real life skills that have a small element of danger (like using a knife safely, climbing trees, playing outside by themselves, or riding a bike to the park) but give them easy access to “safe” things that are proven to be very harmful developmentally (like too much screen time, a sedentary lifestyle, etc).
Our kids can work an iPad like a pro but not use a kitchen knife (except for that they probably can, we just don’t let them). They can dominate at Candy Crush or Angry Birds but can’t do common household tasks like mopping a floor, loading a dishwasher, and doing laundry.
We limit kids from any task where they could get hurt, make a mess or that we could “do more quickly,” and wonder why they balk when we eventually expect them to help out and why they lack the desire to do these things themselves.
Benefits of Letting Kids Use Knives
As parents, it is easy to see knives as a dangerous object just waiting to remove the finger/hand/arm of our children or lead them to certain impalement, but objectively, a knife is just a common and very useful kitchen tool. Yes, it can lead to harm if used incorrectly, but then so can a stove, oven, spiral slicer, vegetable peeler or broom handle in the wrong hands.
On the flip side, a kitchen knife (and other common tools that we often shield a child from) doesn’t just represent a kitchen tool, but a step on the road to independence. As parents, we have to ask at the end of the day if our real job is to keep our children “safe” at all times or to raise them to be independent and capable adults with a well honed sense of risk assessment that will keep them safe in real life situations? I’d argue the latter.
In fact, in many parts of the world, children are routinely allowed to interact with “dangerous” tools such as knives, hammers, mortars & pestles, and others from as young as age 2 (and even younger in some places!).
Learning Risk Assessment and Independence
This may seem like blanket heresy in our overprotective society, but hear me out….
Exposing children to situations that teach them at a young age to gauge risk accurately actually helps protect them in the long run. Children learn by trying (and sometimes failing) just how far they can jump, how to fall safely, and how to use tools (like knives) correctly.
Yes, there will be skinned knees and small cuts along the way (what child hasn’t fallen down and gotten hurt when learning to walk?), but we all managed to survive the horrors of a skinned knee and our children can too. More importantly, they *need* these experiences to teach them independence and resilience and that minor setbacks aren’t the end of the world.
Ellen Hansen Sandseter, a Norwegian researcher at Queen Maud University in Norway, has found in her research that the relaxed approach to risk-taking and safety actually keeps our children safer by honing their judgment about what they’re capable of. Children are drawn to the things we parents fear: high places, water, wandering far away, dangerous sharp tools. Our instinct is to keep them safe by childproofing their lives. But “the most important safety protection you can give a child,” Sandseter explained when we talked, “is to let them take… risks.” (source)
Countries where children are given this freedom to take risks and develop a well-honed sense of risk assessment (like Sweden and Norway), have some of the lowest child injury rates in the world.
Raising Helpers Who Aren’t Helpless
There is also a theory in psychology that the declining number of children per family in modern times has led us to think of our children as “precious treasures to be protected” rather than future helpers to be nurtured.
Don’t get me wrong, I consider my children the most precious gift I’ve ver received and am grateful to have been given these years to spend with them and raise them as responsible members of society. I’ve also come to realize that doing too much for them and denying them the chance to contribute in a meaningful way to our family is actually hurting them in the long run.
I want to make sure that my children are capable of taking care of themselves by the time they leave home, including basic tasks like cleaning, cooking, sewing on buttons and changing a car tire, but as members of our household, our kids are able to contribute now in ways that are actually helpful.
Using a knife safely and correctly is an incredibly useful skill and one that I use daily, even outside the kitchen. I carry a pocket knife in my purse and use it multiple times a day to open boxes, cut tape, remove loose threads from clothing, open letters and more.
Helps Reinforce Healthy Eating Habits
When it comes to letting children help prepare food and use knives and other tools, there is another direct benefit that can’t be overstated:
Letting kids help prepare food makes them more likely to eat it.
Processed foods often require little or no preparation, but nutrient dense whole foods have to be washed, peeled and cut. It has been my universal experience with my children that the more a child is able to help prepare a meal, the more likely he or she is to eat it.
In fact, our 7-year-old and 9-year-old have started to prepare meals for the family themselves on occasion (especially weekend meals) and have become adventurous cooks and adventurous eaters in the process.
Involving the kids in all aspects of meal prep has shifted the conversation about new foods from “ewww… what is that,” to “how do you cook that and what kind of recipes do you use it in.” In fact, last week, the older kids peeled and grated carrots, kohlrabi, onions and other vegetables and made a vegetable soup from scratch. And they ate it. And loved it.
In countries like Japan, France, Korea and others, there are no separate foods for children and no such things as kids menus. Children are expected to eat when adults eat and to eat what the adults eat. In most places, children aren’t even given snack time or food between meals.
Letting children help prepare the food provides a natural sense of anticipation and a more adventurous spirit when it is time to eat. Avoiding snacks or kid-specific foods lets children feel a natural sense of hunger and develop self-control while waiting for meals.
In my experience, there is the least frustration with meals and the least complaining about food when our children are allowed to be involved in every aspect of food, from planning to purchasing to preparation.
Letting our kids use knives has been an interesting growing experience for our family. This is just one representative step in the ladder of independence, but we’ve found it is an important and much anticipated one for our children.
To clarify, we aren’t giving toddlers machetes or giving any child unsupervised access to knives, but rather making it a priority to spend time teaching our kids to safely use knives in the kitchen as part of preparing meals for the family. I also recently found this great course called Kids Cook Real Food that teaches children how to safely use knives and other kitchen tools and how to make many types of foods. My kids have loved the knife skills class especially (and you can watch it free at this link this week!)
The result? Our older kids are even now using my Wusthof kitchen knives to safely chop and prepare food and look forward to this time each day.
Are there ever minor cuts and accidents? Of course, but then again, I’ve been known to slice a finger while cooking every once in a while and I’ve survived… so will they!
What do you think? Do you let kids use knives?