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Home | Insights | WHY I GAVE MY 4-YEAR OLD A KNIFE

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On an evening not unlike this one not too long ago, dinner preparation was somewhat frantically under way in the Keating household when I looked across the kitchen island and heard a little voice say, “Can I help, Mama?”

My husband and I both looked at one another, took a deep breath, sighed and smiled a little, and then I turned to my daughter and said “Sure!” with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.

But I wasn’t really feeling it.  

You see, both my husband and I work until about 6pm every night, leaving us limited time to get dinner made, get it on the table, and get everyone fed and off to bed in a reasonable amount of time.

Because of this, dinner prep is often a divide-and-conquer affair with my husband taking some of the tasks and me taking others. 

Sometimes, though, our kids want to be involved.  And while offers of help from my older daughter are genuinely helpful, requests from my younger often create an internal battle for me. 

Dinner prep is undoubtedly done faster, better, and far cleaner when my little is not involved.

When she is “helping” there’s nearly always a mess that needs to be dealt with, and her “help” often has to be redone to get it right.  

This is true whether we’re making dinner, emptying the dishwasher, doing the laundry, cleaning up the yard or any one of the many other tasks needed to keep our household on track.  

Perhaps you can relate?

I hear time and time again from parents who wish their kids would entertain themselves while they are trying to get something done, and who wish their kids' requests to “help” would stop so they could Just. Get. Something. Done. 

I also hear time and time again from parents who hate messes and would prefer to do “it” (whatever “it” is) themselves rather than deal with the mess left behind by a kiddo who is eager to help.  

I get it.  Kids are messy. They do things imperfectly. And they often take forever

And when time is precious, we often take the attitude “ain’t nobody got time for that!”

But here’s the problem: I also hear repeatedly from parents who lament how their tweens and teens are not more helpful—“Don’t they understand I am not their servant? Why are they not more grateful?” these parents complain.

And we’d be fooling ourselves if we thought the two weren’t connected. 

The reality is we actually train kids NOT to help.  When we deny their requests to help when they are little—something nearly every little loves to do—we are teaching them: “These are adult tasks, and your job is to play and not bother me.”  

So imagine their confusion when suddenly they hit a certain non-adult age and we not only expect their help and participation, we get frustrated when they don’t do it perfectly. 

Michaeleen Doucleff, author of the fantastic book Hunt, Gather, Parent wisely says, “Never discourage a child, at any age, from helping a parent or family member.  Shooing a child off can extinguish their motivation to pitch in and work together.” 

Julie Lythcott-Haims takes this one step further in her groundbreaking book (and one of my favorite, most-recommended parenting reads ever) How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap And Prepare Your Kid for Success:

“Even if our child’s sweat equity is not needed to ensure the smooth running of our home, they must contribute, know how to contribute, and feel the rewards of contributing in order to have the right approach to hard work when they head out into the workplace and become citizens in the community.” 

So with those ideas in mind, and a true desire to raise a helpful kid, teach important life skills, build a positive work ethic, and emphasize the idea to my daughter that she has significance and is genuinely needed in our family, on the night in question, when I heard a “Can I help, Mama” I helped her climb up in her learning tower, handed her a knife, and proceeded to teach her how to trim green beans. 

It was slow, and because of the nature of the task, I supervised very closely with my hand on her most of the time. If she started to grip the knife the wrong way, I stopped her and readjusted.  If something started to slip, we reoriented.  If she got distracted, I helped her refocus.  

Could trimming those beans have gone faster if I was working solo? 


Her help right now isn’t really that helpful.  

And yet…I said yes. 


Because I know it will be.  Someday.

And so while my husband and my older daughter both managed different tasks on their own, I slowed down and brought my little one into the work of the family.  

Her pride, and the message I modeled in the process was worth every second. 

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Christy Keating is a certified parent coach,  positive discipline educator, and motivational speaker. She is the founder and CEO of The Heartful Parent Collective, which includes Heartful Parent Coaching, Savvy Parents Safe Kids, and Heartful Parent Academy.

The mother of two amazing daughters, Christy strives to build a happier, healthier world - one child, one parent, and one family at a time.