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Kids in the Kitchen

Kids in the Kitchen

Making Shabbat “Their” Way

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The author and her children
The author and her children

Friday morning dawned frigid—it was colder in Chicago than in Anchorage(!)—and snowy. My kids were off from school, and I woke up with a pounding headache and fever.

Normally, Friday is my busiest day: I wake up early and start cooking my soup first thing, so it can simmer all day. Once my kids are at school, I shop for groceries, do laundry, straighten up, and cook our favorite Shabbat dishes. I love the peace and quiet of the house as I chop vegetables and prepare meals.

Clearly, this Friday was going to be different.

“What’s for breakfast, Mommy?” one of my kids asked. I blinked at him blearily. It dawned on me that I was going to need to rely on him if I was ever going to make it through the day. “You know what?” I replied. “I’m going to need your help.”

As I got toast and eggs ready, I gave him his first task: helping his younger brother say his morning prayers. I’d never asked this of him before, and I couldn’t help but smile as I overheard their conversation. “This part is really hard,” he said to his brother. I got ready to step in to help, when I remembered something I’d heard the noted author and child psychologist Wendy Mogul say years before.Clearly, this Friday was going to be different

It’s important to give kids tasks and chores to do, she said, but that’s only half the battle; just as crucial is to let children find their own ways of doing them. Forcing children to mimic the way we act is akin to slavery, she said; it saps their excitement in new tasks, and prevents them from “owning” the chores we want them to master.

So I bit my tongue, and heard my son continue, “This part is really hard; it’s like a tongue-twister!” And then slowly, painstakingly, he worked through the passage for his brother. I’d rarely heard the two of them more animated; the pride on their faces was touching as they finally put the prayerbook away and came to breakfast.

As we ate, I outlined the day. “Shabbat starts in a few hours,” I said, “and we have to get ready. I’d like you to do some of the cooking. What would you like to do first?”

“Dessert!” my kids cried in unison. Biting my tongue again, I set out ingredients. I’m not sure if it was the flu or remembering Wendy Mogul’s advice, but I stayed silent as my kids got out copious amounts of sugar sprinkles to decorate their creations with. I didn’t say anything when—searching for cookie cutters—they dragged out the bucket containing their modeling clay stamps and molds.

After a while, the kitchen table was coated with a sticky mix of dough and sugar, Play-Doh and sprinkles. But two dozen fantastic cookies lay on a tray for me to bake, and my kids were excited, eager for their next task.

As I laid out more ingredients and we all cleaned up, I noticed something unusual for a Friday in my house: as messy as we all were becoming, we were all in great moods. There was none of the usual stress I normally associate with cooking and cleaning with kids.

Instead, we talked about Shabbat. My oldest son took time out to explain the week’s Torah portion to his younger siblings. One child unexpectedly started singing a Shabbat song. One son announced that he was going to go take a bath and dress for Shabbat—hours early. (I was about to ask him to wait—he did wind up getting his nice Shabbat clothes all dirty—but I held my tongue; my kids were so excited about their Shabbat preparations, I didn’t want to spoil it.)

The afternoon passed by in a blur. My five-year-old polished our silver kiddush cups and candlesticks (and his entire body and most of the kitchen and bathroom). My eight-year-old discovered a passion for peeling potatoes (and peeled ten pounds of them before I stopped him). When I noticed that some things still needed finishing, I searched for ways to phrase my requests. “Kids,” I finally said, “I see there are still some things that need to be done before Shabbat—can you please figure out what they are?” Like magic, my kids got to work, cleaning and tidying and getting everything ready.

Just before Shabbat, my son saw me putting on my boots, and asked where I was going. When I said I was taking out the garbage, he jumped up. “I’d love to!” he cried. Standing there, in all his (now slightly dirty) Shabbat finery, he looked so eager, so excited.Our soup was a hard, burned solid

That magical Shabbat, our soup was a hard, burned solid. (All the broth had somehow evaporated away.) We still hadn’t gotten all the silver polish off the bathroom sink. But our kiddush cups shone, and so did my kids’ faces. This was “their” Shabbat, and I noticed they treated it differently. They seemed to enjoy their food even more after planning the menu and doing the cooking. They were proud of how neat their rooms were, and took extra care to keep them tidy. They even took charge in other ways, suggesting we all sing after dinner, for instance, and choosing their favorite songs.

I’m not sure I’m ready to hand over the reins so completely again; I’m still finding lumps of cookie dough all over the kitchen floor, and I doubt our experiment in extreme kid-empowerment would be so successful each week. Besides, I like my professional-looking challahs, and enjoy doing Shabbat “my way.”

But as my kids get older, I’m going to try to remember they need a “my way,” too—that the surest route to feeling you own something is to work on it and make it yours. I want my kids to grow up loving Shabbat—I want to see the joy and energy of this recent kid-directed Shabbat in them again. If the best way to make that happen is to tolerate a little cookie dough (and silver polish and burned soup . . .), it’s a price I’m more than willing to pay.

Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D., is a mother and adjunct professor of political science living in Chicago. She is the author of Angels at the Table: A Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat (Continuum, 2011).
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Randie Katzel Lenox, MA March 4, 2014

Calm or the flu? Wow! How were you able to act on Ms.Mogul's advice during, what I would consider, almost a crisis(preparing for Shabbat with kids off from school)? Of course, her advice is not new. How many parenting books have said its important to let your children try and succeed or fail on their own. They have to learn to find their own way and pick themselves up when they fall. I wish I could have followed this advice many, many times. You definitely had a calm presence of mind (and maybe a visiting malach) that day. I wish you continued success in your Shabbat prepartions, with or without" kids in the kitchen." Reply

Anonymous March 4, 2014

What a Lesson for all of us... Thank you for the Teaching... *:-) Reply

Hilary England February 6, 2014

So lovely to read this story! These children will carry precious memories with them into adulthood. Reply