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Family Kitchen Time is a Rapturous Rhapsody

November 25, 2018

The operatic rock of “Bohemian Rhapsody” pumps up the atmosphere. “Mama Mia! Mama Mia!,” we all sing. It rounds the kitchen sink, dips past the oven doors, and dances on top of the big, yellow range. Dish towels are slung on shoulders, hanged damp and bunched on handles, or flung in ready heaps. Baskets are passed, drawers are slid open with a jangle, and cabinet doors bang. Voices rise and fall as an overly dramatic chorus momentarily bellows off the beams, “I’m just a poor boy, from a poor family...!”

We’ll never sing it like Freddie Mercury did, but it’s more the moments we come together like this that keep us going.

Meanwhile, aromas of turkey and parsley envelop us, a pleasant result of 9-year-old Robert’s willingness to get involved after watching Papa prepare to rinse the headless bird after he pulled the giblets from its cavity, explained what they were, and set them aside for gravy.

Whenever we get together, there’s food. And whenever’s there’s food, there’s a job for everyone in the kitchen. Someone fills the salt shakers. Someone replenishes the pepper. Someone chops. Someone mixes. Someone cooks. Someone bakes. Someone plays with the youngest cousin who loves to toddle around and take it all in. I’m sure she’s learning, too. Someone sets the napkins on the table. Someone says grace. Someone does the dishes.

The point is, there are plenty of opportunities for the boys, ages 10, 9 and 5, and even Scarlett, who’s 1 and just learning to share, to help and learn and feel the whole process at work. They have to work together to make it happen, which is not always easy, but I know the more opportunities they get to practice, the better they’ll become at reaching other goals, like getting an A on a test or helping a friend.

Participating in the kitchen with older, more experienced family members offers small and large exercises in responsibility. Never reach for a panhandle on the stove. Always ask to find out how best to help. This way kids can be accountable for their own actions, which boils down to how and why they engage with the people, places and things around them when the situation calls for it. And if we guide children to try little challenges at an early age, they will want to take on bigger challenges as they grow.

Even 1-year-old Scarlett can choose if she wants the pink or the blue cup. This is what I want for my children -- and yours, too -- because children who see themselves as an integral part of the familial culture, where productive and positive processes are happening at any given moment, are more apt to develop a productive and positive sense of autonomy and well-being.

Robert had been eager to help in the quieter hours of the cold morning, his cousins still asleep. Knowing I was up against the clock, I still encouraged him to retrieve a stick of butter from the refrigerator for buttering the turkey. I waited as he peeled back the waxy wrapper and buttered the bird with purpose. Then he salted, peppered and assisted as we pinned the floppy wings back, a chance to hone his dexterity.

I gave him a chance to heft the 23-pounder we’d prepped and finally dressed with sprigs of thyme and rosemary. It looked pretty impressive in cranberry stuffing, nesting in its heavy roasting pan.

My grandson is strong enough to lift me a couple inches off the floor, so I figured he might be ready. I would let him see. He gripped the two handles and raised the roast only a couple inches before setting it back down on the countertop.

“Do you want to open the oven door instead?”

It’s also important to know your limits, and Robert, having tested his, decided to let me do the lifting while he instead took the job of carefully lowering the hot, oven door. Teamwork.

At that moment, Steven appeared around the corner in his Iron Man pajamas. He, like his older brother, wanted to “do something, too,” and so he dragged a footstool up to the counter and climbed up.

All the talk about the coming apple-crisp operation was too much to miss. Kids love being a part of something you all have a hand in, and the cool part is seeing the process unfold before their eyes when they can lend even a small hand to help.

Though my little guys and gals at first probably won’t make the leap -- that without everyone’s cooperation, the recipe can’t make a giant leap from the page to the dining table -- they will eventually gain that insight and all the appreciation that goes with it.

Steven had spent a few minutes at the sink, washing out the peels bowl while I sliced apples into two square baking dishes.

He was doing a thorough job and keeping the lever set at warm so as not to burn himself. He was back at my side with a clean, dried mixing bowl, and we were ready to make the topping. All was going without a hitch until he gave the wooden spoon a little too much muscle, sending a good portion of topping out of the bowl and up into the air in a floury cloud of cinnamon and brown sugar. That became a quick lesson in cleanup. Even that is part of the process.

This Thanksgiving morning is cold, dipping to 15 degrees, with gusts of wind shaking snow from the trees and sporadically clicking the range’s hood vent.

The whole family, from oldest and biggest to youngest and smallest, has played large and small roles in making the meal we’ll share together. And I know my 5-year-old’s hunt for “the little girl in the yellow slicker holding the white umbrella” for the pinch of Morton Salt he’ll need counts in big ways, too.

At one point, he and his mom, his aunt and uncles come together around the island, and though each has a different task -- peeling Cortland apples, cracking eggs for a pumpkin pie, or chopping vegetables -- there’s a shared beat toward one goal: a nutritious and delicious family dinner.

The conversation laces between an upcoming graduation next month and life’s quotidian challenges to the rhythm of chopping, slicing and mincing as the ingredients are measured and added.

Utensils whisk and ting. Bowls fill up and empty out. Cutting boards click and rap. And all the while, a million little lessons add up in the classroom of the kitchen.

Everyone wants to help -- it’s human nature.

And when it comes to my kids, I will always find a way for them to realize that desire, even though the process is bound to slow down.

When a child wants to help in the kitchen, frame it as a time of cooperation and learning. Always teach from a place of mutual respect, honesty and trust. Honor cultural and familial traditions. Revere teamwork. Doing so will instill practical lessons, like how to measure, how to handle certain tools, and how to work around hot ranges and ovens with caution and, always, adult supervision.

Kids learn how to manage and prioritize. They learn that the kitchen can be a wonderful place to expressive themselves.

After the ovens yield an additional mince pie and a casserole of stuffing, Robert calls dibs on making the cherry pies.

He emerges from the pantry with a red cherry-labeled can as if holding up a prize.

He loves the lattice work to create the topping, the same way his Auntie Jill does, but he’ll have to wait for her arrival.

He rallies when the beeps from the horn of her Honda Civic announce she’s pulling up the driveway.

The kids rush to the window and wave, and I can see that another opportunity for another wonderful experience -- another rhapsody -- awaits us in the kitchen.

Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University, and writes about writing, learning and life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bonniejtoomey . Learn more at www.parentforward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com .

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