Why my five year-old cooked dinner and other thoughts on feeling a sense of accomplishment.

It has been nearly impossible to find the time and the head space to sit down and write a blogpost lately - the days just fly by like I don't know what! But at this very moment Gwen is napping and Espen is playing at a friend's house, so I am taking a few minutes to sit down and write a little bit about what has been on my mind lately.

Just recently I've noticed that Espen could maybe do with a little bit of a boost in the self confidence area. Nothing serious, I just saw a tendency to give up a little bit too easily, and to decide that things were too hard for him to do. So I decided that I wanted to show him just what he could accomplish if he put his mind to it, and maybe remind him how good it feels to accomplish something, and set about thinking up some ways we could make this happen. Here's what we did:

  1. I made Espen clean his room by himself. This might sound like a no-brainer, but I am willing to bet that Espen is not the only five year-old who goes into complete overload mode when asked to clean a messy room. There is so much to do and where do you start and this is going to take forever, and I just can't do it, mom! On this particular day it was a Big Mess. Big enough that it made me want to cry and hide in a corner. So I made it clear to Espen that this was his mess and that he needed to take responsibility for it and clean it up on his own. I helped with the big stuff like putting his mattress back on his bed (how a five year-old and a two year-old got it off in the first place is beyond me) and standing his armchair back up again. Then I firmly, but (quite) pleasantly reminded him what went where and to please not come out of his room until it was clean. Then I left. It was such a big job for one little guy, and part of me wanted to just help him /do it for him, but I also felt like it was important for him to see that he can do hard things when he tries. And yes, there were some tears and frustration, but in the end he did it! All by himself! I was very proud of his efforts and told him so, and I could tell that Espen felt good about his accomplishment too. Bonus: we haven't seen a big mess like that in weeks because he knows now how much work it is to clean a room when every toy and item of laundry is on the floor. 
  2. A couple of weeks later Espen was begging and begging me to buy a new character for the Disney Infinity app on the iPad. I had told him when we first downloaded it that I wouldn't be buying any more characters for it, and reminded him of that again, but that made no difference to his five year-old heart. He needed Dash from the Incredibles and he needed him now! I could see that Espen wasn't going to give in until he got what he wanted, but I could also see that if I just caved to his tiny demands, then it would be setting a precedent that Mama gives you what you want if you just nag her enough. And good gravy, we didn't want that! So I offered him a deal: "If you can give up the iPad completely for three whole days, then I will get you Dash", I said. Again, it doesn't sound like a big deal, but to a five year-old with an iPad addiction and a seriously distorted sense of time, I may as well have offered him three year prison sentence. But he wanted that character, so he took the deal. I won't bore you with all the ins and outs of a small boy going through screen withdrawals, but I will tell you that Espen made it. When I caught him cheating, I extended his sentence by another half a day. When we reached the last day and he was so close he couldn't stand it anymore and wanted to give up, I made him finish. And after three and a half days, Espen was delighted to have reached his goal and won his prize, and more than a little proud of himself for reaching his goal. 
  3. We haven't started giving Espen pocket money yet, and we basically only buy presents for Christmas and birthdays. So when he desperately wants something between the months of February and December, we give him a chance to earn it with "fuzzies" (little pompoms). Espen can earn fuzzies by doing chores or reaching goals, and we can award them to him for being especially kind, helpful or listening well. We can also take them away if he behaves badly, although a reminder that we could do that is usually enough to stop whatever behavior needs correcting. But he has to earn 50 fuzzies in order to get a reward that costs about $12-15, so it usually takes a long time. If he's focused and motived, he can get there in two or three weeks. If he (or let's be honest, we) lets things slide, it can take months and months to earn his prize. Anyway, all of this is a very longwinded way to lead up to where I tell you that not long ago I noticed that Espen was only about six fuzzies away from earning a reward, and I knew that he really wanted a new Skylander toy. So I pointed out how close he was, and asked if he was interested in earning any fuzzies. He took a little convincing (because who wants to do chores when they can play with Dash on Disney Infinity?), but eventually agreed to do some jobs. So over the next two days Espen helped de-winterize the mudroom (organized and put away all of the shoes, carried winter clothes upstairs to be washed and stored), helped with the dishes and a few other things like that. He also got a fuzzy for being a good and cheerful listener when asked to clean up a mess (we encourage that!) and all of a sudden the fuzzy jar was full and we were able to get him his reward. 
  4. I was planning our weekly menu when Espen had spring break, and on impulse asked him if he would like to make dinner for us that day. Espen was a little shocked that I asked, but quickly said yes. He has always loved helping in the kitchen, but, what with being five and all, has never planned and cooked a meal on his own before. We headed to the grocery store, and I let him pick out something that he wanted to cook for dinner. He chose hotdogs and fruit salad, which I deemed to be both edible and reasonably well-balanced enough and picked out all his own ingredients (although I did steer him toward the Nathan's hotdogs rather than the Ballpark Franks). Then, as we were walking through the baking aisle, he asked if we could have cake. I told him we could if he made it, and so we added chocolate cake to our menu as well. Admittedly, I was a little apprehensive about letting a five year-old chef loose in my kitchen, but I just resigned myself to the fact that it would probably get pretty messy and let him have at it. And he did great! Granted, I read the recipe and measured the liquids for the cake, but he broke his own eggs and mixed it all up like a pro. He even put it in the oven himself and checked it with a toothpick to see if it was done! For the fruit salad I just gave him a butterknife and demonstrated how to slice a banana and cut up strawberries, and then he did the rest. By the time we were ready to heat the hot dogs, he was feeling pretty confident in the kitchen, so I let him sit on the counter and fry them in the pan himself. Of course I hovered nervously by his side the whole time, but he did great! He knew the pan and the oven were hot, so he didn't touch them at all. And oh, I wish you could have seen the look on Espen's face when he showed his dad the meal he had cooked all by himself! He was glowing all night. 
I really, really recommend doing something like this with your kids. Seeing Espen begin to understand that a job well done is really its own reward and feeling the sense of accomplishment that comes with that has been really great. And seeing that he can do hard things has been a great confidence builder for him too. I feel like he has been a bit more willing to try lately, and I don't think that is entirely coincidental. On top of that, it has been really good for me to see how much Espen is capable of and to trust him a little bit more to handle things on his own. Kids are capable of so much more than we give them credit for! I've been letting Gwen, who is two, help me set the table lately and while it isn't easy to watch her struggle to carry a heavy stoneware bowl full of bread over to the table (she's going to drop it!), 9.5 times out of 10 she is just fine (she made it!). And the way both of my kids feel about herself when they are working alongside us and learning to help and to do is worth the price of the occasional dish. 

We're keeping this up. 


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